In today’s blog, Professor Trevor Burnard reflects on the recent workshop held at the Wilberforce Institute on the subject of the American Revolution and imperial history.
On 3 March, the Wilberforce Institute hosted a small and highly successful workshop to consider how the American Revolution was, in the words of the keynote speaker, Stephen Conway, of UCL, an event usefully seen through an imperial perspective.
The American Revolution is an important event in not just American history but in the history of the world. One of the ways in which it has an enduring importance is its role in redefining the British Empire in the late eighteenth century so that by the nineteenth century British imperialism was different to what it been in the previous century. We sometimes think of the empire with America as the first British Empire. Even though historians have been anxious to show that imperialism did not change all that much after the loss of the American colonies (to become the United States of America), it is clear that it was an event of truly historical importance in the history of imperial Britain. At a stroke, a major part of the population of the British Empire – including most of the people of that empire who were White Protestants and who thought of themselves before 1776 as Britons living overseas rather than foreigners to British customs and practices – departed the empire. The American Revolution was the first successful settler revolt in history, a counterrevolution against actions by the imperial government, which American Patriots considered tyrannical. It was also very much an imperial event, being part of a whole set of policies enacted by Britain after the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) to reconfigure a new and greatly enlarged empire.
Now is a good time to connect imperialism with the American Revolution and see the links between them. Imperial history has suddenly come back into favour after having been considered in the second half of the twentieth century as irredeemably old-fashioned and irrelevant. That has changed in the twenty-first century. As Krishan Kumar argues in Visions of Empire (2017), `the study of empires, for all their faults, engages current beliefs in multiculturalism, diaspora, migration and multinationalism.’(p. 3) In addition, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026 is getting closer, encouraging us to rethink the American Revolution in the light of contemporary matters and an ever-changing historiography.
The workshop was designed to engage with the connection between this event and British imperialism, which is the subject of a forthcoming book by Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, and Andrew O’Shaughnessy, former director of research at Monticello and professor at the University of Virginia. Andrew, who is currently a fellow at the Wilberforce Institute, will be applying his great knowledge of the imperial dimensions of the American Revolution to this joint effort. He published The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire in 2014.
Trevor and Andrew were joined by scholars from France, Germany and Britain, who presented papers on military aspects of imperialism in the American Revolution and participated in two workshops on the wider European contexts of the War of American Independence and on recent trends in the writing on empire and revolution.
The workshop was extremely stimulating, and at times provocative, and served as a first event in the four-year lead-up to the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution under the auspices of the British Group in Early American History. It is also part of America2026, a large-scale European grouping of scholars who are determined to see the American Revolution as an intrinsic part of European and European imperial history. Andrew will continue the involvement of the Wilberforce Institute with America2026 on 10 March at a seminar in Paris on ‘Transnationalismes, Crises and Révolutions’.
It might be thought that the British Empire and imperialism as a topic of historical inquiry have always been subjects of great fascination for scholars and students of British history. Britain was an imperial nation from the early seventeenth century, with settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By the eighteenth-century, as Britain embarked upon a series of generally successful wars against France about who controlled the New World and South Asia (the American Revolution being the major exception to continued British imperial success), matters imperial were discussed in virtually every issue of the newspapers that proliferated in the nation and imperial plans were central to the geopolitics of Britain’s quest to become powerful in the world. In the nineteenth century, of course, British global power was signified by the many places of the map that were marked `red’ as belonging to the British nation. Imperialism continued into the twentieth century with both world wars being, as Richard Overy argues for World War II, imperial conflicts.
