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The British Empire—especially India—featured prominently in antebellum American debates about filibustering, slavery, and abolition and suggests yet another international context in which to understand those debates. When Parliament ended most slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, American abolitionists used reports of the peaceful transition in South Africa to denounce warnings that chaos always followed emancipation. Those in the U. S.’s antislavery movement also promoted Britons’ campaign to end indigenous slavery in India, with the hope that victory there would inspire similar change at home. Rather than addressing Indian slavery as it actually was—an institution that differed greatly from its American manifestation—Americans on both sides of the slavery debate tended to suggest that they were similar.
Meanwhile, supporters of filibustering and slavery used the empire to dismiss British criticisms. When Britons criticized American filibuster expeditions, defenders suggested that British aggrandizement in India had been the grandest filibuster of them all. And when Britons criticized slavery, advocates cited the oppression of India’s natives and again accused the British of having a double standard. Proslavery Americans thus deflected criticism and suggested that slavery was not, in a global sense, anomalous.
In 1857, Indians launched a massive rebellion against their British rulers that, to Americans, closely resembled a slave rebellion. While some abolitionists played down the apparent resemblance, proslavery Americans used the episode to warn their audiences that slavery must continue under strict control. Still, many Americans admired the achievements of the British East India Company, and some were inspired to create their own empire, in Latin America.