In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the British Empire began dismantling the slave system that had helped to build it. Parliament banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, and in 1833 the government outlawed slavery itself, accomplishing through legislative action what the United States would later achieve in part by the horrors of civil war.
Abolition has long been a cause célèbre in the British imagination, with men like William Wilberforce receiving credit for moving the empire to right a moral wrong. Yet as our guest today argues, there were other, equally powerful motivations beyond morality that fueled British efforts to abolish slavery.
On today’s show, Dr. Padraic Scanlan joins Jim Ambuske to discuss his new book, Slave Empire: How Slavery Made Modern Britain. Scanlan is an Assistant Professor of History at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto. And as you’ll hear, there was as much money to be made in the abolition of slavery as there was in slavery itself.
Interview published: June 24, 2022
Transcript created: July 10, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guest: Dr. Padraic Scanlan, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
Jim Ambuske: Hey everyone. I'm Jim Ambuske and this is Conversations at the Washington Library. In the early decades of the 19th century, the British empire began dismantling the slave system that had helped to build it. Parliament banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and in 1833 the government outlawed slavery itself, accomplishing through legislative action what the United States would later achieve in part by the horrors of Civil War.
Abolition has long been a cause célèbre in the British imagination with men like William Wilberforce receiving credit for moving the empire to right a moral wrong. Yet as our guest today argues there were other equally powerful motivations beyond morality that fueled British efforts to abolish slavery.
On today's show Dr. Padraic Scalan joins me to discuss his new book Slave Empire: How Slavery Made Modern Britian. Scanlan is an assistant professor of history at the Center for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto. And as you'll hear, there was as much money to be made in the abolition of slavery as there was in slavery itself.
This is our final episode for this season, we're off for the summer to record more great interviews and plan our next podcast adventures. Thanks for welcoming us into your ears these past few months, and be sure to catch up on any episodes you might have missed while we're away. And with that, let's unpack the slave empire with Dr. Padraic Scanlan.
Padraic, thank you very much for coming back on this show because we had recorded this way back in October of 2021, and let's just say that there was a computer glitch and the files do not exist anymore. So thanks for coming back and doing this again.
Padraic Scanlan: Yeah, no problem. Thank you for having me.
Jim Ambuske: Well, I'm excited to get another crack at you because I left many questions on the table when we first talked about your important book Slave Empire.
And I want to start there. Slave Empire is the book's title, it's the organizing framework for this history. Tell us a little bit about that title and the shape of the book.
Padraic Scanlan: The book is really roughly divided into two parts that track through the 18th century and the 19th century, looking at the rise of the British Atlantic Empire in the 18th century, a rise that I argue was if not entirely driven by the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and a plantation slavery in the Caribbean at, at the very least like substantially abbetted by it.
Then in the 19th century, the sort of era of anti-slavery after the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. And then after the abolition of colonial slavery in 1833, I followed the ways that all of the structures and ideas and ways of organizing labor and ways of thinking about people of African descent that were made in the era of slavery carried through into an era of anti-slavery.
So I argue that although Britain abolished slavery, you know, in the first three decades of the 19th century, the British Empire was substantially shaped by the money that slavery made and by the ideas and practices that came along with plantation slavery.
Jim Ambuske: One of the things that your book does is it is in conversation with a vast literature about enslavement, the slave trade of capitalism, and particularly, uh, a gentleman named Eric Williams who wrote a really monumental book a half century ago or more called Capitalism and Slavery.
Can you help us understand how your book is in dialogue with these larger themes?
Padraic Scanlan: Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams was first published in the 1940s. In North America, it’s remained in print as far as I know for that entire time and it's only very recently that it's been republished in the United Kingdom in a kind of Penguin Classics Edition.
And it's actually been a, a surprise bestseller. Eric Williams argues in, in Capitalism and Slavery, something very similar to what I have argued. And, and, and in fact to what many people have argued, which is that in the 18th century, slavery was one of the pillars of the British economy in the Atlantic World.
