Planters and PhDs: Uncovering Britain’s Pro-Slavery Past

When I first started asking about the opposition within Britain to abolition and emancipation, there was next to no information available on the subject. The American case has a long-established historiography on the topic of proslavery; where was the research into the British case?

For so long we viewed the history of British abolition as though it was one-sided and inevitable, and as such our attention was focussed on the abolitionists who won the day. While I won’t get into the historiography of British proslavery history here (that’s a topic deserving of at least a post or two of its own), what’s exciting is that there is all sorts of research coming out of British universities now on British planters, merchants, slave holders and traders, and the legacy of slavery in Britain.

Some of the newest research into the topic is coming out of British universities in the form of PhD theses. These often-ignored sources of information contain years of study and research backing their conclusions. Here are some that have been released over the past few years:

  • Baker, Sonia. “Scots in Eighteenth Century Grenada: A Study of the Life and Times of Ninian Home (1732-1795).” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2015).
  • Barrett, Ian John. “Cultures of Pro-Slavery: The Political Defence of the Slave Trade in Britain c. 1787-1807.” Unpublished PhD thesis (King’s College London, 2009).
  • Donington, Kate. “’The Benevolent Merchant? George Hibbert and the Representation of West Indian Mercantile Identity.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University College London, 2013).
  • Dumas, Paula E. “Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2013).
  • Mullen, Stephen Scott. “The Glasgow West India Interest: Integration, Collaboration and Exploitation in the British Atlantic World, 1776-1846.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Glasgow, 2015).
  • Taylor, Michael. “Conservative Political Economy and the Problem of Colonial Slavery, 1823-33.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2015).

Of course, I’m very excited that Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, a book that evolved from my PhD research, is launching next month. We are creating a far more accurate, multi-faceted story of the struggle for abolition and emancipation.

If you’re a postgrad writing on the topic of British proslavery or know of someone who is, let us know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Planters and PhDs: Uncovering Britain’s Pro-Slavery Past

  1. I really do wonder why the historiography of American proslavery arguments has been so well developed compared to Britain (up till now). Do you have any theory as to why the British side has been so much less acknowledged than the American side?


    • I think it’s a combination of things. First, the abolitionists wrote the first narratives of abolition. Second, abolitionists were far more vocal, created much more written work, and made gaining popular support a goal. They reached many more people with their views. Third, the debate was settled decades earlier than in America. Fourth, the Britons who supported slavery had far less political power than planters in the US South. And fifth, it’s not a nice chapter in British history to remember.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this blogpost – I had come across Stephen Mullen’s work, but will seek out the others’ work too, as all look interesting for my own work. I am writing a PhD on Irish connections with the Caribbean, c.1780-1830, taking a biographical/micro-historical approach, currently researching planters & merchants of Irish background in the Caribbean. By definition then, I’m coming across plenty of pro-slavery sentiment in my research!


  3. Pingback: Sources 101: The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database | Isles Abroad

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