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  • Freedom Burning: Antislavery and Empire in Victorian Britain by Richard Huzzey
  • Christopher Myers
Freedom Burning: Antislavery and Empire in Victorian Britain. By Richard Huzzey (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. xiii plus 320 pp. $29.95).

Richard Huzzey’s work is an innovative confrontation of the image that British antislavery’s influence declined after emancipation, which argues that antislavery was a powerful motor of national policy throughout the nineteenth century. Through analysis of government records, private papers, and popular cultural [End Page 468] sources, Huzzey asserts that racism, imperialism, and indifference did not undermine British enthusiasm for antislavery sentiments. Although political, cultural, and social conflicts emerged over how, when, and why Britain should promote antislavery, its policies had significant national impacts. They shaped the development of British national identity, and foreign and imperial policy, as well as debates over domestic reform, and the merits of free trade and coercive slave trade suppression.

In place of an introduction, the opening chapter discusses the fragmentation of the British antislavery movement following emancipation in 1833, arguing that pluralism characterized later-Victorian antislavery. Nonetheless, national acceptance of antislavery was not undermined by the increasing diversity of abolitionist opinions and contradictions following emancipation. While the antislavery movement split over agenda into multiple factions after the 1840 World Antislavery Conference, there was still a basic agreement on opposition to slavery.

I could discern three parts to the book based on content. The first analyzes consensus and debates regarding antislavery’s role in British foreign relations. Chapter three discusses how antislavery became a core belief of British imperial and foreign policy from the 1830s. It argues that Britain engaged in a mission to create a diplomatic, legal, and military system to pursue a national crusade against the slave trade. The Foreign Office coordinated a network of bilateral treaties, courts, consuls, ambassadors, judges, and other informants aimed at aiding naval suppression to suffocate the slave trade. Huzzey highlights how this British effort involved varying degrees of pressure, coercion, threats, and interference based on the specific circumstances.

The second chapter tries to explain why Britain embraced some American abolitionist sentiments, but responded ambiguously to the American Civil War. It contends that there were serious national disagreements over the war’s relationship with slavery, and how to best achieve Southern abolition. Many Britons believed that a rapid emancipation forced by the North would undermine societal stability and abolition’s moral contributions. They, therefore, favored the British path of gradual, compensated emancipation as the most logical one. Nonetheless, Huzzey argues that it was not possible for supporters of American slavery to be taken seriously in Britain.

The book’s second part focuses on the practical conflict over how to eradicate the slave trade, which played out in relation to debates over domestic reform and differing theories on the state and market’s roles. Chapter four argues that fragmentation did not undermine antislavery’s influence on conflicts over the need for social, political, and economic reform within Britain. Reform movements pursued antislavery’s model of successfully using popular pressure within the existing system from the 1830s through the 1850s, achieving cautious reforms that paralleled the Emancipation Act’s gradual nature. While antislavery’s national tradition allowed for examination of the immorality of societal prejudices and injustices, Britons generally rejected state intervention that went beyond ensuring individual liberty.

The fifth chapter contends that disagreements within Britain over how to eradicate slavery resulted from differing economic ideologies. The conflict occurred specifically over whether embracing free labor, free trade, protectionism, and/or coercive naval suppression were the best methods to create a prosperous and free world. There was also a broader related debate over how the role of [End Page 469] Britain’s civilizing mission, envisioned as encouraging the triad of civilization, commerce, and Christianity. These disagreements played out in fights over British policies of West Indian sugar protection and coercive slave trade suppression with mixed results. Nevertheless, due to national acceptance of the assumption that increased prosperity would lead to abolition, each side had to argue that its policies would be more likely to increase prosperity and doom slavery.

The third part investigates how commerce and diplomacy’s functions as antislavery strategies...


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pp. 468-470
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