HY326: Slavery, Capital and Empire in the British World, 1700-1900
Dr Padraic X. Scanlan
Salim, the narrator of V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River
, explains that Europeans, and especially the British, “wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves.” Salim’s caustic observation summarizes the historical puzzle at the heart of this course. From the late sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century, Britain was one of Europe’s most prolific slave-traders. British colonies in the West Indies and the colonies that eventually became the United States of America were among the most brutal and fully realized slave societies in world history. And yet, Britain was also the first major European state voluntarily to abolish its slave trade, and the first to resolve to emancipate its slaves. Using primary and secondary sources, this course explores the interconnected histories of slavery, empire, and capitalism in the history of Britain and the British world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The course explores how the British slave trade functioned both as political economy and as a system of everyday production and oppression, how it intertwined with trade in other commodities and financial products like bonds and insurance, how Britons profited by it, and how enslaved and free people endured and resisted it. The course interrogates the limits of ‘British’ history in the context of a global system of trade, and investigates the complicated history of the end of slavery and continuities before and after abolition – what did it mean to be ‘free’ in the British empire?