Nevertheless, the practice of imperial history by professional historians has ebbed and flowed in importance and significance over time, according to fashion and to contemporary politics. As little as a generation ago, imperial history was decidedly out of fashion. Indeed, as Pat Griffin, a leading historian of the American Revolution, noted in an appreciation of the most important mid-twentieth century imperial historian of early America, Lawrence Henry Gipson (1880-1971), whose magnum opus was a massive fifteen-volume history of the British Empire in the Americas before the American Revolution, imperialism was effectively a left-behind approach to history when Gipson finished writing imperial history in the 1960s. When Gipson died in 1971, his approach, marked by an indifference to history from below, an incessant and occasionally grating Anglophilia at odds with a more diverse America, and his deliberately pedestrian prose (chosen out of distaste for the florid over-romanticism of a generation of amateur historians writing at the turn of the twentieth century) was out of step with a Vietnam-era world of decolonization and anti-imperialism. Ironically, perhaps, Griffin wrote this review of Gipson and the end of imperial history in 2003, the year that I began as editor for the Empire and the Commonwealth before 1783 section of the Bibliography of British and Irish History [BBIH].
The same derision towards imperialism was less apparent in British historiography of the 1970s and 1980s but it was still there. It was Europe that was the thing to concentrate upon, after Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1974. The New Zealand historian, J.G.A. Pocock, lamented how `within very recent memory, the English have been increasingly willing to declare that neither empire nor commonwealth ever meant much in their consciousness, and that they were at heart Europeans all the time.’ (J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject,’ Journal of Modern History, 47 (1975), 601-21).
Pocock’s former colleague in New Zealand, D.K. Fieldhouse, then at Cambridge, was even more despondent about the future of imperial history at this time. He expressed despair over the fragmented state of the field, imploring, ‘can the fragments of the old history be put together again into new patterns which are intellectually respectable?’ He feared that imperial history might be ‘condemned to share the midden of discredited academic subjects with, say, astrology or phrenology.’ (D.K. Fieldhouse, ‘Can Humpty-Dumpty be put together again: imperial history in the 1980s,’ Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12 (1984), 9-23.)
We can start to see changes developing in an article by Fieldhouse’s successor at Cambridge, A.G. Hopkins, in 1999. Hopkins thought that imperial history had a future and that it was all that more important as discourses of globalization were taking hold. He proclaimed that ‘what is needed is a fundamental reappraisal of world history to bring out the extent to which, in recent centuries, it has been shaped by the interaction of several types of empire at various stages of development and decay.’ (A.G. Hopkins, ‘Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History,’ S&A 164 (1999), 198-243). The most significant historiographical event which transformed the study of imperialism was the five-volume survey of British imperialism in the Oxford History of the British Empire, published in the late 1990s. The OHBE was a watershed moment, providing an agenda for historical investigation into empire, even if its defiantly anti-postcolonialist stance was off-putting to those more sympathetic to postcolonialism and to a ‘new imperial history’ based around explorations of difference.
What united traditional imperial historians and ‘new’ imperial historians was a belief that imperialism was so wide-ranging as to encompass the whole of eighteenth-century British and British American history. It was about culture as much as power. As Eric Hinderaker wrote in 1996, ‘empire is a cultural artifact as well as a geopolitical entity; it belongs to a geography of the mind as well as a geography of power.’ (Eric Hinderaker, ‘The “Four Indian Kings” and the Imaginative Construction of the British Empire,’ WMQ 53 (1996), 486).
And as Kathleen Wilson argues, ‘the eighteenth-century British empire presents us with interconnected and interdependent sites of historical importance, territorial and imaginative, that can disrupt oppositions between metropole and colony and allow us to rethink the genealogies and historiographies of national belonging and exclusion.’ (Kathleen Wilson, ‘Introduction; histories, empires, modernities,’ in idem, A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire 1660-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3).
Studies of empire have abounded since the 2000s because they meet significant parts of the twenty-first century zeitgeist, at least that zeitgeist which existed before the rise of populist nationalism in China, America and much of Europe after 2015. Historical imperialism is an interesting topic in an age of transnational globalization when the borders separating countries and economies seemed porous (a reality that in the Covid era has rapidly disappeared). Imperial history also answered questions about the past which bore on the present – notably the cultural history questions of identity and difference – in ways that histories of nation-states were less able to do. Krishan Kumar explains that ‘empires, for all their faults, show us another way, a way of managing diversity and differences that are now the inescapable fate of practically all so-called nation-states.’ ‘That by itself,’ he argues, ‘seems sufficient grounds for continuing to study them, and to reflect on what they might be able to teach us.’ The study of empires engages current beliefs in multiculturalism, diasporas, migrations and multinationalism and can be a prism through which the ‘pressing problems of the contemporary world and even the birth pangs of a new world order’ can be addressed. (Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 3, 475).
The BBIH has many works that contribute to this renewed sense that imperialism is important. There are 46,856 entries on empire and the commonwealth, about 16,000 or so which deal with the period when British North America was part of a British Empire. Works on the West Indies, on British India, and on Africa are less abundant but are increasing in numbers. Reading the most recent entries confirms that there has indeed been an ‘imperial turn’ in British historiography with empire considered vital to understanding the British past as much as its present, and perhaps its future. The study of imperialism and its legacies in the period before 1783 is in rude good health as I give up being section editor for this period in 2022, in considerable contrast to where it was when I started as section editor in 2003.
Now the ECHOES project has formerly ended, Professor John Oldfield reflects on the aims and objectives of the project, its relevance, and its impact.
What was the inspiration for this project and what did you set out to achieve?
The inspiration for this project was what the team regarded as the often problematic ‘silencing’ of Europe’s colonial history and heritage – problematic not only for Europe’s global status and reputation but also for those marginalized by these historical processes, many of them migrants from Europe’s former colonies. By confronting this entangled history, we set out to ‘Europeanize’ difficult colonial heritage. While there are significant barriers to the creation of a shared European narrative of our colonial past, some of them political or related to different interpretations of the colonial past across member states, we believe that we need to arrive at a more equitable representation of colonial legacies across Europe.
What are the challenges/dilemmas that colonialism presents to official narratives of European heritage?
Colonialism was not an event or moment in time but a process involving the often-brutal subjugation of others – a process that created an unbridgeable gulf between colonizer and colonized. Transatlantic slavery, the treatment of indigenous peoples, the imposition of Eurocentric legal and constitutional norms on colonial subjects; all of these are examples of historical processes that were inseparable from ideas of Eurocentric power and racial (and cultural) superiority. Many of these ideas and attitudes live on – as echoes of the colonial past. The recent COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, exposed deep economic inequalities. It has also exposed worrying Eurocentric tendencies, not least when it comes to the treatment of the pandemic – as witnessed by the suggestion by two French doctors that Africa should be used as a testing ground for the efficacy of vaccines. While this was an isolated incident, research and thinking in this area have led to accusations that the Global South has been all but absent in scientific and/or medical collaborations related to COVID.
Or consider the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which triggered massive protests across the Global South and beyond, focused on anti-racist and social justice messages, most of them embracing the rhetoric and slogans of #BlackLivesMatter. Here again, these protests – pulling down statues associated with European colonialism (Edward Colston in Bristol; King Leopold II in Belgium; Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Oxford), calls for the repatriation of colonial objects, renaming roads and buildings, etc. – were fueled not only by the ongoing presence of monuments of a colonial nature in public spaces across Europe but also by the marginalization and structural racism encountered by non-white communities living in Europe’s cities, many of them long-term victims of prejudice and discrimination.
How did you go about achieving your objectives – and what did the project consist of in practice? Any approaches that made this project unique?
Conceptually, our starting point was the notion of colonial heritage – what does it mean? What does it stand for? We understand heritage not as a ‘thing’ – a specific set of (white) achievements — but rather as a discourse: a way of thinking and writing about objects and phenomena that constitutes them as ‘heritage’ through formal and informal acts of recognition. So, in effect, we are talking about a much more expansive and inclusive notion of heritage, both in terms of objects and actors.
To this end, we looked in-depth at a number of different contemporary heritage discourses that aspire to restore, renew, rediscover and acknowledge the multiplicity of lives, experiences, culture and knowledge of formerly colonized peoples. Museums, for instance – particularly those like Amsterdam Museum and the Museum of Warsaw, two of our case studies – have been at the forefront of efforts to decolonize their collections, looking afresh at how they interpret familiar objects and/or imagining new ways of telling familiar stories. In the same way, many contemporary artists – particularly those from non-white backgrounds – have interrogated the colonial past in new and exciting ways, offering insights that act as a form of reconciliation and healing.
Citizens groups, too, have challenged official narratives of European heritage, whether through walking tours, performances or cultural events designed to acknowledge different/difficult ‘pasts’. Again, we mapped a lot of this activity in detail, from Bristol to Marseille, from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, from Cape Town to Amsterdam. Indeed, one of our objectives was to give voice to these groups, while at the same time documenting the ways in which their varied interventions have helped to advance our understanding of contemporary heritage discourses. In this sense, our project was multi-vocal, deeply attuned to different types of knowledge, as well as different epistemologies.
What are the key lessons or approaches to emerge from this work?
While recognizing the importance of top-down initiatives, the ECHOES project emphasized the importance of grassroots movements and independent cultural actors – whether artists, curators or heritage practitioners. Such ‘mid-space actors’, we believe, bring with them a wealth of experience and knowledge that needs to be incorporated into heritage practices and treated on equal terms with other forms of knowledge. Our work also stresses the importance of intercultural ‘contact zones’, spaces where actors from different cultural backgrounds and with different resources and power engage with each other on equal terms. This necessarily involves ‘Europe’ opening up to and acknowledging the different modes of transculturation practices by marginalized groups and granting them far more agency. It also involves ‘active listening’, an approach to listening that is based on a genuine interest in the other’s perspective. Listening, we believe, is the primary characteristic of two-way communication. Who does the talking and who does the listening is key to this approach, as strengths and weaknesses are part of the positionalities of ALL diplomatic relations; not just in Global-North and Global South relations but in relations within the Global North and Global South. This applies as much to broader debates about cultural co-operation, as it does to the restitution of colonial objects, or the decolonization of museums and galleries.
In what fields might these results have an impact? Why, in the current context of globalization and regional tensions is this work so important?
We see our work having a major impact in a number of related fields, among them history and heritage, political science, museology and curatorship. We also set out to inform current debates around International Cultural Relations, which since 2016 has been the EU’s adopted policy framework, emphasizing (as of 2019) the importance of ‘co-operation with local stakeholders and civil society at all levels’. Our work supports this emphasis, hence the importance we attach to ‘contact zones’ and ‘active listening’ (see above). Indeed, we advocate a ‘new diplomacy’, a kind of reinvigoration of International Cultural Relations that renders the policy/programme fit for purpose. Listening and the ability to foster genuine intercultural dialogue are skills that policymakers and EU professionals at all levels need to exercise routinely. This includes an openness towards integrating a wider range of actors into diplomatic activities and involving them in policy processes.
This work is important for the reasons outlined above. The so-called migrant crisis, COVID and #BlackLivesMatter have all energized debates — across and within Europe — about culture, heritage and Europe’s reckoning with its colonial past. We have also seen how polarized these debates have become; indeed, the use of the word ‘heritage’ itself often gives rise to suggestions that dominant white European cultures are under attack from non-white protesters and radicals. So far from being threatening, we believe that these debates provide an opportunity for Europe to rethink its relations to its colonial past. ECHOES, in sum, proposes that the history of colonialism needs to find its place in our contemporary narratives of Europe. Crucially, it needs to do so in ways which makes this difficult history a productive element in Europe’s and the EU’s engagement with the wider world, rather than an uncomfortable silence haunting its past, present and future.
What is the long-term legacy of the project?
