September 30, 2007

Slavery in ‘Empire’

Filed under: History, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:05 pm

I’ve been reading Niall Ferguson’s ‘Empire’.

“After the British first came to Sierra Leone in 1562 it did not take them long to become slave traders. In the subsequent two and a half centuries, as we have seen, more than three million Africans were shipped into bondage on British ships. But then, towards the end of the eighteenth century, something changed dramatically; it was almost as if a switch was flicked in the British psyche. Suddenly they started shipping slaves back to West Africa and setting them free… What was going on to turn Britain from the world’s leading enslaver to the world’s leading emancipator?” (p. 116)

Ferguson’s answer is religion: the rise of evangelicalism, and the new pressure-group politics that came with it. But what was behind this rise; and why did the evangelical project of liberation and conversion gain the dominance it did?

I don’t know! (See the ‘vitiated by ignorance’ tag). But I’ve just been reading Foucault; and through those spectacles this looks like a textbook move from physical coercion to social discipline and control. The British rejection of slavery only came once they (we) had gained dominance of the trade – and of the seas. It only came once the massive movements of population that were necessary to establish fledgling new world industries had been accomplished. The expansion of the British empire was driven not just by the need to expropriate ever more land, commodities and labour; it was also driven by the need to create new markets. The ‘Anglicisation’ of native populations can be seen as the systematic generation of demand. A slave cannot be a consumer. The evangelical goal is to generate the same or greater labour than a slave’s, in exchange for British products.

“In many ways, the model mission in Africa was the London Missionary Society’s Kuruman establishment in Bechuanaland, nearly 600 miles north-east of Cape Town… The essence of the Kuruman project was simple: in turning Africans into Christians, the mission was at the same time civilising them, changing not just their faith but also their mode of dress, hygiene, and housing… ‘The people are now dressed in British manufactures and make a very respectable appearance in the house of God.’” (p. 122).

Or, as Joseph Chamberlain told the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in 1896:

”The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office are chiefly engaged in finding new markets and in defending old ones. The War Office and Admiralty are mostly occupied in preparation for the defence of these markets, and for the protection of our commerce… Therefore, it is not too much to say that commerce is the greatest of all political interests, and that Government deserves most the popular approval which does the most to increase our trade and to settle it on a firm foundation.” (p. 255).

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