Postcard from the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool

Postcard from the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool

The Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool – Photo credit: Paula Dumas

The International Slavery Museum is located inside the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. The Museum has static and changing displays, artefacts, and interactive elements. It addresses Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery and in abolition, modern day slavery, anti-slavery activism, slavery and racism, and Liverpool’s historic connections to the enslavement of Africans.

Displays in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool – Photo credit: Paula Dumas

You can also follow the International Slavery Museum on Twitter @SlaveryMuseum.

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Proslavery Britain is out now!

Proslavery Britain is out now!

I am very pleased to announce that my first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, comes out today from Palgrave Macmillan!

Dumas, Proslavery Britain

Proslavery Britain tells the story of how slavery was encouraged, defended, and repeatedly justified in the face of growing opposition in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It seeks to provide a fuller understanding of the story of the abolition and emancipation in the British Empire, a story that up until now has been largely one-sided. We know of the great work of the humanitarian abolitionists in Parliament and on the ground across the country. Proslavery Britain provides us with insight into the sometimes formidable force they were up against, right up to 1833.

A detailed examination of a wide range of sources, including parliamentary records, committee minutes, pamphlets, sermons, art, literature, drama, and poetry, placed within the wider context of national and international unrest, provides us with a greater understanding of the fights for and against abolition. It reveals the struggle to defend slave trading, slave holding, the colonists, and the colonies in the face of widespread opposition.

Here’s what early reviewers have said:

“As scholarly focus on Britain’s era of colonial slavery continues to grow, Paula Dumas has provided a valuable and wide-ranging analysis of pro-slavery advocacy in the age of abolition. This book reminds us that while the slave-owners lost the battle over abolition, they won the war over racial subordination.” -Nicholas Draper, Co-director of Structure and Signification of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833 project, University College London, England

“Comprehensive in its range and focus, Proslavery Britain offers a fascinating insight into proslavery arguments and rhetoric during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This painstaking study promises to reshape our understanding of slavery debates in Britain, not least through its attention to things such as proslavery arts and culture. We have long needed a book of this kind and Dumas has risen to the task magnificently.” -John Oldfield, Professor of History, Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, England

Order Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition from Amazon, Palgrave, or tell your local library or booksellers about Proslavery Britain today!

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 2

Earlier I began writing down some of my thoughts on why I think historians haven’t talked much about “proslavery” in British history. If you missed my first post, please click here. I wrote that I believed there were 5 main reasons for British proslavery to be missing from our understanding of British slavery and abolition.

Here’s a quick reminder of my first four points:

  1. The first histories of British abolition were written by abolitionists and tell their story.
  2. There are many more abolitionist primary sources to study.
  3. Abolition took place decades earlier in Britain than in the US.
  4. British colonial planters had less power and influence than their American counterparts by this period.

I had decided to leave the fifth point for another day, because I think its worthy of a discussion all its own. It’s also a bit more complicated than the others to get across.

I believe that British proslavery has been pushed aside, ignored, and downplayed in the traditional story and historiography of British slavery and abolition because people don’t want to remember it.

I think it’s a morality issue. Slavery, and definitely pro-slavery, is an awful thing to remember. The moral and ethical issues surrounding the study of how groups of men could justify, support, and encourage the enslavement of other groups of men are challenging to say the least. People said despicable things about the men, women, and children who were enslaved. They insulted, degraded, and demeaned them using a wide range of means that had long-lasting consequences, not least for colonial life and race relations. And a better understanding or official acknowledgement of the mind-set and historic support of Parliament might very well be used against the British Government to justify the case for reparations.

In the later 18th and early 19th centuries, people used the Bible to explain and justify slavery and the enslavement of people of African descent. They used contemporary beliefs and the latest “scientific” studies about race and “civilization” to justify it. They could draw on past parliamentary decisions and legal rights to explain and support it. These are not things to be proud of to say the least.

If someone wants to look at this era of history from a moral perspective, or with a view of finding something to celebrate or of which to be proud, then it sure isn’t going to be how the West Indian interest and their supporters within Britain continued justifying slavery right up to 1833. It’s going to be the hard work of the abolitionists – the winning side – that gets remembered and celebrated. That’s what the statues will remind us of. That’s what the memorials will be dedicated to. That’s what the ceremonies will commemorate on the anniversaries of beating the proslavery side.

The opinions and efforts of the British West Indian interest have been discussed in some of the major 20th century studies of British abolition, but from the earliest works they were judged and placed on the losing side of a moral, humane battle for liberty and good. Therefore, proslavery people couldn’t be discussed without being placed firmly in the context of the abolitionist fight. Any attention that was paid to them focussed on their decline, their doomed position, and their inability to compete against the moral campaign for abolition.

But we know that Wilberforce and his supporters lost many bills for abolition. They faced growing, substantial opposition and had to fight to earn public support and then fight for that public support to mean something within the halls of Parliament. By downplaying or even casting aside the opposition to abolition in the story of British abolition, then not only can we not fully understand abolition, but we aren’t giving the abolitionists enough credit for what they were able to achieve in spite of a strong, powerful, knowledgeable, legally-supported opposition.

Suggested Reading:

Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Klingberg, Frank J. The Anti-Slavery Movement in England: A Study in English Humanitarianism. 1926. Reprint, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968.

Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. 1928. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books Inc., 1963.

Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 1

Why don’t we know more about British proslavery?

I have contemplated this question for years. Proslavery argument and rhetoric is a legitimate topic for historical study. We only need to look at the American case to see a fully developed historiography on the subject. When it comes to the absence of understanding of proslavery on the far side of the Atlantic, I don’t think there’s a simple answer, but I have five educated guesses that I’m happy to lay out here.