We hope that the ECHOES project will not only shape academic and cultural debates surrounding Europe’s engagement with its colonial past but also have a decisive influence on shaping policy and practice, both within EU institutional activities and programmes. In addition, we hope that Europe and the EU will go further in advocating the acceptance of a multicultural Europe as a precondition for thinking in terms of intercultural relations.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”
In 2018, after some thought and discussion with my husband, I decided that I wanted to document the stories of Black Canadians and the over 400 years of history that we as Black people have in Canada. I concluded that a written blog or a video blog would be ideal! I liked the idea of a video blog because I could visit different historical sites across my home province of Ontario, and then eventually venture to the other provinces and territories in Canada, to show everyone the importance of that site to Black Canadians. However, after some more thought about the logistics of this and how it would work, especially with a then two-year old, maybe a video blog wouldn’t be the best way for now to share these stories. I did need a name for this project, even though I didn’t know what the project would look like and with help from family, friends and members of my community, the name “BlacktoCanada ” was chosen as one of four options for my new project!
Though I had a name intact and a logo ready to go, other projects, having my second son and the busyness of life took over, and it wasn’t until three years later that I finally launched the idea I had envisioned in 2018: to document and showcase the rich and amazing stories of Black Canadians. However, despite originally wanting to write a blog and more specifically create a video blog, I decided on a podcast – a growing and popular trend and a way for people to listen while on the go!
Being a historian of Caribbean History, Black History in Canada and the history of Black enslavement (thanks to the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull!), it has always been important to me to share all the amazing stories I learned about with others, specifically the next generation. Growing up in the Canadian school system, I didn’t always learn about the rich history of Black people in Canada. I want this podcast to be a resource and a tool that students, teachers and anyone can use to learn about the history, communities and the individuals who helped build Canada into what it is today. Particularly, after all that occurred in 2020 concerning the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the murders of countless Black people, it is evident that now more than ever, the attention is on Black people, their history and how that history connects to anti-Black ideas, and the injustices Black people face across the world. We are in an era of racial and social awakening globally, and I believe we must act and not be stagnant. This is another reason why I started and launched BlacktoCanada. I want to be able to contribute what I know about Black History in Canada and share it with as many people who will listen!
Also, what I really appreciate about my podcast is that it is not specifically a tool to be used or listened to only during a specific time, such as Black History Month. Often during Black History Month, the focus is on the achievements, accomplishments and the legacy that people of African descent have left behind and continue to make. Black History Month is of course a time of memorialization with a goal to educate, recall and celebrate the Black experience, achievements and endurance of people of African descent, from their forceful journey from the shores of Africa to their lives in the Americas and Europe. Sadly, when the month is over, many people put the activities, memories and knowledge of Black History Month “away” until the following year. However, the beauty of a podcast like BlacktoCanada, means that the accomplishments, achievements, legacies and stories of Black people in Canada remains relevant and real in the memory of those who choose to listen to the podcast.
On January 11th, 2021, the first episode, “Africville”, of the BlacktoCanada podcast was launched and the last episode, “Black History in Canada: 1960 to Present”, of season one wrapped up on April 19th, 2021. I’m so happy and proud of how far the podcast has come in a few short months!! It has been humbling and inspiring to talk with different guests about their connections to Black history in Canada. Season Two of the podcast will launch in September and there will be more awesome guests who will share their knowledge and stories concerning Black Canadian History. As mentioned, the BlacktoCanada podcast provides listeners with the rich, interesting and often untold 400-year history and stories of Black Canadians. Listeners can learn about the challenges, barriers, hardships, joys and resilience of Black Canadians and how they helped to build Canada. The BlacktoCanada podcast also has a mandate to celebrate the achievements of Canada’s Black communities!
BlacktoCanada is available on a number of podcast platforms including:
In today’s blog Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of the last of his publications in 2020.
The Atlantic in World History (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)
Atlantic history as a way of envisioning the making of the early modern world is a historiography that arose in the 1970s, became more fully developed in the 1990s and 2000s, and has by 2020 become an established field of historical inquiry. My synthesis of Atlantic history, based on being a practitioner of such history for nearly thirty years, provides a quick introduction for students and the general reader to this interesting field. It is a field that at bottom is an exploration of movement across the ocean and between the four continents of Africa, the Americas, and Europe – that movement being the movement of people, things and ideas. It starts with European involvement in Africa in the mid-fifteenth century and Columbus’ epoch-making voyages to the Caribbean from 1492. It ends in the mid-nineteenth century, with the abolition of slavery in most New World societies. The book explores how the peoples and the environments of Atlantic places were linked together, in ways that were both good and bad, but always historically interesting. I show how the Atlantic has been more than just an ocean – it has been an important site of circulation and transmission, allowing exchanges and interchanges between various peoples in ways that have profoundly shaped the development of the world beyond, as well as within, the Atlantic.
