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  • Richard Huzzey


By examining British anti-slavery debates across a longue durée – before and after West Indian emancipation – the basis of moral responsibility for political action may be reassessed. Recent interest in humanitarian or transnational compassion may have underappreciated the geographical limitations of the moral responsibility Britons assumed for slavery and the slave trade. The notion of national complicity was crucial in mobilising individual Britons to petition, abstain from slave-grown produce or otherwise pressure parliament. While the peculiar aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars created a British responsibility for other nations’ slave trading, there was little comparable appetite for the internationalising responsibility for the slave-labour origins of traded goods. This meant that transnational obligations to police the slave trade did not translate into concern about the slave production behind overseas trade. By tracing these national debates over time, it is possible to discern the dominant and recessive arguments for how and when moral revulsion should translate into political action by Britons and the British state. This suggests a need to revisit scholarly conclusions about abolitionist campaigning, the basis of moral responsibility for slavery, and the antecedents of modern consumer responsibility.



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Thanks must go to Seymour Drescher, Margot Finn and Jay Sexton for their comments on the argument advanced here, though they are blameless for any remaining infelicities.



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1 Zachary Macaulay, Negro Slavery, Or A View of the More Prominent Features of that State of Society as it Exists in the United States of America and in the Colonies of the West Indies (1823), 33.

2 The 1845 speech is reproduced in Thomas Babington Macaulay, Speeches of Lord Macaulay, Corrected by Himself (1866), 169.

3 For interpretations of the younger Macaulay's treachery, see Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1964 [1944]), 193–4; Howard Temperley, British Antislavery 1833–1870 (1972), xv; Sullivan, Robert E., Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 259–60.

4 For a close reading of the differences between the two men see Hall, Catherine, ‘Troubling Memories: Nineteenth-Century Histories of the Slave Trade and Slavery’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, 21 (2011), 147–69, esp. 162–9, and Hall, Catherine, Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain (New Haven, 2012).

5 For varied uses of this phrase by geographers, see Matless, David, ‘Moral Geographies’, in Dictionary of Human Geography, ed. Johnston, R. J., Gregory, Derek, Pratt, Geraldine and Watts, Michael, 4th edn (Oxford, 2003), 522–3.

6 The best recent account is Christopher Brown, Leslie, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill, 2006).

7 On differences, see Haskell, Thomas, ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 1’, as reprinted in The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, ed. Bender, Thomas (Berkeley, 1992), 107–35. On the ways sentiment could be deployed in a national campaign, see Carey, Brycchan, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery 1760–1807 (Basingstoke, 2005).

8 Haskell, ‘Capitalism . . . Part 1’, 132–5.

9 Ibid ., at 113 (quoting David Brion Davis) and 133 (Haskell himself).

10 Ibid. ; Hochschild, Adam, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (New York and London, 2005), 5 ; Barnett, Michael, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca, 2011), 5762 . For caution over the relationship between human rights and emancipation in world history, see Blackburn, Robin, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (New York, 2011), 178–88.

11 Slaughter, Thomas P., The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition (New York, 2008), 106–17.

12 Blackburn, American Crucible, 150–2, 161–3; Slaughter, Beautiful Soul, 123–4, 131–3, 150–1, 162, 245–9, 279, 287–8, 292–3. On Quaker antecedents, see Nuermberger, Ruth Ketring, The Free Produce Movement: A Quaker Protest Against Slavery (New York, 1944), 48 .

13 Haskell, ‘Capitalism . . . Part 1’, 133; Thomas Haskell, ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, II’, in The Antislavery Debate, ed. Bender, 136–60, at 159.

14 As quoted by ibid., 158.

15 This develops a point made by David Brion Davis, ‘The Perils of Doing History by Ahistorical Abstraction: A Reply to Thomas L. Haskell's AHR Forum Reply’, in The Antislavery Debate, ed. Bender, 290–309, at 297, 307–8.

16 Brown, Moral Capital, 95–101; Rabin, Dana, ‘“In a Country of Liberty?”: Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness in the Somerset Case (1772)’, History Workshop Journal, 72 (2011), 529 ; Cotter, William R., ‘The Somerset Case and the Abolition of Slavery in England’, History, 79 (1994), 3156 .

17 Drescher, Seymour, Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective (Oxford, 1987 [1986]), 22–4; Ray, James Lee, ‘The Abolition of Slavery and the End of International War’, International Organization, 43 (1989), 405–39, at 434. For earlier metropolitan concern about colonial bondage, see Donoghue, John“Out of the Land of Bondage”: The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition’, American Historical Review, 115 (2010), 943–74.

18 Benezet, Anthony, A Caution to Great Britain and Her Colonies (Philadelphia and London, 1767), 42 ; Blackburn, American Crucible, 152.

19 Granville Sharp, The Law of Retribution, or A Serious Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies (1776), title page. Capitalisation follows the original.

20 Brown, Moral Capital.

21 See Oldfield, John, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787–1807 (Manchester, 1995); Carey, British Abolitionism; Drescher, Capitalism and Antislavery; Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780–1870 (1992).

22 The Debate on a Motion for the Abolition of the Slave-Trade in the House of Commons, on Monday the Second of April, 1792 (1792), 172.

23 Midgley, Clare, Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790–1865 (Abingdon, 2007), 4164 .

24 Anon. [William Fox], An Address to the People of Great Britain, On the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum, 5th edn, corrected (1791); Whelan, Timothy, ‘William Fox, Martha Gurney and Radical Discourse of the 1790s’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 42 (2009), 397411 , at 397; Whelan, Timothy, ‘Martha Gurney and the Anti-Slave Trade Movement, 1788–94’, in Women, Dissent and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790–1865, ed. Clapp, Elizabeth J. and Jeffrey, Julie Roy (Oxford, 2011), 4465 .

25 [Fox], Address, 3–4.

26 Ibid. , 2.

27 Ibid. , 11.

28 Ibid. , 8.

29 Hall, ‘Troubling Memories’, 167–8.

30 Esther Copley, A History of Slavery and its Abolition, 2nd edn (1839), 295.

31 Elizabeth Heyrick, Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition: Or, An Inquiry into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery ([Boston, MA, 1838] 1824), 4, 12, 35.

32 Ibid. , 3.

33 T. S. Winn, A Speedy End to Slavery in Our West India Colonies: By Safe, Effectual, and Equitable Means for All the Parties Concerned (1825), 50.

34 The British Emancipator, 16 May 1838, 94.

35 See too Samuel Kingsford, Duty of Individuals, As It Respects the Slave Trade (1792), 3–5.

36 Hansard, first series, 2 May 1814, xxvii, 646.

37 See Eltis, David, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Oxford, 1987); Kielstra, Paul Michael, The Politics of Slave Trade Suppression in Britain and France, 1814–48 (New York, 2003); Martinez, Jenny S., The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law (Oxford, 2012).

38 William Wilberforce, A Letter to His Excellency Prince of Talleyrand Perigord &c. on the Subject of the Slave Trade (1814), 48–9, 54, 64.

39 Hansard, first series, 2 May 1814, xxvii, 642; British and Foreign State Papers, iii, 903–5: Wellington to Prince de Benevent, 26 Aug. 1814. For the reality of the situation, see Eltis, David, ‘Was Abolition of the U.S. and British Slave Trade Significant in the Broader Atlantic Context?’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 66 (2009), 715–36.

40 Hansard, first series, 2 May 1814, xxvii, 638.

41 British and Foreign State Papers, iii, 901–2: Wellington to Castlereagh, 25 Aug. 1814; Wilberforce as quoted by Betty Fladeland, ‘Abolitionist Pressures on the Concert of Europe, 1814–1822’, Journal of Modern History, 38 (1966), 355–73, at 358.

42 1/669/4, Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, address to the prince regent, 1814.

43 Drescher, Seymour, ‘Public Opinion and Parliament in the Abolition of the British Slave Trade’, in The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People, ed. Farrell, Stephen, Unwin, Melanie and Walvin, James (Edinburgh, 2007), 4265, at 64.

44 Kielstra, Politics, 28–33; Drescher, Seymour, ‘Whose Abolition? Popular Pressure and the Ending of the British Slave Trade’, Past and Present, 143 (1994), 136–66, esp. 160–2.

45 Ibid., 159–64. The distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘imperial’ anti-slavery policy deserves further development, but will have to wait for a separate treatment.

46 British and Foreign State Papers, iii, 907–9: Wellington to Castlereagh, 4 Oct. 1814.

47 Fladeland, ‘Abolitionist Pressure’, 362–6.

48 Kern, Holger Lutz, ‘Strategies of Legal Change: Great Britain, International Law, and the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’, Journal of the History of International Law, 6 (2004), 233–58, at 241.

49 British and Foreign State Papers, iii, 923–6: Castlereagh to Sir Henry Wellesley, 30 July 1814. See also Drescher, ‘Whose Abolition?’, 163–4; Nelson, Bernard H., ‘The Slave Trade as a Factor in British Foreign Policy 1815–1862’, Journal of Negro History, 27 (1942), 192209 , at 197–200.

50 Bethell, Leslie, The Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade: Britain, Brazil and the Slave Trade (Cambridge, 1970), 2761 .

51 As quoted by King, James Ferguson, ‘The Latin-American Republics and the Suppression of the Slave Trade’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 24 (1944), 387411 , at 391.

