British Abolition: Summer Reading List Edition

British Abolition: Summer Reading List Edition

The summer holidays are almost upon us (mine start Wednesday!)! Hopefully that will mean lots of us will have a chance to get some leisure reading done on a sunny beach somewhere, or on the deck of a boat in the high seas, or maybe in the backyard on a day when it isn’t raining. So what better time to try to pull together a summer reading list of books on British abolition?!

The study of British abolition has benefitted from detailed studies, competing perspectives, computer-aided research, published collections of primary sources, and historians from many countries working on the topic. But once in a while a study comes along that has such strength that future studies find that they have to react to it. It’s these types of studies that I’ve listed here.

A quick note to my fellow historians: This list is intended as an introduction to the major historiographical debates on the topic, rather than provide a complete picture of the historiographical debates over the decades.

Suggested readings:

Thomas Clarkson’s The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament (London: Paternoster-Row, 1808).

In this (very!) early published history of abolition, prominent abolitionist Thomas Clarkson placed the actions of abolitionists at the centre of both the popular movement and subsequent parliamentary action to end Britain’s participation in the slave trade. He depicted abolition as a great humanitarian achievement of which Britain could always be proud. This interpretation influenced generations of historians of British abolition.

Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (London: Lowe and Brydon Ltd., 1964).

In his influential (and controversial) 1944 study, Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams argued that economics was the major factor in determining if and when abolition in the British West Indies would occur. He believed that slavery would have continued as long as it remained profitable. This theory became known as the ‘decline thesis’. According to Williams’ decline thesis, economics rather than humanitarianism was the determining factor in ending the institution of slavery.

David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823 (London: Cornell University Press, 1975).

Davis’ ‘problem of slavery’ is that a master’s identity depends on owning slaves, leaving him beholden to the slave to maintain his status. Here Davis discusses why some groups in Britain and America were receptive to new ideas of liberty, equality, and economics. The philosophical framework of the American and French Revolutions combined with a drop in sugar prices and plantation land values to allow abolitionists to gain popular and political support.

Seymour Drescher’s Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977).

In Econocide, Seymour Drescher argued that, contrary to Williams’ assertions, the slave trade was growing in the era of abolition and thus decline could not sufficiently explain abolition. Market forces, he argued, would have caused the trade to increase had it not been for a change in popular and political beliefs. It was the pressure of abolitionists in the period 1788-1792 which caused Britons to view and, most importantly, assess West Indian slavery differently.

Christopher Leslie Brown’s Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

In Moral Capital, Brown described abolitionism as a way to validate the moral authority of Britain’s elites at home and in the colonies. Brown examined public opinion and evidence of slave resistance, but did not accept that either could explain British abolitionism. Tensions and fighting between Britain and her American colonies, in contrast, were critical to the development. He concluded that abolition had required a specific set of circumstances and people to be achieved when it was.

For a slightly more traditional summer read, why not check out Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005). Well-written with biographical details that draw the reader into the story of British abolition, it makes for an easier read and gives a good overview of some of the most influential individuals and goings-on in the era of abolition.

Plus there’s always my new book, Proslavery Britain, available here from Palgrave Macmillan.


Got a great suggestion? Add it in the comments. We’d love to hear it!


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.