As the Atlantic world was about more than slavery, so slavery forms only part of a book in which gender, religion and trades are extensively discussed. Nevertheless, slavery is a vital part of the Atlantic world and indispensable to its workings. I explore its Iberian origins, its African dimensions and its apogee in the eighteenth-century Caribbean and North America before examining how the institution most central to Atlantic history, outside empire and the monarchy, was abolished in a very quick time. From the late eighteenth century abolition was built on two foundations: the establishment of an abolition movement by a determined and small number of evangelical Britons led by William Wilberforce, and the resistance of the enslaved in the Americas. The most important slave resistance to planter power was in Haiti between 1791 and 1804, an event that has a prominent role in my chapter on the age of revolutions.
I end my account by recalling the quintessential American song `Oh! Susanna’ written by Stephen Foster in 1847. It is a very African and Atlantic song as well as an American song – a `negro melody,’ as Foster called it. It is a comic, indeed tragicomic, retelling of the story of an enslaved person left behind in the many breakups that characterized African American slavery in the nineteenth century. It is a song written by a person of European heritage using the voice of a descendant of Africans wanting to leave a place which had once been Native American land. Thus, it unites through culture the ways in which peoples of the Atlantic were brought, often unwillingly, together. These many connections point to the continuing relevance of Atlantic history today.
‘Atlantic Slave-Systems and Violence,’ in Erica Charters, Marie Houllemare and Peter H. Wilson, eds, Violence in the Early Modern Period (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020)
In this chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade, I start by noting how we have to be careful when talking about violence and slavery. There are good reasons not to luxuriate in the details of violence and thus re-inscribe the problems of violence as experienced by enslaved people. Brutal language hardens rather than softens the reader to the violence of slavery, especially when acts of brutality are catalogued at repeated length, making it hard to engage fully with a more important subject – what did violence mean and how did violence operate to strengthen or weaken the institution of enslavement. I argue here that brutality, violence and death were not mere by-products of the extremely lucrative early modern plantation system but were the sine qua non of the plantation world.
In this article, I ask the following questions. First, was violence central or incidental to the ideology of enslavement and to the workings of the Atlantic slave trade, in particular? I argue it was central. I also ask about the effectiveness of violence in maintaining planter power. I argue again that violence produced generally efficacious results for slave owners in keeping control over enslaved people. It was less effective in convincing rulers in Europe that planters’ authority over their slaves was legitimate.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that acts of violent resistance by enslaved people were ineffective and pointless, even though such acts seldom met with any success. When enslaved people were violent, it demonstrated three things. First, it showed fellow enslaved people that some of their compatriots were prepared to reject their place in the system. Second, it showed to opponents of slavery that slave masters’ propaganda about slaves being happy with their place in society was just that – slavery was not a benevolent institution but one upheld by coercion and through punishment. Finally, violence by slaves was often interpreted by abolitionists through a Christian lens, in which the iconography of Christ’s martyrdom was equated with suffering slaves.
Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent publications.
