A historically significant Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem that was barred from leaving the UK has been bought by the University of Leeds Libraries.
The manuscript, which was handwritten by Coleridge in 1792, was put under export bar by the government following recommendations from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest. The Committee found that it is important to UK history and national life, offering significant insights into the campaign for the abolition of slavery.
Coleridge, who was a key figure in the Romantic movement, wrote ‘Sors misera servorum in insulis Indiae occidentalis’ (Ode on The West-Indian Slave Trade), in Greek while studying at the University of Cambridge.
In its new home at the University of Leeds, the manuscript will join anti-slavery material by Romantic poet Robert Southey, a collection linked to the Anti-Slavery Society which includes letters from Coleridge, and a vast archive of West Yorkshire Quaker Committee records, including meeting notes by key abolitionist William Armistead.
Written 15 years before the slave trade was abolished by the British Parliament, the poem attacks the evils of slavery and highlights the terrible conditions of the overcrowded boats that took enslaved Africans to the Americas.
This manuscript shines a light on a significant period where literature and art helped to change the future for the better
The acquisition comes at a significant time for the University’s Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures, where work is ongoing to prioritise decolonisation in research and teaching. This includes a new compulsory module on Race, Writing and Decolonisation in the School of English, introduced in 2021 for first-year BA students.
Taking its place in the Arts Council England Designated collection of English Literature and Poetry at the Brotherton Library, the Coleridge manuscript is the only handwritten copy of this poem.
Masud Khokhar, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said: “It is a great privilege for the University of Leeds Libraries to acquire this nationally significant manuscript and share it with the British public after the government stepped in to stop it from being exported.
“Making our collections accessible for the public good is at the heart of the Libraries' vision. A fervent abolitionist, Coleridge foreshadowed the abolition of slavery by 15 years with this award-winning poem.”
Professor Andrew Thorpe, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures, said: “This manuscript shines a light on a significant period where literature and art helped to change the future for the better, in making a contribution towards the abolition of slavery. Research and teaching in these subjects remains fundamental to the creation of a fair, diverse, tolerant and inclusive society.
“With our Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS) and important collections related to the abolition of slavery, the University is a fitting place to host this rare artefact.”
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Pictured: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Manuscript Verses on the Slave Trade (1792), at the University of Leeds (MS 2282).
The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by Arts Council England, which advises the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria.