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Robert Burroughs, ‘Sailors and Slaves: The ‘Poor Enslaved Tar’ in Naval Reform and Nautical Melodrama’

2011 July 12
Illustration from first edition of My Poll and My Partner Joe. Engraving by G.W. Bonner based on a drawing by Robert Cruickshank.

Illustration from first edition of My Poll and My Partner Joe. Engraving by G.W. Bonner based on a drawing by Robert Cruickshank.

Recent studies have demonstrated how, far from being confined to the theatre, ‘the melodramatic mode’ permeated various fields of nineteenth-century discourse, including politics and the law. Whereas most of the research in this area to date has concentrated upon domestic melodrama, in this article Robert Burroughs extends the discussion to the ‘tar drama’, or nautical melodrama. Burroughs examines how one example of this sub-genre, J.T. Haines’s My Poll and My Partner Joe (first performed 1835), engages in the political, legal and humanitarian debates on naval reform and the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. Haines’s play conjures the ironic scenario in which a British sailor who considers himself enslaved by the press-gang fights to liberate African slaves on the Middle Passage. Through several fictional and nonfictional sources, Burroughs retraces the entanglement of discourses of naval reform and anti-slavery which Haines dramatises.

In My Poll and My Partner Joe contact with enslaved Africans leads the sailor to forget his impressment and celebrate his own freedom. By asserting the common seaman’s commitment to the nation’s anti-slavery cause, the play claims the rights of sailors to be treated according to the kind of humane laws which protected land-based labourers but were seen to be violated by the press-gang and the lash. As with other texts of naval reform, however, the comparison of the sailor to the African slave takes on a competitive edge; Burroughs demonstrates how, in key melodramatic speeches and tableaux, the national and racial superiority of the sailor is asserted to claim that he is more deserving of freedom than the slave.

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