52 Ibid. , 400–9.

53 Kern, ‘Strategies’, 237–8.

54 Bethell, Abolition, 242–66.

55 Keene, Edward, ‘A Case Study of the Construction of International Hierarchy: British Treaty-Making against the Slave Trade in the Early Nineteenth Century’, International Organization, 61 (2007), 311–39.

56 Huzzey, Richard, ‘Gladstone and the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’, in William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives, ed. Quinault, Roland, Swift, Roger and Windscheffel, Ruth Clayton (Aldershot, 2012), 253–68.

57 Turley, David, ‘Anti-Slavery Activists and Officials: “Influence”, Lobbying and the Slave Trade, 1807–1850’, in Slavery, Diplomacy and Empire: Britain and the Suppression of the Slave Trade, 1807–1975, ed. Hamilton, Keith and Salmon, Patrick (Eastbourne, 2009), at 87–91; David Turley, The Culture of English Antislavery, 1780–1860 (1991), 205–11; Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War against Slavery (Baton Rouge, 1997 [1969]), 248–56.

58 Edinburgh Review, Apr. 1841, 266–8; N. Doran Maillard, The History of the Republic of Texas, from the Discovery of the Country to the Present Time and the Cause of Separation from the Republic of Mexico (1842), 75–90.

59 Steven Heath Mitton, ‘The Free World Confronted: The Problem of Slavery and Progress in American Foreign Relations, 1833–1844’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2005); Landry, Harry E., ‘Slavery and the Slave Trade in Atlantic Diplomacy, 1850–1861’, Journal of Southern History, 27 (1961), 184207 ; Canney, Donald L., Africa Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842–1861 (Washington, DC, 2006). Look for Mitton's forthcoming work on ‘the Ashburton capitulation’.

60 Jones, Howard, Blue & Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill, 2010), 122–3; Jones, Howard, Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War (Lincoln, NE, and London, 1999), 65–6.

61 The Southern Confederacy and the African Slave Trade: The Correspondence between Professor Cairnes, AM, and George McHenry, Esq, ed. George B. Wheeler (Dublin, 1863); Bois, W. E. B. Du, Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (Boston, MA, 1896), 188–9.

62 As quoted by David Murray, R., Odious Commerce: Britain, Spain and the Abolition of the Cuban Slave Trade (Cambridge, 1980), 22 .

63 Kielstra, Politics, 43–4; Fladeland, ‘Abolitionist Pressures’, 356–7, 360, 370.

64 Childs, Matt D., ‘A Case of “Great Unstableness”: A British Slaveholder and Brazilian Abolition’, The Historian, 60 (1998), 717–40; Eakin, Marshall G., ‘Business Imperialism and British Enterprise in Brazil: The St. John d'el Rey Mining Company, Limited, 1830–1960’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 66 (1986), 697741 .

65 For an alternative view, see Marika Sherwood, After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade since 1807 (2007).

66 Lakwete, Angela, Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America (Baltimore, 2005).

67 Edwards, Michael M., The Growth of the British Cotton Trade, 1780–1815 (Manchester, 1967), 8996, 105.

68 Drescher, Capitalism and Antislavery, 217.

69 British and Foreign State Papers, iii, 905: Castlereagh to Bathurst; British and Foreign State Papers, iii, 901: Castlereagh to Wellington, 6 Aug. 1814; Fladeland, ‘Abolitionist Pressures’, 362, 365.

70 Huzzey, Richard, ‘Free Trade, Free Labour and Slave Sugar in Victorian Britain’, Historical Journal, 53 (2010), 359–79.

71 Hansard, third series, 13 Aug. 1846, lxxxviii, 666.

72 Hansard, third series, 8 July 1846, lxxxviii, 122.

73 Huzzey, ‘Free Trade’, 368–9.

74 Macaulay, Speeches of Lord Macaulay, 164–6, 168.

75 Hansard, third series, 8 July 1846, lxxxviii, 157–8.

77 Hansard, third series, 18 May 1841, lviii, 616.

78 Ibid. , 626.

79 Harriet Beecher Stowe in Europe: The Journal of Charles Beecher, ed. Joseph S. Van Why and Earl French (Hartford, CT, 1986), 118–19: entry for 23 May 1853.

80 Nuermberger, Free Produce Movement; Glickman, Lawrence B., ‘“Buy for the Sake of the Slave”: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism’, American Quarterly, 56 (2004), 889912 ; Faulkner, Carol, ‘The Root of the Evil: Free Produce and Radical Antislavery, 1820–1860’, Journal of the Early Republic, 27 (2007), 377405 .

81 Stephen Hobhouse, Joseph Sturge, His Life and Work (1919), 111; Billington, Louis, ‘British Humanitarians and American Cotton, 1840–1860’, Journal of American Studies, 11 (1977), 313–34.

