Slavery and Emancipation in the British World

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Oscar Webber


This course is available on the MSc in Empires, Colonialism and Globalisation, MSc in History of International Relations, MSc in International Affairs (LSE and Peking University), MSc in International and World History (LSE & Columbia) and MSc in Theory and History of International Relations. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

This course explores the history of slavery and freedom in Britain and the British world from 1600 to 1900. In the liberal tradition, slavery and freedom are framed as theoretical and rhetorical opposites. In practice, the lines between slavery and freedom were blurry and ambiguous. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sugar grown and processed in the British colonies of the Caribbean by enslaved African workers was a cornerstone of the imperial economy. Britain’s North American colonies were caught in the economic and political orbit of the sugar islands. At the end of the eighteenth century, the American, French and Haitian Revolutions transformed, but did not end, the political economy of slavery in the British world. In 1807, Britain abolished its slave trade. In 1834, slavery was abolished in the British empire. Abolition did not, however, end Britain’s close association with slavery. Cotton produced by enslaved people in the American South provided Britain with crucial raw material during the industrial revolution. British investments kept the empire imbricated in the global trade in enslaved people and the commodities their labour produced. And yet, even as the British empire became entrenched in the nineteenth-century world of slavery, reformers placed ever greater faith in liberal ideas of freedom, bureaucratic transparency, free labour, and free markets. This course offers an opportunity to examine the place of slavery and emancipation in the history of the British world, and the ambiguities and paradoxes of a liberal empire built on the backs of enslaved people.


20 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT.

10 x two-hour seminars in the MT and the LT. There will be a reading week in the MT and the LT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT.

2500 word formative essay in the Michaelmas term.

Indicative reading

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Knopf, 2014.

Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture/University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Ferrer, Ada. Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba And Haiti In The Age Of Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Hall, Catherine. Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2013.

Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Penningroth, Dylan C. The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. 2nd edition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995 Williams, Eric. Capitalism & Slavery. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.


Essay (50%, 5000 words) in the LT.
Essay (50%, 5000 words) in the ST.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2018/19: 9

Average class size 2018/19: 9

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills