Thursday, March 10, 2005


Antislavery scripts: Part III

About six weeks has passed since I posted Antislavery scripts: Part I, a notice of Marilynne Robinson's review of Adam Hochschild's new book on British abolitionism, Bury the Chains. I can hardly believe that about four weeks has passed since I posted Part II. One of the reasons I have been dragging my virtual feet on this series is that I have purchased Hochschild's book, and before concluding these posts I want to have read it.

Since it's obviously been a while, let me review what I've said (for my benefit as much as for yours). In the first post, I noticed that the moral authority of abolitionism is now frequently invoked by contemporary political movements. Hochschild has explicitly said, for instance, that he was drawn to British abolitionists because they seemed to fit the kind of story that he wanted to tell, which was How a Small Group of Embattled Activists Can Change the World. For reviewers like Robinson, this forthright presentism raises the specter of Whiggish history. It seems to shoehorn the history of the antislavery movement into a teleological, hagiographical, and compelling script.

Robinson attempts to complicate this Whiggish history in two different ways. On the one hand, her review of Hochschild's book impeaches the motives of abolitionists by questioning why they were not as active in alleviating the distress of British workers. On the other hand, her review points out the irony that after emancipation, antislavery ideology underwrote British imperialism in Africa, forging or ignoring chains there in the name of knocking off chains elsewhere.

Each of these more complex scripts of British abolitionism represents a different trajectory within academic scholarship on the subject. In Part II, I traced Robinson's first alternate script back to Eric Williams, the brilliant and influential Caribbean scholar who argued in 1944 that the primary causes for British abolitionism were economic, rather than humanitarian. The vestiges of Williams' thesis can be glimpsed in Robinson's suggestion that "one might, without cynicism, look to the economic considerations in play."

But in this post, Part III in the series, I will begin sketching what I see as a major shift in emphasis in antislavery historiography, the influence of which can also be seen in Robinson's somewhat schizophrenic review. This major shift has occurred because most historians have abandoned the major premises of Williams' argument, and have therefore had to find slightly different scripts with which to organize narratives about the rise and fall of British slavery. Finally, in a future post (or posts -- who am I kidding), I think I want to make a point about the present. Hochschild's presentism is not necessarily a problem, I think I will suggest, but the implications of antislavery history for the present are best framed in tales that are both cautionary and complimentary. (I offer these provisionally because, as I said, I have yet to read the book.)

Now that I'm more or less where I started, here's the main point I want to make in this post: Having abandoned Williams' emphasis on economic ideology as the key to understanding British abolition, recent scholars have emphasized nationalist ideology as a motive force, both behind the peculiar development of British slavery and its precipitous decline and death in the 1830s.

While scholars have not abandoned entirely Williams' interest in the relationship between capitalism and slavery (and rightly so), they have shifted their interests more to what we might call the moral geography of slavery and abolition. They have become less interested in the economic relationships between industrial capitalism and abolition, and more interested in the political and cultural relationships between the British metropolis and its colonies that made slavery both possible and ultimately objectionable.

Williams argued that slavery was abolished because British industry was weaned off of its profits; capitalists used and then abused the colonial slave economy. Subsequent historians, however, have challenged this thesis, not least of all on economic grounds. Whereas Williams contended that the slave economy was tanking on the eve of abolition, Seymour Drescher and others have argued that it was thriving, and that the gross cost of abolition for the British economy was incredibly high. Many now see British abolition as an act of "econocide," not as an act of economic amputation.

If Williams' critics are right, though, then historians need some new way of explaining how an economically profitable institution came to be seen as problemtic -- problematic enough to spark an ultimately successful popular movement against it. In other words, historians have had to view British slavery and its abolition not only through a material lens, as Williams had urged, but also as a cultural, social, and political "problem." This post-Williams direction in antislavery studies owes much to the work of David Brion Davis, who has argued that by the early modern era "slavery had always been more than an economic institution; in Western culture it had long represented the ultimate limit of dehumanization, of treating and regarding a man as a thing" (10). Davis, who is this generation's leading scholar on slavery and antislavery, has successfully encouraged historians to think more about what slavery "represented," instead of just about its economic role. Thanks to his efforts, British slavery is now studied both as a symbol and as a social system.

From 1660 to 1860, slavery functioned as a powerful foil for the collective identity of Britons, whose sense of themselves as a nation was under construction during the same centuries in which British slavery was first raised and then razed. But its functions as a foil changed. From roughly 1660 to 1760, colonial slavery could be seen by most Britons as a powerful foil for the liberties of the metropolis. Slavery was seen as a peculiarity of colonies at the periphery of the empire, and rarely as a characteristic of the empire itself -- it was something "over there" as opposed to "over here." By the end of the 1700s, however, this juxtaposition was difficult to maintain, especially as colonial politics and slavery intruded more directly on life in the metropolis. Changes in British culture and society, beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, made it seem impossible for slavery and freedom to coexist within the empire, a sense culminating in acts of abolition in the early nineteenth century.

