Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Steele, Joshua

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STEELE, JOSHUA (1700–1791), writer on prosody, was born in Ireland in 1700. He resided many years in London, and in 1756 was elected a member of the Society of Arts. He possessed great knowledge of the theory of music, and in 1775 published ‘An Essay towards establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech to be expressed and perpetuated by certain Symbols,’ London, 4to, in which he proposed to extend to speech the symbolic method by which the modulations of musical sounds are expressed. His essay excited considerable interest, and was discussed, among others, by James Burnett, lord Monboddo [q. v.], author of the ‘Origin and Progress of Language,’ and by David Garrick. A second edition, entitled ‘Prosodia Rationalis,’ appeared in 1779. He also contributed two papers on musical instruments to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ in 1775.

Steele possessed estates in Barbados, and, being dissatisfied with their management, he resolved in 1780 to look after them himself. In the following year he founded a society in Bridgetown similar to the London Society of Arts, with a view to amending the government of the slave population, and soon after became a member of his majesty's council for the island. On his own estates he abolished arbitrary punishment, and erected courts among the negroes themselves for the punishment of offences. He also promoted voluntary labour by offering small wages, and succeeded in this manner in obtaining much better work from his slaves. In 1789 he proceeded further, by erecting his estates into manors, and making his negroes copyholders bound to their tenements, and owing rent and personal service which they paid in labour on the demesne lands. Steele encountered considerable opposition, and the Bridgetown Society of Arts was broken up by his opponents; but on his own estates his system was completely successful, and furnished a strong argument in favour of liberal treatment of slaves. He was also indefatigable in his efforts to employ the poor white population, encouraging native industries and introducing several new manufactures from England. He died in the beginning of 1791. His letters to Thomas Clarkson [q. v.], describing the management of his estates, were published in 1814 in Dickson's ‘Mitigation of Slavery.’ Rich attributes to Steele a pamphlet entitled ‘An Account of a late Conference on the Occurrences in America,’ published at London in 1766 (Bibl. Amer. Nova, i. 154).

[Dickson's Mitigation of Slavery; Clarkson's Thoughts on the Necessity of improving the Condition of Slaves, 1823, pp. 31–44; Aitken's Life of Richard Steele, ii. 355; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Croker, p. 439; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 358, iii. 208–9, 670.]

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