Humanity without Feathers

TitleHumanity without Feathers
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsFesta, Lynn Mary
JournalHumanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development
Start Page3
Pagination3 - 27
Date Published10/2010

Festa explores the appeal to humanity (especially to suffering humanity in sentimental mode) in the eighteenth century and in antislavery literature, suggesting that the paradoxes that continue to haunt it are rooted in the theories and practices of its inception. Publisher's abstract

Excerpt from Humanity without Feathers

This essay traces the way eighteenth-century abolitionists used tropes and figures borrowed from sentimental literature to delineate the parameters of the human. Sentimental texts furnished antislavery writers with the rhetorical tools needed to excite the “humanity” of metropolitan readers toward the suffering of enslaved people in distant climes—which suggests the second way the title “Humanity without Feathers” might be understood: to refer to the difficulty of making the humanitarian imagination wing across great distances to establish connections between local acts and distant suffering. The late eighteenth-century British campaign for the abolition of the slave trade has often been singled out as an inaugural chapter in the history of modern humanitarian sensibility, distinguished from earlier garden-variety forms of charity or philanthropy by both its nonlocal sphere of action and its categorical investment in humanity as such.  Answers to the central question which has preoccupied historians and cultural critics—why, at this particular juncture, did the distant suffering of West Indian slaves become the object of such intense popular interest in Great Britain?—have often focused on the fundamental role played by sentimental literature in fostering humanitarian sensibility.

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