But the destruction of slavery did not destroy its usefulness as a foil. Slavery's expurgation from the colonies transformed it into a foil of Britain entire. No longer was slavery merely the opposite of the metropolis; it was now the opposite of Britain itself. Abolition thus became a potent instrument for British exceptionalism and expansion in the late nineteenth century. Thus, as a broad script for studying British history from 1660 to 1860, we can now follow the dramatic shift from slavery as a foil within the empire to slavery as a foil for the empire.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the same time that African slavery was becoming entrenched in British America, it was becoming virtually extinct within England itself. Villeinage, serfdom and slavery had been waning in Europe since medieval times and were winding down just as colonial slavery took off. Indentured servitude and nascent forms of wage work were slowly deposing labor relationships that bore a closer resemblance to chattel slavery. Meanwhile, as part of a connected cultural trend towards the sacralization of individual action, many political theorists were systematically defending the inviolability of individual liberty. Historians like David Eltis have recently laid a great deal of stress on this ironic problem: Britain was becoming more dependent on slavery in the colonies even as it was professing a stronger commitment to "freedom" in the metropolis.

Clearly, justifications for African slavery could coexist in an English mind with ideas about individual freedom. One reason was because the end of slavery in Europe was driven by opposition to enslaving Europeans, not by insurmountable qualms about coercive labor. As Eltis has argued, New World slavery was rationalized, first of all, by racial conventions which distinguished whites and Christians from non-whites and non-Christians, whose enslavement was thought to be justified. Liberal thinkers could praise autonomy and still endorse human property. As Eltis notes, "early modern Europeans shifted property rights in labor toward the individual," but "this trend was consistent with either free or slave labor. With respect to Europeans it led eventually to the former. As applied to non-Europeans ... it led to the latter" (23).

John Locke's thinking about slavery is a good example of the period's general intellectual ambivalence. As a leading advocate for the sanctity of liberty and ownership, Locke was nonetheless able to condemn the enslavement of Britons without discouraging African slavery. Indeed, he personally profited by investments that reaped profits from colonial slavery. In the first line of Two Treatises of Government, Locke did say that "slavery is so vile and miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that 'tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for't." But the target of Locke's attack here was absolute monarchism, not plantation slavery in the British West Indies. And what bothered him in the Treatises was not that slavery was always antithetical to freedom, but that it seemed "directly opposite" to the "Temper and Courage of our Nation." It was not indefensible by virtue of one's being human, but indefensible by virtue of one's being an English Gentleman.

Many Britons agreed that slavery was not properly a part of their nation. It was a distant feature of the colonies, out of "Temper" for a freedom-loving country like England. For much of the seventeenth century, the Caribbean colonies were imagined as a place where ordinary rules did not apply. It was a world "beyond the line," a kind of early modern Wild West. Seymour Drescher has argued that "slavery remained far more a geographically than racially conceived system" (16). Even as Britons were repeatedly reminded that slavery was "repugnant to their constitution," they were constantly aware that it existed in a world apart, removed from their constitution's reach by an actual and ethical ocean. According to Drescher, therefore, "a 'Braudelian' sense about the difficulty of overcoming spatial distance is as necessary to understanding the smooth functioning of the slave system as is its economic viability" (23).

The distance between core and periphery was as imaginary as real. Britons conceived of colonial slavery as they conceived of most colonial excess - it was a social excrescence that had little to do with England or life behind "the line." As James Walvin puts it, the "physical divergence between imperial (West Indian) life and domestic British Society" reflected a sense of cultural difference. The colonies were "as different - as unfamiliar and hostile - as any other alien culture could be" (23-24).

Drescher and Walvin may overstate the extent to which colonial slavery was out of sight and out of mind in the metropolis. But the imagined and physical distances between England's core and periphery help us think fruitfully about what Eltis sees as colonial slavery's "insider/outsider" divide. His dichotomy, after all, implies a more basic one between an "inside" and an "outside." The boundaries that separated racial "insiders" from "outsiders" were generic on one level, but Drescher and Walvin remind us that they were also geographic. Metropolitan Britons never (never, never) would be slaves not only because they were European "insiders," but also because they were "inside" England.

Even the metaphors with which Britons talked about their venerated freedoms - the free "air" or the free "soil" of England - referred to a concrete and particular place. Thus, slavery was not just a fate that could only befall "outsiders." It was also a system that could only fall "outside" of England. In the same century that Britons were working out a division between slave and free labor, they were conceptually drawing a parallel line dividing their colonies and the metropolis. Slavery was becoming a foil for metropolitan England as much as a foil for freedom.

