Review: Padraic X. Scanlan, Slave Empire (2020)

Scholars, up until the 1930s, have seen the abolition of slavery as the major turning point in the  history of the British Empire, the keystone of British Liberalism, and the foundational contribution Britain has made to the world. This is a view that is still endorsed by politicians today. It is a view that requires significant modification, however, as Padraic Scanlan argues in Slave Empire. Scanlan’s major contribution to the scholarship is to juxtapose the attitudes of the antislavery campaigners against the attitudes of the enslaved people themselves. Though they abhorred slavery, the abolitionists still endorsed a racialised view of the world, viewing Africans as inferior and uncivilised. They believed that Britain could play a positive role in ‘civilising’ the world — a particular kind of civilisation which, to them, meant low wage capitalism and a reinforced class structure modelled on Georgian, and later Victorian, capitalist, Christian society. As Scanlan shows through an examination of their arguments, the abolitionists still believed in white supremacy. Their version of antislavery was therefore different to the antislavery demanded by enslaved people.

Scanlan tackles a large swathe of history, beginning in the eighteenth century with the onset of the abolition movement, and ending after the American Civil War in the 1860s. The first few chapters offer a broad and accessible introduction to the history of plantation slavery, touching on almost every facet of life in the West Indies and assuming nothing of the reader. It is an excellent summary of what the reader needs to know: the slave trade fed sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations in the Caribbean. White men went out, claimed land and bought slaves, and got rich. Many died trying. Plantation slavery was abhorred by some, initially the Quakers, before slowly becoming a pressing issue for much of the rest of British society. 

The rest of the book juxtaposes the actions of enslaved people against the campaigns of the abolition movements. When the enslaved people revolted against those who claimed to own them, abolitionists and slaveholders wrestled for control over the narrative of what the revolutions meant. The abolitionists saw the Haitian Revolution, for example, as a ‘proof-of-concept’, showing how an enslaved society might be reformed into a free society, with a strict class structure and the continuation of cash crop production. Many argued that abolition, and later emancipation, should come gradually to allow time for the enslaved people to become ‘civilised’ — i.e., willing to work for low wages. When enslaved people rebelled again in the 1800s in British territories, this was seen as a setback for the abolitionists, for they feared that it would make the enslaved people appear as if they were not ready for freedom. Indeed, they wanted to view enslaved people as the perfect victims: noble, tragic, and primitive. Enslaved people trying to gain freedom for themselves and on their own terms, just like they did in Haiti, disturbed this image.

In trying to control the narrative and promote their own view of enslaved people, the abolitionists reinforced the image of Africans that had been crafted by the slaveholders. This resulted in the perpetuation of white supremacy — in Scanlan’s words, “antislavery activists imagined an empire without slavery or the slave trade but could not imagine an empire without unchecked capital and subordinate African labour”; the act to abolish the slave trade “did not abandon the control and white supremacy of the era of slavery, but channelled it towards a new project of ‘civilisation’ and economic transformation”. Antislavery eventually became a justification for further colonial expansion in Africa, and the basis for new forms of exploitation in the East, based on indentured servitude and low wages. Scanlan’s argument is moving, persuasive, and incredibly important.

One of the key faults of the abolition movement was their insistence on measuring the success of antislavery through its ability to produce profits for plantation production. When it turned out that free labour did not work better for plantation production — an economic system that had been built around slavery, and to which slavery was essential — it hindered the spread of antislavery across the southern US states on the same terms. The failure of the emancipation ‘experiment’ was blamed on the former slaves, and explained in racist terms, contributing to new forms of scientific racism. Scanlan unfortunately doesn’t get into why the abolitionists relied upon economic arguments — the book would have been enriched by a consultation of the scholarship that does tackle this question. There is an assumption that this is an argument that abolitionists really believed, rather than a pragmatic argument aimed at a particular audience with the aim of persuasion (at least at first). It’s very difficult to understand the arguments of abolitionists independently of the arguments made by slaveholders, and more could have been done to explore the significance of this dialogue between the two sides.

An underlying subtext to this book is a critique of capitalism and free trade. To Scanlan, “in the Caribbean, the growth of plantation slavery was capitalism at its most raw”. Our own modern institutions are built on the legacy of slavery: “capitalism and liberalism emphasise ‘freedom’ — for individuals and for markets — but were built on human bondage”. The book is not an overt critique of capitalism — many of the digs are subtle. The main issue is that Scanlan doesn’t define what he means by capitalism, or even free trade, so much of this remains quite vague. It will likely energise left wing readers. We should remember, however, that just because the capitalism of today has its foundations in slavery, it is still fundamentally different — the key difference being that we have generally accepted the principle that for free trade to truly be free, labour must be free, too. Today’s capitalism must be criticised on its own merits and failures.

In the same vein, the politicians and public of today are warned against revering the abolitionists. These figures are criticised for their insistence on the reforming power of low wages, and for their own critical view of the working poor, who many considered to be feckless and lazy. The main problem here is that I doubt many of the politicians who are likely to see abolition as the saving grace of the British Empire are likely to care that the abolitionists endorsed Victorian class structure (indeed, some politicians in Britain seem to admire Victorian class structures). The more agreeable point that Scanlan hints at is that, just as we should not judge historical figures too harshly by the standards of our time, we should also not overly praise historical figures who turned out to be on the right side of history for some issues (if not others).

The main strength of this book is its ability to weave together historical narrative and rigorous historical analysis. The retelling of the rebellions is engaging, and the debates in parliament, which could go on for days and days, are outlined with palpable tension. By placing the enslaved people at the centre, Scanlan is able to show how they were themselves the key drivers of change; that they did, indeed, have interests similar but distinct to those of the abolitionists. He draws on a broad array of abolitionist literature to make his case compelling — they were, of course, not a monolith, and Scanlan is able to distinguish the abolitionists at the fringes, whose arguments against slavery were more emotive and robust, and those in parliament, who had the undesirable job of finding a compromise with slavery’s supporters. Importantly, the book bridges the gap between the two versions of empire that students are taught about — first, the empire of the West, centred on the Americas, and in particular the West Indies, and second, the empire of the East, centred on India, southeast Asia, and Africa. It convincingly links slavery to the ‘civilising mission’ (later grossly epitomised by Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden) through the movement to abolish slavery.

Padraic X. Scanlan, Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain (London: Robinson, 2020), pp. 464.

5 thoughts on “Review: Padraic X. Scanlan, Slave Empire (2020)

  1. sharemylibrary

    This review is great! I think it’s really important to know this side of history, and I particularly like how it has a global reach. Will check this book out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Must Read Posts from Our Favorite Book Bloggers | Bitch Bookshelf

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