So that's sort of uncontentious, and what's significant about Williams's book is the kind of acerbic artful way that he stitches together, the history of Britain and the history of the Caribbean and the way that he connects the history of both the 13 colonies and then the United States to both Caribbean and British history, to kind of follow the progress of slavery and empire in all three places. The really contentious part of Capitalism and Slavery is his argument for why anti-slavery came about.
Until Williams' publication planted the flag for a different perspective on the history of anti-slavery the main arguments for the origins of British anti-slavery had been religious or quasi-religious, or economic and quasi-religious. That Britain had experienced a kind of atoning change of heart and turned against slavery.
Or that Britain made money from slavery and then abjured all that wealth and turned against it. And William said that that wasn't the case, right? His, his argument is that the money that slavery made in the 18th century financed the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain. And that as a new group of financiers, who made their money from factories, not from plantations came to political power in Britain they no longer had any use for the plantations of the Caribbean, for two reasons.
First of all, because the plantations of the Caribbean in the 18th century prospered under a series of protectionist laws called the Navigation Acts, which protected British sugar or British colonial sugar, and gave it a kind of captive market in Britain.
And by the turn of the 19th century, there were other often, colonies worked by enslaved laborers that were producing sugar that was of higher quality and of lower price and free trade in sugar and in other products was much more congenial to the new class of factory owners than protectionism, because protectionism was one of the pillars of the plantation economy in the Caribbean.
Anti-slavery became a means of undermining protectionism and promoting free trade. Williams emphasizes that the abolition of slavery didn't abolish exploitation. It changed the primary mode of exploitation, right? It became easier, more convenient, cheaper to pay industrial workers and plantation workers very low wages than to enforce a system of mass enslavement with violence.
And so for Williams anti-slavery is not anything miraculous, something that was made possible by the rise of industrial capital. And was brought into legislative being by the rise of free trade and free labor ideology. That argument is something that I, I think is at, at least in the very broad strokes correct.
And one of the things I try to do in Slave Empire is to, first of all, push that argument forward. You know, Williams is, is long deceased and was writing with a much more limited set of sources than contemporary scholars have access to and to bring the counterpoint of enslaved labor, more into conversation with the rise of free trade and free labor ideology, something else that Williams didn't really do in Capitalism and Slavery.
Comparing the mode of organizing labor and land that enslaved people seem to have wanted. And sort of putting that encounter point with the mode of organizing production that anti-slavery leaders wanted.
Jim Ambuske: You kind of took us there to the end of Williams' thesis about why anti-slavery emerges and what happens after. Let's start at the beginning, though, of your book.
And you mentioned significance of the sugar colonies. Tell us why those colonies were so instrumental in the creation of this slave empire that you outline in your book.
Padraic Scanlan: There are a lot of answers, but I think the two broad parts of the answer are that sugar makes money and that sugar production requires a lot of labor and a lot of energy. Enslaved laborers produced all kinds of crops, uh, mined, all kinds of materials throughout the Atlantic world, right?
Enslaved labor was a very common mode of organizing production in all kinds of industries. But in terms of sugar production, producing sugar requires an enormous amount of concentrated labor in a relatively short amount of time. So sugar canes will only grow in the tropics and subtropics, occasionally.
They have a lot of pests. It's a grass that's native to Southeast Asia that sort of spread around the world as its economic value became obvious to European empires. Sugar was a, a prestige crop in the Middle Ages. It became a staple by the 18th and 19th centuries. And it has a lot of pests, so it requires constant weeding and manuring and trimming to prosper, uh, particularly in the Caribbean and in crop time, which is, was the, the period in the life cycle of the plantation where enslaved laborers would cut the crops and bring them in to be processed.
It required an enormous amount of labor and an enormous amount of fuel. And it was more or less produced the same way in, in 1600, as it was in 1834. Sugar canes were cut, they needed to be brought really quickly to sugar mills because the sap in the canes begins to ferment and turn sour within 24 hours. Production facilities were on top of hills to use the force of gravity to refine the sugar.
So they were brought up hills and then enslaved laborers would have to feed the sugar canes manually into ox driven, usually ox driven grinders. That was a very dangerous part of the work. And then watch as the, the juice of the cane was clarified in a series of copper boilers and then finally allowed to dry.
And that period of time took a huge amount of labor that needed to be highly organized and often required a lot of laborers. You know, at a time when English factories had at most 300 or 400 workers, many sugar plantations in the Caribbean had 400 or 500 enslaved laborers. And so slavery was useful to sugar planters because it answered the necessity in sugar production for a lot of labor that could be controlled in a limited amount of time.
Over the 18th century sugar planters developed all kinds of racially driven justifications for why African enslaved laborers were necessary for sugar production or particularly suited to sugar production, but the need for labor preceded the justifications for using African enslaved labor, right?
That's, that's actually something Williams emphasizes in Capitalism and Slavery, as well. That racism didn't make slavery, slavery made racism. The other part of the plantation economy and its centrality to the rise of the British Empire in the 18th century is that it made so much money. Sugar was by the end of the 18th century, sort of the most valuable crop in the world.
More valuable than coffee, also grown by enslaved laborers, more valuable, I think by the end of the 18th century than wheat. The demand for sugar was inexhaustible and elastic and so as long as there was sugar being produced, there was sugar that could be sold. And because of the Navigation Ccts because of the protection that sugar planters in, in the British Empire enjoyed many sugar planters, made an enormous amount of money out of slavery and plantation labor and the sugar trade.
And it's sort of ancillary trade, like in rum, for example, distilled from molasses that those fortunes built country houses in Britain. They built political dynasties in Britain and they cemented the connection between the Caribbean colonies and the British Empire.
Jim Ambuske: I wanna come back to that wealth transfer here in just a moment. But first I wanted to think about a comparison between what enslaved people would've experienced in terms of their daily lives, in a place like say Jamaica versus a place like Virginia. Here in Virginia, enslaved people were working tobacco fields. There was a different kind of labor system organized around that, but also a different kind of social life.
What kind of experiences of everyday life or community would've enslaved people had in the Caribbean?
Padraic Scanlan: I should preface this by saying that sugar plantation labor, wasn't the only kind of work that enslave laborers did in the Caribbean, virtually every job, skilled and unskilled with the exception of kind of bookkeeping and policing jobs and colonial administration would probably, at some point have had an enslave laborer doing it.
Right? So there were enslaved coopers, there were enslaved blacksmiths, there were enslaved farriers. But the point of all of those ancillary occupations was to, to drive the sugar industry. So in Slave Empire, I focus in a chapter that sort of explores the conditions of plantation life, I, I focus on sugar plantations. The first significant difference, I think, between plantation labor in the Caribbean and plantation labor on say a Virginia tobacco plantation is the danger of the work.
So the conditions of labor for enslaved people in Virginia were obviously parless and awful. Uh, but the conditions of enslaved labor in a sugar field presented probably far more opportunities for really grievous bodily harm, plantation laborers carried machetes. They often cut themselves. The work was kind of unremitting from sunup to sundown, which in the, in the tropics is a 12 hour day, 365 days a year from sun to sun from dark to dark, rather.
Crop time was especially dangerous. Physically workers got their arms stuck in the grinders. They fell into the boilers, they were burned. Uh, there were a lot of workplace deaths in sugar plantations. It was dangerous work and the average length of time that somebody working at what was called the gang, uh, which are the sort of the main mass of enslaved laborers on a plantation whose job it was to maintain the canes during the growing season and cut them down during the crop season.
Their lives were short and slaveholders relied on the transatlantic slave trade to add to the population of the Caribbean. Enslaved people in the Caribbean on plantations often lived in villages that they built themselves and generally had access to plots of land called provision grounds that they cultivated themselves.
