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  • Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of the British Atlantic Empire by Abigail L. Swingen
  • Holly Brewer
Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of the British Atlantic Empire. By Abigail L. Swingen. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015. 287 pages. Cloth, ebook.

Abigail L. Swingen's Competing Visions of Empire examines the debates surrounding the provisioning of labor throughout the British Empire from the middle of the seventeenth until the early eighteenth century. She argues that while in the earlier part of this period English and colonial figures generated contesting projects for supplying labor, most quickly agreed on the value of slave labor and then gradually came to accept a "free trade" for enslaved persons as the preferred means for supplying it.

Swingen shows that different players across the British Empire competed over how to make the empire most productive. Though planters at first opted for labor strategies that encouraged migration of the English as indentured servants, those sources of labor became increasingly difficult to secure from the middle of the seventeenth century on, and planters and merchants increasingly turned to enslaved Africans. By the early 1700s, according to Swingen, a consensus had emerged that enslaved African laborers constituted the best means to increase the material wealth of the empire, and the debates instead turned to questions of how to regulate the slave trade itself.

Swingen describes the interests at stake but also the ideologies in terms of arguments concerning the king's monopoly powers over companies and the slave trade. Positions on those issues reflected deeper beliefs about the proper and legitimate form of rule. She contrasts a period of "Tory Ascendancy" (121) in 1685–88, during which absolutism prevailed, with a later period of free trade and broader political representation both in the colonies and at home, which she describes as triumphing by the early 1700s.

The story begins, for Swingen as for Richard S. Dunn, in Barbados, where slavery developed its roots in England's empire, and she relies heavily on his interpretation of the role of planters there in promoting unfree labor. She then draws on Robert Brenner's work to argue that merchant interests were behind Oliver Cromwell's Western Design and his massive naval expedition to England's territories in the West Indies.1 Swingen claims that the Cromwell expedition's capture of Jamaica was the first time that imperial forces were used to expand the empire. Her analysis then moves into the Restoration, detailing how planters' increasing difficulties in obtaining [End Page 802] indentured servants aligned with newfound Stuart encouragement of the Royal African Company to provide more slaves at reasonable prices. Swingen shows that almost from the beginning of the Restoration planters demanded free trade in slaves at the same time as they often sought greater independence from imperial dictates. The seventeenth-century story is thus one of growing affinities between potentially conflicting interests under the banner of slavery.

Swingen then builds on William A. Pettigrew's interpretation of the debates of the 1690s concerning free trade versus monopoly powers.2 She demonstrates that though planters, traders, crown companies, and England's political nation agreed on the benefits of slavery, they held differing ideas about who should control access to slaves for sale, and the emphasis on monopolies that had prevailed under Charles II was eventually dismantled. The Ten Percent Act of 1698 opened up the trade with Africa to all merchants as long as they paid a tax to the Royal African Company for all cargo transported, excluding gold and slaves. By the 1710s, the Royal African Company's monopoly was decisively broken, even though it maintained control over its forts. Of course, not everyone was eligible to participate in this free trade, for under the leadership of Queen Anne, Britain obtained the Asiento (the sole right to supply the Spanish Empire with slaves) as part of the Treaty of Utrecht. No less ironically, even as free traders increasingly had access to the slaves supplied by England's forts on the African coast, Queen Anne created a new company, the South Sea Company, with new monopoly power to supply the...

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