Padraic X. ScanlanSep 11, 2023
How Slavery Built Modern Britain
The British empire, in sentimental myth, was more free, more just and more fair than its rivals. But this claim that the British empire was 'free' and that, for all its flaws, it promised liberty to all its subjects was never true. The British empire was built on slavery.
Padraic X. Scanlan's book Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain (Robinson, 2021) puts enslaved people at the centre the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In intimate, human detail, the chapters show how British imperial power and industrial capitalism were inextricable from plantation slavery. With vivid original research and careful synthesis of innovative historical scholarship, Slave Empire shows that British freedom and British slavery were made together.
In the nineteenth century, Britain abolished its slave trade, and then slavery in its colonial empire. Because Britain was the first European power to abolish slavery, many Victorian Britons believed theirs was a liberal empire, promoting universal freedom and civilisation. And yet, the shape of British liberty itself was shaped by the labour of enslaved African workers. There was no bright line between British imperial exploitation and the 'civilisation' that the empire promised to its subjects. Nineteenth-century liberals were blind to the ways more than two centuries of colonial slavery twisted the roots of 'British liberty'.
Freedom - free elections, free labour, free trade - were watchwords in the Victorian era, but the empire was still sustained by the labour of enslaved people, in the United States, Cuba and elsewhere. Modern Britain has inherited the legacies and contradictions of a liberal empire built on slavery. Modern capitalism and liberalism emphasise 'freedom' - for individuals and for markets - but are built on human bondage.
Katrina Anderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware.