Theses Doctoral

Political Songs in Polite Society: Singing about Africans in the Time of the British Abolition Movement, 1787 to 1807

Hamilton, Julia

This dissertation asks how the British anti-slave-trade movement permeated musical culture of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how musical activities, in turn, were used to support the cause. It examines a group of newly discovered musical scores—described here as “serious antislavery songs”—that were published in the years between the founding of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787) and the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Highlighting the inclusion of such scores in extant personal music collections of contemporary British women, the study explores both who used the scores and how they used them. The dissertation thus paints a detailed picture of musical abolitionism and argues that composing, collecting, practicing, and performing serious antislavery songs enabled female amateur musicians to promote opposition to human trafficking from their homes. The study joins close readings of ideas—found in letters, poems, and musical content—with analyses of activities, such as private musical practice and polite shopping.

The first chapter discusses the music of Ignatius Sancho, who died before the start of widespread mobilization against the slave trade but who nevertheless used his music to make a powerful, if subtle, antislavery statement. The second chapter moves to the beginning of the British abolition movement, examining two politically charged poems written in 1788 that became popular songs among female amateur musicians. The next three chapters explore the varied ways that these women incorporated serious antislavery songs into their everyday lives. Chapter 3 maps out the London musical marketplace for scores where women could purchase a variety of songs, including abolitionist and anti-abolitionist songs alike. The fourth chapter explores the activity of music-making and argues that practicing from musical scores and singing through them among friends was a form of conversation. It therefore introduces the term “sociable abolitionism,” of which “musical abolitionism” was one key component. Finally, Chapter 5 uses extant music collections that were once owned by British women to unpack the ethical tensions involved in white Britons’ practice of singing serious, sympathetic songs whose lyrics were written from the imagined perspective of enslaved Africans. The chapter argues that singing these songs was a kind of “musical masquerade”—one where singers could indulge in identity play while encouraging abolitionism from their listeners.

The dissertation addresses a major gap in the literature on abolitionism: while literary, theatrical, and visual contributions to the movement have been received ample scholarly treatment, musical scores have remained virtually absent from discussions of antislavery activism. Scores are presented here as key sources for understanding the ways women enacted their opposition to human trafficking and bondage. Problematic but politically useful, scores incorporated easily into the activities of British women’s everyday lives and contributed to the widespread culture of abolitionism.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Hamilton_columbia_0054D_16615.pdf Hamilton_columbia_0054D_16615.pdf application/pdf 7.1 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Sisman, Elaine R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 15, 2021