- The British Government and the Slave Trade:Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713-83
In what ways did parliament influence the British slave trade during the eighteenth century? How did the politics of the Atlantic slave trade figure in parliamentary politics in the years when the British seized the largest share of the international traffic in African labour? In the present state of research, such questions remain surprisingly difficult to answer for most of the eighteenth century, in between the prolonged controversies that shaped the slave trade in its early years and at its close. The British slave trade became the subject of sustained controversy twice in its history, as most scholars long have known. In the first instance, in the quarter-century after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the central questions concerned the organization of the trade to Africa. Who would have the right to participate in the slave trade and under what terms? Did the Royal African Company, which had enjoyed a monopoly in the Africa trade, best serve the interests of the nation and the state?1 In the second, more famous instance, between 1788 and 1806, the opponents of the slave trade and its defenders contended over its fate.2 That preoccupation with the Africa trade, both in its early years and during its last, contrasts markedly with the state of public and official debate in the intervening decades. From 1713 to 1787, when the British slave trade reached its apex, the traffic in African captives only rarely became the subject of sustained discussion in parliament.
For this reason, perhaps, the political history of the British slave trade for most of the eighteenth century remains almost wholly unknown. Instead, when studying these years, scholars justifiably emphasize how the slave trade worked - who participated, how it was organized and financed, where it was conducted, and with what consequences for Africa, Africans, and the colonial societies in the Americas. The place of parliament - and the British imperial state more generally - in the development [End Page 27] of the Atlantic slave trade receives only the most cursory acknowledgment. So we are left in the odd position of knowing that the British slave trade mattered to the emerging wealth and power of the British empire, but not how, or even if, it mattered to the governing élite.
This is, in part, the fault of how the politics of the slave system, and commercial and imperial questions more generally, tend to be treated by historians of eighteenth-century Britain. Practices like the slave trade, it sometimes is assumed, have a political history only when they become embroiled in political controversies. And so the measure of their political importance is often judged by the intensity of public debate and the time and effort devoted to a topic in parliament. In this conception, political history takes place when political change occurs, or the prospects for political change appear. Political stability, the absence of debate or political controversy, by contrast, marks the terminal point of political history, or alternatively the space from which to track the emergence of new political controversies, but only rarely itself becomes the subject of historical analysis. Yet, political stability should interest us as much as political change, not only for what it reveals about earlier and later political controversies, but also because political stability, too, results from political processes. The forces, conditions, and interests that sustain a set of practices, the circumstances that prevent a subject from becoming controversial, should also become the subject of political history. What accounts, then, for the lack of public and official interest in the Africa trade during the middle decades of the eighteenth century? On the rare occasion that the British slave trade did draw comment, what were the context and the content of these concerns?
An answer to these two questions may further elucidate the peculiar place of the Atlantic slave trade in eighteenth-century British culture, as well as in Hanoverian politics. For the apparent tension between the importance of the slave trade to the empire and the limited official interest in its operation would seem to mirror a larger ambivalence about what the Africa trade meant to the nation...