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6 - The origins of ‘legitimate commerce’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2013

Christopher Leslie Brown
Affiliation:
Columbia University
Robin Law
Affiliation:
Professor of African History, University of Stirling
Suzanne Schwarz
Affiliation:
Professor of History, University of Worcester
Silke Strickrodt
Affiliation:
Research Fellow in Colonial History, German Institute of Historical Research, London
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Summary

Where did the idea of ‘legitimate commerce’ come from? At first glance, there would seem to be a simple answer to this question. The Abolitionists, it would appear, invented the idea of legitimate commerce to justify slave trade abolition, to make an economic case for a moral cause. No one championed the transition in the African trade from slaves to staple crops with more ardour. After the formation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, the economic potential of legitimate commerce became a point of emphasis among the Abolitionists, figuring centrally thereafter in Abolitionist propaganda and testimony in parliament, in the mission of the new Sierra Leone Company at its founding in 1791 and, more broadly, in Danish and French schemes to promote abolition. After British abolition in 1807, Anglican evangelicals organized the African Institution with the aim of encouraging staple crop production in Sierra Leone. The idea of legitimate commerce, therefore, would seem to have been a creature of the Abolitionist movement, and perhaps would not have existed without it.

In this telling, legitimate commerce emerged as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It took shape first as a claim before it became a conviction; it arose to make the case before it became an article of faith. An abundance of evidence would seem to support this view. The first Abolitionists argued for commercial alternatives to the African trade some time after — not before and not when — they became committed to slave trade abolition.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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