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Proslavery Britain

Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition


Paula E. Dumas


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016

Hardcover. x+220 p. ISBN 978-1137578204. £63


Reviewed by Nicholas Draper

University College London




Paula Dumas’ book, drawn from her doctoral thesis, is a rich text that opens up a number of significant issues for historians of Britain and of slavery as it assembles and classifies manifestations of support for the slave-trade and slavery, and opposition to their respective abolitions, in British parliamentary debate, print and visual culture in the period between c. 1780 and the 1830s. Of the issues this book raises, four inter-linked themes seem to me to be especially important. First, inherent in the dual meaning of ‘Proslavery Britain’, as on the one hand that section of British society that supported slavery in the era of abolition (Dumas’ meaning, often emphasising the fractional and factional nature of that social and political grouping), and as on the other hand a nation that supported slavery prior to the era of abolition, is the question of when exactly did Britain move from pro-slavery nation to the hegemony of abolitionism: when did the commonsense in Britain shift decisively away from slavery to abolition, and how can we tell? Secondly, what does the timing of this shift, if definable, suggest about its causes: how far in other words does Dumas’ work help us explain the two abolitions? The third is the relationship between race and slavery, and in particular the ways in which slavery and indeed abolition shaped racialised attitudes to people of colour: were ‘racial arguments’ simply one part of the pro-slavery case or did they in fact underpin the whole? Finally, the book raises the question, in common with other recent scholarship on the slave-owners and their allies, as to the risks of revisionism: to what extent is the analysis of pro-slavery rhetoric and representation likely to be received (even if not intended) as a rehabilitation of the slave-owners, and of slave-ownership, and therefore of slavery itself?

Britain was clearly a pro-slavery nation for at least a century and a half. From the establishment of slave-systems in the Caribbean colonies that it settled in the mid-1620s onwards, to the expansion of the footprint of colonial slavery in the Ceded and Neutral Islands deliberately seized in 1763 and immediately exploited, Britain was a committed and dynamic slaving power. Individuals from Sir Thomas Browne to Samuel Johnson had opposed slavery, but active pro-slavery thought was superfluous, because the ‘common sense’ seamlessly accommodated colonial slavery although importantly at home the common law was queasy and chattel slavery was never established as a legal and social institution in Britain itself. By the 1820s, by contrast, it was not possible, as Dumas shows, to advocate slavery as a positive and beneficial institution: pro-slavery had given way to anti-abolition, two registers of a single theme. There were isolated exceptions, but those seeking to maintain slavery were obliged to express regret for the existence of the system, to disavow their support for slavery as an institution and to lay out practical not principled obstacles to its abolition. Canning’s resolutions in 1823, adopted nem. con, included an explicit commitment to the end of slavery, with no time period defined, but a commitment nevertheless. Between the 1760s and the 1820s there had thus been a break – but when within this period did the decisive shift come, and how could we tell? Discourse analysis on a large scale, reviewing thousands of speeches and pamphlets across the period might eventually help answer this question: the selection and analysis of an inevitably limited number of texts can potentially mislead us. The Rev. R.B. Bailey, for example, writing in the 1820s and used by Dumas as an illustration of biblical justification of slavery, seems to me to be an anachronistic outlier: Evangelical and non-conformist abolitionists had seized the use of biblical sanction in the 1790s and never let it go.

Dumas herself focuses on 1807 itself as the turning-point, dividing her analysis into pre- and post-abolition of the slave-trade. If this is correct, and slave-owners were truly on the defensive for the first time from that point on, then the abolition of the slave-trade would resume the position of centrality it has traditionally occupied in the history of slavery and abolition, and the struggle to abolish slavery itself would again become a coda to 1807. But there are arguments for locating the shift later, in the early 1820s, in which case the emphasis would pass to shifting economics of slavery after the final expansion of Britain’s slave-empire in the seizure of what became British Guiana, Trinidad, and St Lucia as well as the Cape and Mauritius, and possibly the cause finally of indigestion, the inability of Britain to absorb the weight of colonial sugar and the weight of slavery.  

The enduring importance of pro-slavery, and of Dumas’ work, seems to lie in the excavation of the racial underpinning of the slave-system, race and slavery intertwined and mutually reinforcing. All of this is present in Dumas, but some of it is perhaps hidden in plain sight, given that ‘Racial Arguments’ are classified separately from ‘Historical Justification’, ‘Moral and Religious Arguments’ and ‘Paternalist Arguments’, when each of the latter three are in fact suffused with racialised thought and attitudes.  

Despite the bold claim in the Acknowledgements that ‘there was next to no current scholarship on the opposition to British abolition’, the book forms part of a wider wave of research and writing on slavery and slave-ownership that fundamentally challenges the remembering of abolition and the forgetting of slavery that have characterised both official narratives and popular memory in Britain for almost two centuries. These studies of pro-slavery and anti-abolition advocacy include the work of Christer Petley on Simon Taylor and other Jamaica slave-owners, David Lambert on Barbados and on James MacQueen, and Selwyn Cudjoe’s forthcoming study on William Hardin Burnley in Trinidad, as well as work arising from Legacies of British Slave-ownership project. In expending effort in the research of slave-owners, in recovering their histories, and given the huge extant and still-growing literature on white abolitionists, we are privileging both groups over the enslaved people themselves. The justification for this I believe is not, or at least not simply, that ‘there were at least two sides to the story of British abolition and they all need to be told’ but something more fundamental. We need to understand the role of slavery in shaping modern Britain, and one lens for this is through the slave-owners and their allies, whose cultural work on reproducing race and notions of the subordinate status of Africans as noted above became hegemonic and resonates still. Dumas aims consistently to contextualise the views she is discussing and in the judgement of pro-slavery positions as ‘convincing’ [8] and as ‘thoughtful, convincing arguments’ [165] it is clearly intended that these are construed as endorsements of the power of the arguments in 18th- and early 19th-century Britain, not now. But these could be misread.

The book bears signs of its origin as a doctoral thesis. One such sign is the repeated structure of quotation / commentary in which the commentary is often a paraphrase of the source. Another is the tendency at times to generalise from necessarily selective sources, rather than emphasise the limitations of the evidence. It is not possible for the author to cover everything, but the omission here of Peter Borthwick, the paid advocate of the West India interest in 1833, is notable, as is the inclusion of James Grainger’s medical manual but not his ‘West India Georgic’ poem The Sugarcane that had a wider audience in Britain. The absence from the historiographical context of Catherine Hall, and indeed of recognition of the new imperial history and how the book relates to it, is puzzling. Ian John Barrett’s recent thesis on the politics of pro-slavery in the twenty years before abolition of the slave-trade appears in the bibliography but not in the text.

But these comments should not detract from an appreciation of the significance of Dumas’s subject matter or of her work. As Toni Morrison wrote, ‘[t]he scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behaviour of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters.’



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