- Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain by Richard Huzzey
Richard Huzzey opens this marvelous history of British antislavery with an account of the attack of the HMS Penelope on three villages along the Gallinas River in West Africa in 1845. The villages lay within the domain of Manna, a Vai prince accused of “countenancing and encouraging” a slave trade in British subjects from Sierra Leone, as well as keeping two of those subjects, both women, enslaved in his own domain (3). British marines burned down the villages, driving their inhabitants into the bush, but when the marines found Prince Manna he offered evidence and testimony that showed that the British had severely overreacted. Manna had sold slaves to a Spanish merchant, but the slaves were not British subjects, and both of the Sierra Leone women had married Manna’s subjects on their own volition; they were not slaves. Despite the weak case for the use of such force, Commodore William Jones, commander of the West Africa squadron who ordered the attack, reported an antislavery victory: “We have evidently impressed these people with a very wholesome terror, and they begin to think resistance to our power is useless” (4). Indeed, by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign Great Britain claimed authority over a land empire in Africa that stretched from Sierra Leone to Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope, and through Richard Huzzey’s book we can see that antislavery belief played a critical role in the brutal creation of this empire.
To scholars of the American Civil War era this history may come as a surprise. How did Great Britain, which abolished slavery in its West Indian colonies in 1834 and set an awe-inspiring example that African Americans and their white supporters celebrated for many decades, come to deploy such violence against African peoples in the name of antislavery? Huzzey argues that Britons never retreated from an antislavery position; rather, antislavery in Victorian Britain became a “hegemonic ideology” that shaped British society in manifold ways (208). And in Africa, Britons established their empire by using escalating force in the fulfillment of antislavery policies.
This process began with Parliament’s abolition of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade in 1807. The British navy enforced this ban and at first used force only against British slavers who violated the law. But over the next several decades Great Britain worked out a series of treaties with European states that gave British naval vessels the right to search ships under various flags that were suspected of slaving. The United States did not participate [End Page 449] in this treaty system until 1865, but most of the Atlantic states did, and the HMS Penelope coursed through West African waters in pursuit of the treaties’ antislavery goals. The British established anti–slave trade agreements with African leaders as well, but because they did not consider African cultures to be “civilized,” the British argued that these agreements stood outside international law, which justified the use of extreme violence. Six years after the attack on the Gallinas villages, British naval ships attacked the kingdom of Lagos, deposed King Kosoko because he was trading in slaves, and installed his rival. In 1861 Britain annexed the kingdom, which became the beachhead for the much larger colony of Nigeria that fell under British authority by the end of the century. And so it went throughout much of the African continent.
Huzzey explains these developments by insisting that we “decoupl[e] our idea of anti-slavery from anachronistic expectations of antiracism, anticolonialism, or humanitarianism” (19). As scholars of the United States during this era know very well, many white Americans were against slavery yet dismissive of the capabilities of African Americans as a “race.” Most white Britons felt this way, too, especially when it became clear that the abolition of slavery in the West Indies had brought about the severe decline of Britain’s Caribbean sugar industry. Antislavery ideology held that free labor would prove more productive...