And often produced a surplus that they sold in the market. A lot of enslaved people in the Caribbean had money. Edward Long, an 18th century historian of Jamaica, uh, speculated that almost all of the copper money in the colony was held by enslaved people and almost all the silver specie as well. And enslaved laborers, for example, who were trades people would do work that they were required to do as a condition of their enslavement, but also take work on spec and either keep the money themselves or split it with the person who claimed to own.
You know, there was a kind of underground economy that enslaved people participated in. And there was a sort of social and cultural life on sugar plantations that enslaved people were able to preserve and protect under overwhelming conditions of oppression over centuries, you know, plantations were large.
The Caribbean had relatively few Europeans and relatively few military officials. It was impossible to enforce like a kind of constant unremitting, violent discipline on enslaved people on sugar plantations. So rebellions were met with overwhelming violence, but everyday life, there were at least outside of crop time sort of spaces where enslaved people could carve out social and cultural lives for themselves despite the horrific conditions of the plantation.
Jim Ambuske: One of the things you just said was actually something I wanted to ask you about the first time we recorded and then I failed to do so. So I'm glad to have the second crack, but you used the phrase “claim to own.” And in recent years we've been thinking a lot about the language we use to describe enslave people, to describe slave owners or enslavers.
Can you unpack that notion of “claim to own” and put it in conversation with this broader dialogue about, should we use the term slave? Should we use enslaved person? How should we think about this?
Padraic Scanlan: I'm ambivalent about the complete revision of the language that historians should use to write and think about slavery.
I in Slave Empire, use the term enslaved person or enslaved laborer or enslaved African laborer to signify that slavery is a condition that is not essential to a person, right. To say, you know, someone is enslaved in the same way that someone is a wage laborer. When you say like a, an employee, it implies a certain relationship to a labor regime that I think is the thing that you wanna emphasize when you write about slavery, that it's a way of organizing labor.
And though, so to say someone is an enslaved labor is to say something about their status, but not about them as a person. I am a little bit more skeptical of using the term enslavement to refer to slavery. In part, because I think slavery is a much more capacious term than just the relationship of enslavement, right?
Like a, a person is enslaved. But as I try to emphasize in the book, slavery was a huge economic and political system that included the idea that people could be owned as chattel property, but wasn't exclusive to that idea. And so I think to think about slavery as a social political and economic system is to think about more than just the relationship of enslavement that existed between one person who, who made a claim on the life of somebody else.
And I, I used the phrase “claim to own” to refer to the people who I call slave holders rather than enslavers, I'll separate that into two, uh, parts. I used the phrase slave holder, rather than enslaver to emphasize that the people who claimed to own enslave people participated in the system, but they weren't its point of origin.
They were not the people who created the relationship of enslavement. Right? Uh, the system did. The laws did. The British empire did. But somebody in the Caribbean who claimed as property 500 enslaved people, wasn't themselves constantly exercising that the whole system held in place their claims on those people.
I do sometimes worry that there is a tendency in our neoliberal age to individuate everything to say, like the reason why slavery persisted was because there was a cast of evil enslavers who just were unremitting. And to not ask, like, why did they participate in this system? What did they benefit from it?
They didn't just benefit from it from the exercise of cruelty to another person. Although many of them I'm sure enjoyed it and, and enjoyed the sense of power that they could exert over enslaved people. Think about it for the average, sort of the, the biggest wealthiest plantation owners and slaveholders in the British empire some of them never saw their plantations.
So they were still slaveholders. They employed the people who were brutally violent toward enslaved laborers, but they might never have seen them. They received reports from their agents and checked their mortgage balance, and that was their relationship to the plantation.
So I say that slaveholders claim to own people, because I think that that's the substantial element of the relationship that I want to emphasize that you can't actually own a human being, but you can make a claim that is supported by, uh, political, economic and military system that enforces that claim on the life of an enslaved person.
So I see the logic of it and I do it with my own students. You know, if a student says a slave, I correct them. If you're thinking about an abstract system, right, a slave is something in the abstract, but these are people and they are enslaved. And I, I think that that is meaningful to students. You know, I'm not sure saying enslaver rather than slaveholder is as meaningful to students.