But if Drescher is right that slavery was a "geographically" conceived system, then in order to challenge its continuation, abolitionists had to overcome the presumption that slavery could be left out of mind because it was out of sight. In other words, abolitionists had to reimagine slavery not as "beyond the line," but as a blot on England itself -- even when it was in the colonies. To borrow the title of David Brion Davis' most recent book, abolition was not just about challenging slavery; it was often about "challenging the boundaries of slavery." In the next post, I'll sketch some of the ways in which the boundaries of British slavery began to be challenged at the close of the eighteenth century.

[Disclosure: Some parts of this post were excerpted from an unpublished paper I had previously written for my graduate program.]

Collective Improvisation:
I'm glad to see that you're back; I've been looking forward to reading more of your antislavery series (is it time to call it a series?) for, well, four weeks now.

I know that your focus is on anti slavery scripts, but I'm curious as to how the pro-slavery arguments of plantation-owners and others have fit - if at all - into earlier interpretations of abolition.

I wonder this because a few months ago I was looking at an old edition of The William and Mary Quarterly and came across a review  of An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean, by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy. Apparently (I haven't read the actual book) O'Shaughnessy argues that the removal of the North American colonies from the British empire severely weakenend the West Indian lobby in Parliament - since they could no longer appeal to the southern colonies for help in maintaining slavery - thereby leaving the colonies more vulnerable to the abolitionist movement.  

Posted by eb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/10/2005 11:28:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comment, and yes, I think this is now officially The Series. I'm flattered to think anyone was looking forward to its continuation!

O'Shaughnessy's is one of those books I've skimmed but which is now sitting on my bookshelf waiting for a more extensive reading. I think, though, that it more or less fits into the "script" I've outlined here.

First, it follows recent historians in stressing the political supports for and challenges to colonial slavery, rather than focusing (as Williams' generation did) on economic causes for slavery's fall.

Second, I think one could re-phrase O'Shaughnessy's argument by saying that the American Revolution severely disrupted the "moral geography" of slavery in the transatlantic British empire. Prior to 1776, both American and Caribbean planters had enjoyed a large degree of political and cultural autonomy from the metropolis. But when this autonomy became full independence in the case of Britain's North American colonies, West Indian planters were left in a bind. They wanted to remain loyal to the metropolis, but now found metropolitan authorities making political demands on them that ruffled their previously autonomous feathers.

For one thing, O'Shaugnessy shows that West Indians were very upset that the mercantilist outlook of trade officials in Britain now forbade West Indians from trading with the newly independent United States. Given their failure to hold on to North America, the metropolitan government did not intend to fool around with colonial assemblies in the Caribbean. The result was that the West Indian lobby became more vocal and visible in metropolitan politics at precisely the same time that their power in Parliament was increasingly marginalized.

In short, the Revolution destroyed the placid illusion that business as usual in the colonies could continue, and in that sense it played into the abolitionists' arguments (to be profiled in a later post) that the planters were trying desperatley to impose their vision of the empire on metropolitan Britons. The increasing visibility of the West Indian lobby and West Indian planters in England after the Revolution made it plainly apparent how divided the empire now was, and how these divisions could no longer be discreetly ignored. It had served West Indians' interests before to remain quietly out of sight and out of mind in the metropolis. Now they could do neither, and that exposed their vulnerability to the rising popular campaign for abolition. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/11/2005 04:40:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the lengthy response. I think I'm going to add O'Shaugnessy to my to-read-but-not-directly-related-to-my-dissertation list.

It's funny, but the way my graduate coursework was structured, I had a very Atlantic approach to the colonial North American world, but a very national approach to the 19th century US. So as I've been moving on through my program I've been trying (on the side) to learn more about what happened to Britain and its colonies after 1776.

As the question of abolition is quite an important one, I'm especially glad that you're making this into a full series. 

Posted by eb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/15/2005 12:45:00 AM : Permalink  

That's one of my hobby horses. Historians talk all about the Atlantic World for the colonial period, as if it simply disappeared with independence. I think partly this is because traditional narratives of the early republic and Jacksonian America have been focused on the development of American nationalism, and it also has to do with specializations that keep colonialists and early nationalists from engaging with each other very much. But one main thing I want my dissertation to do is to suggest that the Atlantic World is just as important for understanding the antebellum period. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/15/2005 08:25:00 AM : Permalink  

I'm glad I stumbled across your page while working on a thesis on scapegoating and psychology. Add to that, a little cultural entropy, globalization and hegemony, and it's a fine mix. All good work for cultural and evolutionary psychologists. Also kudos to your institution's contributions to psychology, initiating psychological research in America, and hiring J. B. Watson and all.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/08/2006 10:42:00 AM : Permalink  

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