Britain in the Wider World, 1603-1800 (London: Routledge, 2020)
2020, it now seems clear, is a decisive year in British history, however it ends. It is a year that has seen the disaster of a major pandemic, will probably see Britain’s withdrawal from Europe and possibly even herald the breakdown of the United Kingdom itself. Just potentially, 2020 will see the final end of a process that began as long ago as 1603, when England/Wales and Scotland were joined together through a common monarch, coming together properly in 1707 and being enlarged by the addition of the kingdom/colony of Ireland into a new polity in 1801 called the United Kingdom. 1603 preceded by a couple of years the founding of the East India Company, giving England and then Britain a toehold in India, which became much bigger after Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War in 1763. It was followed by the tentative start of a British Empire in the Americas, begun in a chaotic and disastrous fashion in England’s first settlement in North America, in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By 1800, that empire, despite the political loss of the 13 colonies and the creation of the USA, was extremely large and world-spanning. My book on how England and then Britain went through this dramatic transformation between 1603 and 1800, one that might be on the verge of finally collapsing, is a British history as written by an historian of the Atlantic world. It explores how the British nation was made in this period and how England/Wales moved from being the pariah of Europe – insular nations devoted to Protestantism and the killing of monarchs – to near global dominance, with a powerful empire and an even more flourishing economy. Britain by 1800 had become a mighty world power and through the Industrial Revolution the richest country in the world, overturning in a few decades China’s millennium-long presence at the top of wealthy nations. I pay particular attention in my book to three things: imperialism, economic growth and changes in gender relations.
Within these three topics, slavery is important, though it is only one of many themes that I cover in this survey of a lengthy period in British history. I deal with slavery here less than I do in other works but I take for consideration Barbara Solow’s famous statement that `it was slavery that made the empty lands of the western hemisphere valuable … [and] what moved in the Atlantic … was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies and the goods and services purchased with the earnings of slave products.’ America was valuable to Britain because it had plantations and it had plantations due to the work of enslaved Africans. Britain became the most important slavery nation in the eighteenth century. That this was the case makes us pause when thinking about imperialism and the development of settler societies in North America and Australasia. Britain’s movement into the wider world was immensely successful for Britain itself, not least for its poorest inhabitants, who got goods that they wanted from the colonies and could improve their standard of living by moving out of Britain. It came, however, at great cost, including the immiseration of thousands of enslaved people, living miserable lives as coerced workers. The gap between British prosperity and the misery Britain caused its non-white imperial subjects was something that increasingly bothered thinking Britons, not least of whom was a young Hull-born politician and evangelical, William Wilberforce. Born in the triumphal year of 1759, when Britain acquired Canada, Senegal and Bengal, he lived his life in a time when Britain and its empire were important in the world in ways never seen before.
‘Terror, Horror and the British Atlantic Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ in Robert Anthony, Stuart Carroll and Caroline Dodds Pennock, eds, The Cambridge World History of Violence vol. III 1500-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 17-35
The Cambridge World History of Violence is a path-breaking four volume series, edited by Australian scholars Joy Damousi and Philip Dwyer, which argues that violence was a key driver of history from ancient to modern times. My chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade is in the early modern volume, running from 1500 to 1850. It contributes to an intensive, profoundly meaningful and often disturbing conversation about how violence speaks to critical issues such as the problem of civility in society, the nature of political sovereignty and the state, the legitimacy of conquest and subjugation, the possibilities of popular resistance, and the manifestations of ethnic and racial unrest. I start with J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 masterpiece, Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying and connect to a notorious incident in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from 1781. That incident was the murder of 122 African captives on the Zong, becalmed off south-west Jamaica, in order to make an insurance claim. I use this and other cases of violence in the Atlantic slave trade to argue that one of the effects of that slave trade was the evocation in slaves of the emotion of terror – the apprehension of worse things happening if one did not obey commands. To show how this worked, I analyze James Field Stanfield’s The Guinea Voyage to explore the workings of terror and horror (a related but different emotion to terror) through violence as it operated in the Atlantic slave trade. I conclude with a consideration of how the terror that was involved in the British Atlantic slave trade inspired abolitionists, not least William Wilberforce, though I concentrate in this chapter on Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, to protest against the slave ship as a place of radical disorder, an essentially lawless place presided over by cruel tyrants. Without the revulsion that was aroused in metropolitan Europeans and Americans about the terror that resulted from the multiple acts of violence that characterized the Atlantic slave trade, abolitionism and humanitarianism would have taken a different shape – and possible been less immediately successful.