And in fact might even give them the wrong sense of what the relationship of enslavement actually was that it was a kind of individual cruelty exerted by one person on another, rather than a massive economic system that shapes the world that we live in and absolutely shaped almost every aspect of imperial political economy in the British empire and American political economy in the 19th century.
Jim Ambuske: It's a really interesting way to look at it and I like the way that you framed it as a problem of individuation or atomization versus losing sight of the whole system, which the story you're telling in this book, the empire is built on that system and the participants who are taking part of it either willingly or unwillingly in the enslaved person’s case.
Following up on that system then, we earlier gesture towards the wealth that's being extracted from these sugar colonies and flowing back into Britain. How is that wealth transfer reshaping Britain itself?
Padraic Scanlan: There are a number of ways that the profits of slavery are reinvested in Britain. The first is literal in the sense that excises and taxation benefits the British state, but the profits of, of, sugar are more diffuse in the way that they become integrated in 18th century British society.
Unlike in the, in the American colonies, plantation owners and slaveholders in the Caribbean, even if they lived and their families lived in the Caribbean for generations, never really thought of the Caribbean as home. And that is one of many reasons why the Caribbean colonies, although they rattled their sabers at the beginning of the American Revolution really had no in my view, no serious intention of ever actually joining the Revolutionary War on the side of, of the colonies.
Because sugar planters thought of Britain as home and their ambition in the colonies was not to build a new life in the Caribbean, but to go to the Caribbean, make a lot of money, send their children home if they themselves couldn't go home, establish a kind of transatlantic family business, many sugar planters also owned distilleries.
Many sugar planters also own sugar refineries in Britain. In that sense, sugar plantations helped to build these networks of commerce across the Atlantic that were significant in building British imperial power in the 18th century. The British Atlantic world was really heterogeneous. There wasn't a single colonial model in the same way that France had a single colonial model.
Many of the colonies, as you know, the American Revolution is proof of were allowed to organize their politics in ways that could be wildly divergent, one colony from the other, you know, there are some colonies in the Caribbean that had legislatures, others that were Crown Colonies. Some that had hardly any white settlers, some that had many.
And so the network of commerce was one of the main ways that sugar money enriched Britain in the 18th century. The objective of a sugar planter returning back to Britain was to become a gentleman. And to be a gentleman in the 18th century meant to contribute to cultural life. It meant to act as a patron.
There's a portrait that I talk about a little bit in the book, uh, by Hogarth of the McKinnon children, which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland. It's two children in the foreground with a bloomey country house in the background. And it's an, an allegory by Hogarth of the brevity of childhood, right.
And the ephemerality of innocence and all these kinds of things. But it's also a portrait of two children who were sent back to Britain because their family made it big in Antigua and then became, in the course of the 18th and 19th century, a fairly prominent well-to-do Scottish family. And that really was the kind of wealth that the slave empire made for Britain in the 18th century.
You know, something that I tell my students sometimes is, you know, when you think about the American Civil War and the question of like, statues of Robert E. Lee versus statues of say Jane Austin, right? Whose family was connected distantly to slavery, like how do you weigh that cultural legacy? Because Jane Austin didn't become a traitor to Britain and then wage a bloody half decade war against the British state.
For Britain, slavery was something that happened over there. And that's actually something that British abolitionists latched onto in the late 18th century as well. The legacies of Britain and slavery are everywhere, but they require a little bit of unearthing to understand.
Jim Ambuske:Yeah, it's really interesting.
And this is an example that is, uh, associated with tobacco, but of course, if you walk in Glasgow in the city center you can walk on Virginia Street and at first you might think, well, that's pretty cool. You know, we were once a great big British Empire, but that's not why it's called Virginia Street. Because all the merchants sat there.
