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  • The Slave Trade and Victorian “Humanity”
  • Richard Huzzey (bio)

With “dignified emphasis, and with the slightest possible foreign accent,” Prince Albert addressed the June 1840 meeting to launch the Niger Expedition (“Great Public Meeting” 2). Devised by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, this enterprise was designed to spread commerce and Christianity in the interior of Africa, undermining the slave trade. The mission’s royal patron explained, “I deeply regret that the benevolent and persevering exertions of England to abolish that atrocious traffic in human beings, at once the desolation of Africa and the blackest stain upon civilized Europe, have not yet led to any satisfactory conclusion” (2). Buxton’s hopes came to naught, but we can learn a lot from the language that framed the Victorian debate about [End Page 43] these issues. The “prosecution of a purpose dictated by humanity, approved by sound policy, anxiously desired by the country, and under-taken in the humble hope that the blessing of Almighty God will be vouchsafed in its labours” would elude Victorians for decades to come (2). This forum has prompted me to look at British anxieties about the slave trade and ask who was the “human” in their cries of “humanity.”

Humanitarianism and human rights, as plenty of historians and social scientists have noted, are recent concoctions of older ideas and traditions, mixing diverse and sometimes contradictory components (Hunt 22–28; Barnett 6–8). To tease out what the keyword “humanity” meant to Victorians, I hope to consider the nature of anti-slavery sentiments in the nineteenth century. Victorian Britons exercised broad licence to criticize the slave trade and human bondage (abolished by them in 1807 and 1834–38 respectively). While there were varied currents of opinion, it is clear that hierarchy informed many anti-slavery strictures, both conservative and radical (Huzzey, “Minding Civilisation” 819). Debates about how and whether Britons could hasten the end of the transatlantic slave trade offer us a chance to consider several elements here: firstly, we can explore how Britons saw their anti-slavery humanity in historical-civilizational perspective; secondly, we can consider why Britons disagreed over the best ways to share anti-slavery abroad.

Although abolitionist campaigns for emancipation had noted the Biblical claim that “God hath made of one blood all nations” (Acts 17.26), they did not claim equality for enslaved Africans. Abolitionists’ sentiment might therefore best be described as pity, rather than the egalitarianism of empathy, before and after British abolition of the slave trade (1807) and slavery (1834–38). Patrick Colm Hogan suggests that we can distinguish between “‘allocentric empathy,’ [or] empathy focusing on the actual responses of the target,” and “‘projective empathy,’ [or] empathy focusing on our own hypothetical responses (some authors refer to this as ‘sympathy’)” (Hogan 277–8). What decides “the difference between compassion and pity” is the extent to which each kind of empathy provokes feelings of “equality, superiority, and inferiority” when measured against “some evaluative standard” of desirable emotions (277–78; see also Wood). Therefore, in reading descriptions—real or fictive—of African suffering, British subjects might feel moved to pity by reports of distress and pain, in which “the horrors of Africa were not to be described or even to be conceived,” as Buxton warned (“Great Public Meeting” 2). However, this allocentric empathy with actual distress was different from projective empathy, since most Victorians would imagine their own confinement in the hold of a slave ship as even more degrading and painful than they would conceive it to be for “savage” African others: the distinction lies in British expectations of how Africans felt and how Britons would feel. In seeing British sentiment as superior to the heartlessness of slave traders and to the terror of slaves, Victorian anti-slavery writers reinforced [End Page 44] a hierarchy of humanity, wherein their excellence lay in pity, not in recognizing universal humanity. This hierarchy was not so far from the subjective, normative judgments that permitted eighteenth-century slaveholders to celebrate their own humanity in being kindly owners of grateful, pitiable slaves, whose feelings and freedoms were seen as completely different from their own (see Chaplin; Boulokos).

In dismantling Africans’ status as “others” whose suffering and enslavement...


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