Is there a “less than?” Tristram’s Question for the Day

“But many Britons were troubled. Humanitarian feelings grew in strength throughout the later eighteenth century. A famous, sentimental exchange of letters between the black writer Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy, displays their mutual sympathy for the victims of the slave trade. Such cruelty was a libel on human nature.”


From Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain – The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century

“Not all Africans in eighteenth-century London lived silent lives as slaves or domestic servants. Some represented themselves in letters, slave narratives and political tracts. Of these the most well-known were Sancho and Equiano, whose books were bestsellers in 1782 and 1789 respectively.”

From Teaching and Learning Guide for Slavery and Romanticism by Brycchan Carey

 Undoubtedly, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram poses a lot of questions: how do we know the things we know?; do we really know anything?; how do we see things in the world?; how do we measure the value of things (especially of a person)?; and maybe most importantly, why do we do the things we do?

I think another one of those questions, perhaps the question of the day is: is there a “less than?” Of course, Sterne asks this so much more elegantly than this seemingly simple rhetorical query. I picked this up from a caller on a radio show this week.

The show gave vent to a lot of heated banter and battle over health care reform, the “Tea Party” and Aryanism – all related, honestly. Someone said it just gets down to whether there are human beings who are “less than”….

My mental association (admittedly a study in differance on its own), saw this quote from Tristram (Chapter 4.LXV):

“A negro has a soul? an’ please your honour, said the corporal (doubtingly).

I am not much versed, corporal, quoth my uncle Toby, in things of that kind; but I suppose, God would not leave him without one, any more than thee or me–

 –It would be putting one sadly over the head of another, quoth the corporal.

 It would so; said my uncle Toby.  Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?

 I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby–

 –Only, cried the corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her–

–‘Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby,–which recommends her to protection–and her brethren with her; ’tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now–where it may be hereafter, heaven knows!– but be it where it will, the brave, Trim! will not use it unkindly.

–God forbid, said the corporal.

Amen, responded my uncle Toby, laying his hand upon his heart.

The corporal returned to his story, and went on–but with an embarrassment in doing it, which here and there a reader in this world will not be able to comprehend; for by the many sudden transitions all along, from one kind and cordial passion to another, in getting thus far on his way, he had lost the sportable key…”

I tried to unearth what learned scholars have published on this specific issue. I was surprised to see how many online “hits” connected Sterne and Tristram to the topic of slavery, including the link to the Norton site quoted above. In fact, there were far more than I could manage to survey in a short time. However, my search also turned up a bibliography on the general topic of slavery and the eighteenth century (also linked above) with this interesting disclaimer (interesting to me because I thought this was a neglected topic, obviously, as Prof. Maruca has pointed out to me, it is not):

“Although it was long neglected on history courses, and almost entirely forgotten on literature courses, slavery and its abolition is now recognised as being a central theme of seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history, literature and culture. Many hundreds of books, articles and Web sites examining the legacy of slavery and abolition are published each year.”

Apparently a lot of people from radio talk show callers to scholars across centuries have been interested in the simple question of whether there is a “less than”….I think if we seriously consider and answer Tristram’s question (“a negro has a soul?”) in all of its multi-layered (not just racial) implications, we’ll answer this one, too….I think they’re one and the same.

In the meantime, I now have to find the Sterne/Sancho letters….



Filed under Commentaries

4 responses to “Is there a “less than?” Tristram’s Question for the Day

  1. Renee

    I have to admit, I did not think there was a lot of research done on slavery during this time. I have always been fascinated with slavery in American literature and do not know much about it in British literature. This seems like a very interesting topic to explore and that it would open other doors of investigation.

  2. lmaruca

    I could not follow the link you pasted above. It looks like it is a temporary link within a database search–is that right? Is this where you were directing us?

  3. yj

    Yes! Sorry for the broken link….

  4. Vinny

    I was interested in the letter writing between Sterne and Ignatius Sancho. What is particularly interesting to me is that he had a bestseller in the late eighteenth century. Did you have any information on his background? His name sounds Spanish-Catholic (perhaps not a birth name but a given name) and so I would be interested in the situation that places him in the scene of English literature and in connection to Laurence Sterne, a British pastor. Any info?

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