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  • A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926
  • Susan D. Pennybacker
A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926. By Kevin Grant. (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).

New forms of slavery proliferated across the African territories of the European empires in the last decades of the nineteenth century, their coercive practices opposed by empire reformers who sought alternative ways of continuing the European domination of indigenous labor and its exploitation for profit. These liberal critics spoke in conflicted vernaculars, both evangelical and humanitarian. In this excellent and pioneering study based upon his doctoral dissertation, Kevin Grant considers the new slaveries that grew amid the complex political cultures of colonial Africa. The work is based in British official and private archival collections and focuses upon: the Congo Reform Campaign that began in the 1880s, the controversy surrounding Chinese labor in the Rand in the first decade of the new century, and the Cadbury chocolate barons’ fraught engagement with cocoa markets in the Portuguese empire. These interlocking stories are linked to the more formal discourses of new anti-slavery and international cooperation, from the Berlin Conference to the aftermath of Versailles.

This is convincing, erudite, and careful scholarship, prompting an ambitious research agenda for scholars working in African archival materials. Grant documents a pattern of human rights and mission work that remained within the imperial gambits. Latter-day attempts at international monitoring appear not as antidotes, but as instances of self-interested political hubris, and Grant insists on the inextricable role of religious conviction in the mix. His commitment to pursue anti-slavery shapes Grant’s choice of case-studies: “Throughout the colonial world, Europeans attempted to trace the blurred lines between conditions of slave labor and free labor. They struggled to understand the cultural bases of different forms of labor…” (3).

He begins by excavating the notion of trusteeship, fundamental to imperial policy-makers and thinkers from Edmund Burke to Jan Smuts. Grant identifies their seventeenth century debt to ideas of popular sovereignty, showing how the belief in providential representation of the lower orders extended toward the advocacy of an imperial vision. Nineteenth century evangelical thought questioned and refined many tenets of the profit motive in empire, demanding a more humane interpretation of sacred trust: “While evangelicals, like the advocates of trust, believed in natural progress along a hierarchy of civilization, they did not believe that progress was ultimately achieved through tutelage administered by a government authority…evangelicals emphasized the roles of individual conscience, action, and revelation” (19–20). Even as slavery was banned in the British Empire in the landmark decisions of 1807 and 1833, many forms of ownership and coercion began anew or were reconceived, and construed as “free labor.”

In 1922, Lord Frederick Lugard defended indigenous slavery in Africa “as a form of labor-contract between a more advanced and a very primitive people, where the conception of labor as a saleable commodity…has not yet arisen…” (24). Lugard’s critics among the opponents of the new slaveries lead Grant’s narratives, with anti-slavery activists and missionaries John and Alice Harris playing central roles. The Congo reform campaign grew as a response to notorious atrocities committed in Belgium’s African possession during the 1890s and beyond. The duplicity of King Leopold II, and the circulation of photographs depicting children with severed arms—victims of the Belgian security forces’ retribution against those held as slaves—inspired a campaign of outrage that drew support from figures like the American writer Samuel Clemens. Grant claims for the opposition the status as “the largest humanitarian movement in British imperial politics” before 1914, one in which the Harris’s departure from mission work in the Congo and the publicity they stirred in haunting lantern lectures offered throughout the British isles, served as central catalysts. The Irish nationalist Roger Casement and the muck-raking journalist E.D. Morel also figured in the campaign. But these radical critics of the Belgians supported free trade and “native” property as an alternative to the slavery monopoly, and did not advocate political representation for Africans. Their views were not as dominant in the reform movement as...

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