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129 f i v e Emperors of the World British Abolitionism and Imperialism S e y m o u r D r e sch e r I n 1 7 9 9 , midway into the twenty-year debate on British slave trade abolition , the Earl of Westmoreland rose in the House of Lords to mock the Sierra Leone Company’s directors as quixotic visionaries, attempting to ban a vast international trade along a broad swath of the coast of Africa: “Can a miserable settlement on the coast of Africa alter the manners of Kingdoms larger than Europe?” Who, he asked, were “this great company , these emperors of the world, who measure their empire by degrees and lines of the globe . . . ? Will you decree your colonies to decline?”1 Less than two decades later an abolitionist delegation arrived in Paris with the aim of persuading the restored French monarchy to renounce the slave trade. The French colonial minister was appalled: “Do you English mean to bind the world?” Nearly two centuries later historian Howard Temperley concluded that one could easily understand why Southern slaveholders and Indian sepoys should have responded violently to what they saw as an attempt to impose an alien and destructive way of life upon them.2 Reviewing British slave trade abolition from the perspective of two centuries, how may we assess its impact in relation to the phenomenon we began to call imperialism a little over a century ago? The context of a commemoration is not fixed once for all in human memory or historical discourse. It shifts over time, sometimes churning up long-forgotten or barely noticed debris from far upstream. 130 Seymour Drescher For almost a century and a half after 1807, the historiographical context of British slave trade abolition seemed clear. Abolition was part of Britain’s unchallenged status at the center of the movement to eliminate slavery from the world. Symptomatic was the centenary of British colonial slave emancipation, in 1933. It was celebrated in Hull, Wilberforce’s birthplace, as a national and imperial triumph. The London Times accurately headlined the event as the Centenary of Wilberforce. G. M. Trevelyan and Reginald Coupland agreed that abolition had elevated all mankind to a higher plane. The national memory was refreshed by a roll call of the gallant band of Saints led by their English hero.3 The beneficiaries were also appropriately noted: West Indians assembling in devotion to await the sunrise of freedom, and the natives of Africa, still unaware that future British rule would entail the end of slavery in the“heart of darkness.”The story was dramatic,the motivation clear, the ending happy. Abolitionism had made Britain safe for reform, the West Indies safe for freedom, and Africa safe for domination. Embedded in the celebration was an explicit justification of British imperialism. Coupland concluded, almost in passing, that the abolitionist crusade had guaranteed that the empire would do right by its African subjects. Fifty years later,during the last great commemoration of abolitionism before this year’s bicentenary, the context had changed utterly. In 1983, I attended an academic conference at the University of Hull entitled “Abolition and Its Aftermath.” I noted that the Saints had virtually vanished from the program. There were no papers devoted specifically to British abolitionism, nor to its saints, not even a paper on William Wilberforce himself. I was reminded of William Cobbett’s quip when he was forced to leave England in 1816. He consoled himself with the thought, “No Wilberforces! Think of that! No Wilberforces!”4 W h at h a d happened in the half century between 1933 and 1983 was a dramatic demolition of the whole structure of European overseas empire that had dominated so much of the earth in 1933. In the wake of the Second World War the collapse of imperialism proceeded even more rapidly than its fluctuations and extensions during previous centuries. One aspect of the demolition was a historiographic revaluation of the great campaign against the slave trade and slavery by the world’s paramount empire.The emblematic work in this process was, of course, Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Williams’s study was, among 131 British Abolitionism and Imperialism other things, an explicit devaluation of the significance of morality in the destruction of British slavery and an implicit devaluation of Britain’s use of abolitionism as a justification for imperial rule in the whole of its Afro-American orbit. In Williams’s perspective slavery provided the...


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