Padraic Scanlan: Yeah. I mean, or in Liverpool, Liverpool was obviously this is putting the car before the horse, but in some ways it was kind of the test city for Eric Williams's case about why anti-slavery became possible in the British empire, because in the mid 18th century as the first stirrings of anti-slavery sentiment emerged in Britain and I argue in the book emerged in Britain, partly from the same roots that were nourished by money from slavery.
Alavery built British culture in the 18th century in terms of patronage and support and, uh, money for architecture and art and literature. But it also at the same time nourished anti-slavery. So the, the same kind of imperial thinking that slavery made also was a germ of anti-slavery.
In Liverpool, like Liverpool merchants were among the leading slave traders in the world. And it turned out in the American Revolutionary War and then in the beginnings of the Revolutionary War with France, receipts from shipping in Liverpool, weren't really falling despite the fact that American and French blockades in those two wars were slowing down the slave trade.
It turned out that Liverpool merchants had plenty of other cargo and plenty of other contracts to fill. The kind of central tension in the history of slavery and anti-slavery in Britain is that the two things grew up together. They're both a product of imperial expansion and so consequently thinking about anti-slavery as something that was anti-imperial is misguided because anti-slavery came from imperialism in the same way that slavery nourished imperialism.
And moreover had absorbed and digested ideas about the place of people of African descent and people of sort of non-white non-British descent more broadly in the British empire in ways that I think are uncomfortable to think about when anti-slavery is in British public memory, treated as a kind of profound, almost miraculous act of moral heroism.
Jim Ambuske: I think you've established that anti-slavery is born out of the empire, born of an expansion.
Uh, it is also deeply tied to the emerging capitalist economy, but let's go a little bit further then. How does anti-slavery work in tandem with empire to achieve almost the kind of same objectives that the empire is seeking without the need to rely on an enslaved labor force?
Padraic Scanlan: When I say British anti-slavery understand that I very broadly mean white British anti-slavery.
There were, and, and something that I write about a bit in the book is sort of exploring the relationship of Black Britains in the 18th century to the anti-slavery cause, which was often very ambivalent. But I think very broadly across the British anti-slavery movement, one of the pillars was gradualism, which is that whenever slavery was abolished, it would need to be abolished slowly and gradually, and it would need to preserve the power of Britain, although a better kind of Britain.
Um, dispassionate colonial officials and magistrates and committed missionaries would be the new Britains in charge when the slave holding class were removed or ideally were converted to the anti-slavery cause and understood that what they ought to be was not brutal slaveholders, but stern patrician but still sort of generous and open-hearted employers and fathers to not an enslaved population, but a population of people who had just been emancipated from slavery.
But required substantial extended education in what it was to be a wage laborer, what it was to be civilized, which meant virtually anything in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, but very broadly meant someone who emulates the economic, political, and cultural middle class.
And the project of civilization is one that the anti-slavery societies in Britain embrace wholehearted. So the abolition of the slave trade, it Wilberforce gives many speeches in parliament where he says, I do not intend to emancipate people in the Caribbean. Eventually I do, but it will take a very long time and we won't do it the way that it happened in the Haitian revolution through a kind of explosion of violence.
And I think most anti-slavery leaders broadly supported the Haitian revolution, but the elements of it that they liked were the elements that people like Toussaint Louverture representatived of kind of a charismatic leader who imposed a rigid code of laws that regulated how emancipated people ought to live.
And one of the threads that flows through slave empire is British responses to something called the Code Rural, uh, Haitian, uh, labor code that established two different classes in society. A class of kuiti beto like cultivators and a class of sort of enlightened managers. You know, the kuiti beto were free. But they were still restricted.
And that vision of freedom was something that was central to the vision of what emancipation ought to look like from the leaders, at least of the British anti-slavery movement. And it was something that, that dovetailed very well with the project of civilizing, the world that the Victorian empire took on in the 19th century.
The 18th century was imperialism. That's what Britain was doing. It was conquering territories fighting for the Caribbean importing laborers who were brutalized and forced to work at the threat of violence or starvation, but were when they weren't at work more or less allowed to maintain their own cultural traditions.
Uh, but then in the 19th century, the project was colonialism. It was extracting money at the same time, but also transforming people into idealized Imperial subjects. The project of freeing Jamaican laborers from slavery very quickly became also a project of transforming Jamaican free laborers into models of Birmingham bourgeois, missionaries.
Jim Ambuske: How is modern Britain wrestling with this history of slavery and anti-slavery and modern times.
Padraic Scanlan: There are lots of ways that Britain is struggling with its relationship to slavery. And one of those ways is by emphasizing or trying to uncover the roots of land ownership and institution building in British institutions from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Right. To find, for example, in places like, like Oxford colleges or museums or historical collections. To try to emphasize where some of the money came from and make it public right. To make it visible places like All Souls College, right in, in Oxford has a famous library, the Codrington Library, uh, which is financed by the Codrington family among the most prominent landowners and slaveholders of Barbados, but also with substantial branches of the family in business and politics in Britain.
So that's just one example, right. Uh, but at the same time, I. Anti-slavery is still the, the thorn. There's a substantial culture war going on in Britain with people like Nigel Biggar, who was the Regis Professor of Theology at Oxford and is a staunch imperial apologist.
There are culture warriors, primarily on the right, right, who are saying yes, slavery was bad, but we abolished it. Right. Britain's abolitionist movement is still the way of. Exactly as in the 19th century of sanctifying empire of saying that, you know, yes, the empire built in the 18th century was built on slavery, but Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807 Britain abolished plantation slavery in 1833.
And it didn't do it at the point of a sword as in the Haitian revolution or indeed as in the American civil war. It did it voluntarily by Act of Parliament. And that was the claim that anti-slavery leaders made in the 1840s and 1850s. When they were thinking about what they would do next with their movement, they could look back on those two legislative triumphs and say, okay, the empire is a holy instrument now.
I mean, they might not have used exactly those terms or at the very least, it's an instrument for good. And the proof of its goodness is abolitionist. And so consequently that anything it does must be good because we are the abolitionist empire. And that's a much more complicated theme and a much more complicated legacy to unpack than just saying the Codrington library was financed by people who own slaves or claimed to own slaves rather to say something like.
The legacy of British workhouses and the new poor law and all the brutal conditions of life and work that are imposed on English and Scottish slum dwellers in the 19th century were connected to the legacy of anti-slavery because of anti-slavery he's wholehearted support for the disciplinary power of wage labor.
And so therefore ideas about disciplining workers that were made under slavery. That were then cleansed of their relationship to slavery, at least symbolically cleansed of their relationship to slavery by anti-slavery and then imposed on British workers in the 1830s. You know, that's a longer chain of causation and a longer chain of pan-Imperial and transnational connection.
You know, it's much easier to just say Britain abolish slavery. And so one of the things I try to do in the book, and I think one of the things that makes slave empire different than a lot of other. At least popular books about slavery and the legacies of slavery in the British empires to say anti-slavery is in many ways, much closer to the legacies of slavery than it's comfortable to think about.
And reckoning with slavery in the British empire means reckoning with the British empire period, and that opens a much more complicated debate, uh, with many different kinds of positions. I applaud institutions like the national trust in Britain and academics. Like Corrine Fowler, who's really taking a lot of flack from a lot of really deeply unpleasant people for daring to point out that the plants that are grown in English country gardens are connected to the empire.
Uh, you know what I mean, which you would think would be of interest to the supporters of the National Trust, but the idea that the empire tarnishes things that seem authentically British, I think feels dangerous to a fairly substantial portion of at least the kinds of people in Britain who support those institutions,
Jim Ambuske: More Conversations after the break.
Uh, Patrick, last time we talked, you were reading a book and I don't remember what it was so surely you're reading a different book now. And so what book are you reading right now?
Padraic Scanlan: I am reading The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope, which I, I really like, I'm trying to read more 19th century literature and Trollope is somebody who I'd never read before.
So the way we live now is a really complicated family drama slash really vicious satire of the British upper middle classes that centers on, uh, a mysterious, maybe French financer. Who is known as a swindler, but who nonetheless pulls into his orbit, a whole cast of characters who all want his money, uh, which may or may not exist.
So it's, it's pretty good. And it's, it's extremely quotable. So I've got a little file of just lines from it.
Jim Ambuske: Who is the author you most admire?
Padraic Scanlan: I think I have a different answer here in terms of fiction. I always come back to Hilary Mantle and the Wolf Hall books. Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light, her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.
And I find myself thinking about Thomas Cromwell all the time, and I must have read Wolf hall like four or five times and bring up the bodies at least three times. I think that says something about her abilities as a novelist.
Jim Ambuske: What is the most exciting document you've ever found in the course of your research?
Padraic Scanlan: I'm working on a new book now about the Irish potato famine, and I've been finding some really. Good stuff, stuff that really kind of is, is eye opening in just imprinted material. But I think it's still to this day, something that I was working on with my dissertation. Which was on the abolition of the slave trade in Sierra Leone, uh, Britain's anti-slavery colony on the west African post. And one of the things that I argued in the dissertation and in the book that came out of it, Freedoms Debtors was that anti-slavery made money in Sierra Leone and that it was driven by morality, but it was also a profitable for at least for a small cadre of anti-slavery businessmen.
Anti-slavery was profitable as a colonial enterprise, uh, in the national archives. And then in the Sierra Leone national archives in Freetown, I found two documents that kind of link into each other. One, which is a ledger of slave ships that were captured as prizes by the Royal Navy and then sold and the proceeds distributed to Royal Navy captains.
And then I argue in the book that, that money sort of flowed through Freetown and made quite a few merchants in Freetown, substantial amount of money. And then it's counterpart in Sierra Leone, a ledger of the names of formerly enslaved people. Released from slave ships by the exact same ships that had collected those bounties and what happened to them in the colony.
And each of those documents fitting together in the Sierra Leonian case, right? Some of them are they're incomplete, they're damaged. They're not held at least at the time they weren't held in amazing conditions for a really rare document, but. You know, those two documents in some ways like made an article and in some ways made the book because they were the first thing that I'd found that proved that I was right.
I think at least about that, some people were making money from this, that it wasn't just a, the money pit that it was cast as in Britain.
Jim Ambuske: That's a great find. How do you hope people remember your work then?
Padraic Scanlan: I, I hope the work is remembered at all, to be honest with you. And I, I hope that if people read it, they're inspired to think a little bit more critically and with a little bit more subtlety.
The legacies of humanitarianism in the British empire. And to think that what people think is right in a particular historical moment, and what people think is unequivocally moral in a particular historical moment is always shaped by the social and economic conditions that those people live in to condemn an abolitionist for using like racist language or for being racist.
As many of them were right, you know, is not really to do anything substantially to think critically about abolitionist. Or to think critically about humanitarianism or imperialism. Right? You have to take that, I think, as a given and then think about what it means.
Jim Ambuske: Well, Patrick, thanks again for humoring us.
We are delighted to have you back on the show for a second unexpected time, but it was a much a pleasure this time as it was the first
Padraic Scanlan: time. Thank you very much.
Jim Ambuske: Thanks for listening to Conversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington library. I'm Jim Ambuske your host and producer for this episode. We received additional support from Mount Vernon's media and communications department. Our music is “Witches Brew” by C,K, Martin. Head on over to our website for more great interviews in our other podcasts. You can find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.
Thanks for listening. And we'll see you next time.
Padraic X. Scanlan is Assistant Professor in the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources and the Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Slave Empire: How Slavery Made Modern Britain (Robinson, 2020) and Freedom's Debtors: British Antislavery in Sierra Leone in the Age of Revolution (Yale, 2017), which was awarded the 2018 James A. Rawley Prize by the American Historical Association and the 2018 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize by the Canadian Historical Association. His current book project is a history of agricultural labour, wage-earning, industrialisation and land use in the British empire told through the lens of the Irish Great Famine.