The emancipated Empire

The British Empire was built on slavery then grew by antislavery | Aeon  Essays
The boiling house on a sugar plantation, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823) by William Clark. Courtesy the Yale Center for British Art

The British Empire was first built on slavery and then on the moral and economic self-confidence of antislavery

by Padraic Scanlan is an assistant professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, cross-appointed to the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. He is also a research associate at the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Freedom’s Debtors (2017) and Slave Empire (2020)

Britain ended its slave trade in 1807, and abolished slavery in much of its colonial empire in 1834. Four years later, Queen Victoria was crowned. For British liberals, the timing was auspicious, and the lessons were obvious. The 18th-century empire of enslaved labour, rebellious colonies and benighted protectionism had been purified by the ‘sacrifice’ of the profits of slavery to the principles of free trade, free labour and free markets. But the empire that slavery made endured.

Although individual enslaved people were often brought to Britain by the people who claimed to own them, for most Britons, mass enslavement was something that happened ‘over there’ – in the colonies, especially the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean. This fact of geography shaped British antislavery. The ‘mother country’ could also be the stern but benignant ‘father’, correcting children in the ‘infant colonies’. In the slave colonies, opposition to slavery could be a revolutionary threat to the social order. In Britain, antislavery affirmed Britain’s superior virtue in relationship to its empire.

This contented patriotism was a feature of British antislavery, decades before the leaders of the movement succeeded in securing the abolition of the slave trade. In 1785, William Cowper published ‘The Task’, a long poem in blank verse. In Book II, Cowper celebrates Somerset v Stewart, the 1772 case that set a precedent for enslaved people from Britain’s colonies to sue for freedom in metropolitan courts. He wrote:

Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free
They touch our country and their shackles fall.
That is noble, and bespeaks a nation proud
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through every vein
Of all your empire; that where Britain’s power
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.

William Wilberforce, the leader in Parliament of the campaign to abolish the British slave trade, admired Cowper’s eye for evidence of Providence. He was his favourite poet. For both men, antislavery confirmed Britain’s special place in human and divine affairs. To Wilberforce, slavery kept an enslaved person from choosing salvation. Consequently, to enslave was a terrible sin. Emancipation, however, did not imply independence. Social hierarchy was natural, and therefore desirable. Virtue flowed downhill from the powerful to the weak, the rich to the poor, Britain to the colonies. Wilberforce assumed that Britain would hold the interests of freedpeople in trust during a long journey toward civilisation. What greater proof of advanced civilisation could a nation offer than opposition to slavery?

For Cowper and Wilberforce, Britain was exceptional – and in historical memory, the antislavery movement is still offered as evidence of British exceptionalism. For conservative Eurosceptics such as the Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar, antislavery is the antidote to criticism of empire. ‘Between the slave-trade and slavery of the 18th century and the present,’ Biggar writes in a widely circulated recent essay for the group Briefings for Britain, ‘lies 150 years of imperial penance …’ With his talk of penance and his totting-up of the ‘gifts’ given by empire – English, railroads, parliaments, property rights – Biggar performs a mawkish pageant of the pith helmet, the Bible and the flag. Antislavery, from this point of view, symbolises Britain’s moral awakening and special destiny, first and greatest among the European empires.

In the United States, a similar caricature of British antislavery as especially precocious and virtuous has become a useful foil for reimagining American history, in The New York Times’s 1619 Project and elsewhere. If slavery is the American ‘original sin’, and the preservation of slavery was a cause of the American Revolution, British antislavery becomes an avenging force driven out of the new United States. And yet, when white Virginia colonists first purchased enslaved African workers to cultivate tobacco in 1619, the colonists thought of themselves as English. They looked south to Spain and Portugal’s colonies, where plantation slavery was well-established, and hoped to make a fortune. To the colonists, hierarchy was natural and defined by God. Coerced, enserfed or enslaved labour was unremarkable – and, from the colonists’ perspective, necessary – gentlemen, by definition, did not work in the fields. The sins weren’t original, and they weren’t ‘American’…

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