First, the first historical accounts of British abolition were written by the abolitionists. Thomas Clarkson’s The History, Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament was first published in 1808 and provided a triumphant narrative of British abolitionists overcoming adversity to achieve abolition in 1807. He wrote a history of the abolitionists and portrayed it as though it were a history of abolition. This is a problem. We see the legacy of his work and this emphasis on the abolitionists last into the later decades of the 20th century.

Second, it is far easier to find primary sources created by abolitionists in their quest to end slave trading and slavery in Britain and her colonies than it is to find clear defences of slavery and slave trading. Abolitionists made mobilizing public opinion a goal and were impressive in their ability to reach groups that had not traditionally been involved in the political process, whereas West Indian organizations focussed much of their efforts on legitimising their position and defending the colonies in Parliament. As such, the amount of abolitionist propaganda dwarfs that of the anti-abolitionists.

Third, Britain abolished slavery in her Caribbean colonies in 1833, whereas it continued in parts of America for another 3 decades. From a historian’s perspective, that means an additional 30 years’ worth of sources to draw upon, a wider range of sources, and more modern, reliable sources. For example, a historian of American slavery could draw upon first-hand accounts, personal records, and interviews created in the first few decades of the twentieth century. American slavery was also far more visible to the American people, whereas by the late 1700s British courts had acted to end slavery at home, confining it to the colonies.

Fourth, for a variety of reasons American slave owners had far more political power and influence by the early 1800s than their British counterparts in the Caribbean and back in Britain. It’s not that the British West Indian interest couldn’t pull together a solid defence or that they were doomed (which is what you might think if you read some of the earlier studies on them). They won debates, defeated bills for abolition and emancipation, and earned several significant concessions in the final debates on emancipation, particularly compensation and continued labour via the apprenticeship scheme. But evidence also shows that their fortunes were waning and their positions in Parliament were increasingly under threat from the growing franchise and outpouring of public abolitionist sentiment.

I mentioned above that I have five main theories as to why we don’t know much about British proslavery. I know I’ve only listed four so far, but this post is getting far too long for my liking and my last point is worthy of its own discussion, so stay tuned for Part Two.

Want to know more? Check out my new book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, coming soon from Palgrave Macmillan.

Suggested Reading:

Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760–1810. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1975.

Draper, Nicholas. The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Ryden, David Beck. West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Compensation for who?

Why did the British Government, and the British people, pay the planters and not the slaves when slavery was abolished in her Caribbean colonies?

In the emancipation settlement of 1833, British slaveholders were given money to compensate them for the end of slavery. A lot of money. They were granted £20 million outright to be shared amongst those who could prove a claim (resulting in the wealth of information on British slave ownership that has only recently begun to be exploited by researchers and historians).

The slaves received no money. They were instead re-classed as “apprentices” in an attempt to ensure continuing productivity on the colonial plantations up to 1840. (Apprenticeship would in fact end 2 years early, in 1838.)

So why is it that the planters, whose family fortunes had often been made in the colonies through the exploitation of their fellow men, were the ones being granted compensation? Because the planters had a legal right to hold their property, and if the state was going to take away their property, then the property holders were entitled to compensation.

To understand this argument, we have to try to put ourselves in the mind-set that, legally, enslaved human beings were the property of their masters, and that their “owners” had as much legal right to compensation for the removal of this class of property as they did to any other.

This legal argument proved particularly effective in the final years of the slavery debates in Parliament. Outright proslavery arguments had faded from the parliamentary debates soon after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Instead, we see a rise in legal and pro-colonial arguments that were put forth to defend the planters’ careers and possessions.

As abolitionists worked to humanise enslaved Africans and those of African descent in the colonies, often employing sentimental rhetoric and emotionally-charged imagery in their work, and framing the issues of abolition and emancipation as humanitarian goals, anti-abolitionists continued to turn to supposedly-rational legal arguments to make their claim to compensation, in case the day were to come that slavery were ended in the colonies. This was a smart road to take, and it was highly effective.

Parliament was made up of landowners. If they had ended slavery without compensation, the British government would have been confiscating millions of pounds of property without giving anything in return. For them, this would have been setting a dangerous precedent! As Robert John Wilmot Horton remarked on March 6, 1828:

“In this country, if a canal were cut, or a street built, the interest of the individuals was made to yield to the public interest; but then it was well known that individuals always received compensation. Now, the West-Indian has property which he could only work by means of slave labour; and was he not, therefore, equally entitled to compensation, if deprived of that labour, as the man in this country was who had his property destroyed, either by the building of a street or the construction of a canal?”(Parliamentary Debates New Series XVIII col. 102)

Note that Wilmot Horton here emphasises land rather than human property, possibly as a means to avoid being drawn into to moral debate over slave ownership. But not everyone felt the need to dance around the matter:

“God forbid that there should be any thing like a forcing of a master to abandon his property in the slave! Once adopt that principle, and there was the end of all property.” – Lord Wynford, 17 April 1832 (Parliamentary Debates 3rd Series XII col. 630)

If some humans were considered property, and that property had been obtained through legal means such as financial investment and inheritance, than the owners, and not the property, would need to be compensated in the case of that property being removed or destroyed. And so we find that the masters, and not the slaves, were granted substantial financial compensation as slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

Suggested Reading:

Draper, Nicholas. The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Drescher, Seymour. The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Green, William A. British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment, 1830-1865. 1976. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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!