82 Howitt's Journal, 27 Nov. 1847, 338–9; Hansard, third series, 27 July 1846, lxxxviii, 4–27. For fabrication of his consistency, see Anti-Slavery Reporter, 2 Apr. 1860, 88–9.

83 John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England, ed. Alexander Chamerovzow (1854), 172.

84 Watts, John, The Facts of the Cotton Famine (London and Manchester, 1866), 116 . He did go on to suggest significant numbers would accept such privations if the trade in free cotton had survived long enough in the market.

85 As noted by ibid., 116.

86 Turley, David, ‘“Free Air” and Fugitive Slaves: British Abolitionists versus Government over American Fugitives, 1834–61’, in Anti-Slavery, Religion and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey, ed. Bolt, Christine and Drescher, Seymour (Folkestone, 1980), 163–72; Sharon, A. Hepburn, Roger, ‘Following the North Star: Canada as a Haven for Nineteenth-Century American Blacks’, Michigan Historical Review, 25 (1999), 91126 .

87 Turley, ‘Anti-Slavery Activists’; Finkelman, Paul, ‘International Extradition and Fugitive Slaves: The John Anderson Case’, Brooklyn Journal of International Law, 18 (1992), 765810 .

88 Mulligan, William, ‘The Fugitive Slave Circulars, 1875–76’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 37 (2009), 183205 .

89 Punch, 4 Mar. 1876, 79.

90 Hansard, fourth series, 11 Aug. 1896, xliv, 481–2; Hansard, fourth series, 24 June 1897, l, 534–7. See also Hogendorn, Jan S. and Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘Keeping Slaves in Place: The Secret Debate on the Slavery Question in Northern Nigeria, 1900–1904’, in The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, ed. Inikori, Joseph E. and Engerman, Stanley L. (Durham, NC, 1992), 4976 .

91 Margot Finn, ‘Slaves out of Context: Domestic Slavery and the Anglo-Indian Family, c. 1780–1840’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, xix (2009), 181–203.

92 On this vast subject, see Lovejoy, Paul, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2000); Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa, ed. Miers, Suzanne and Klein, Martin A. (1999); The End of Slavery in Africa, ed. Miers, Suzanne and Roberts, Richard (Madison, 1988); Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff (Madison, 1977); Suzanne Miers, Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade (1975); Grant, Kevin, A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926 (New York, 2005).

93 Hansard, fourth series, 24 June 1897, l, 533.

94 Punch, 4 Mar. 1865, 87–8. Many thanks to Anthony S. Wohl's 1999 students at Vassar College for stirring my interest in this image: ‘Punch Cartoons’, Vassar College, 1997–9, accessed 11 Apr. 2012.

95 Hansard, third series, 21 Feb. 1854, clxxvii, 551.

96 Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853), ch. 4; Stone, Harry, ‘Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 12 (1957), 188202 ; Moore, Grace, Dickens and Empire: Discourses of Class, Race and Colonialism in the Works of Charles Dickens (Aldershot, 2004), 6770 .

97 Examiner, 19 Aug. 1848, 531–3.

98 Ibid. , 533.

99 On this emphasis in Heyrick's work, see Faulkner, ‘Root’, 381.

100 Macaulay, Speeches of Lord Macaulay, 164–6, 168.

101 ‘“William Wilberforce Freedom Ale” launched by Westerham Brewery Co. to mark the 200th anniversary of Abolition of Slave Trade in England’, Stop the Traffic, Feb. 2007, accessed 22 Dec. 2011.

102 ‘Fairtrade and the Slave Trade Abolition Campaign’, Garstang Fairtrade, accessed 7 Jan. 2012; Mike Kaye, ‘The Tools of the Abolitionists – Mobilising the Public’, BBC History, Feb. 2011, accessed 7 Jan. 2012.

103 Michelle Micheletti, ‘The Moral Force of Consumption and Capitalism: Anti-Slavery and Anti-Sweatshop’, in Citizenship and Consumption, ed. Kate Soper and Frank Trentmann (2007), 121–36.

104 For similar objections, see Eltis, David, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000), 80–4, 274–84.

105 Drescher, Seymour, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Chapel Hill, 2010 [Pittsburgh, 1977]); Drescher, Seymour, review of The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, ed. Bender, Thomas, in History and Theory, 32 (1993), 311–29.

106 Brown, Moral Capital; Swaminathan, Srividhya, Debating the Slave Trade: Rhetoric of British National Identity, 1759–1815 (Farnham, 2009).

107 Davis, David Brion, ‘The Universal Attractions of Slavery’, New York Review of Books, 56 (2009), 72–4.

108 Embarrassingly, this quotation is from Huzzey, ‘Free trade’, 373.

* Thanks must go to Seymour Drescher, Margot Finn and Jay Sexton for their comments on the argument advanced here, though they are blameless for any remaining infelicities.

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