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When is a Slave Not Really a Slave?

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After bringing slavery in the West Indies to an end in 1834, Britons differed over how to treat other forms of oppression around the world, says Richard Huzzey.

American satire, c. 1863, suggesting Britain might abandon its anti-slavery principles because the Union's civil war blockade threated to cripple Lancashire's cotton industry. Library of CongressSir Arthur Helps, author and later dean of the Privy Council, turned his eyes to the stars and cast his imagination towards alien life in far-off places. Writing in 1855 he mused that other planets in the galaxy might be very similar to Earth in their histories and developments, throwing up equivalent civilisations and institutions, but that any visitors from those worlds would sadly discover that the most unusual thing ‘in the records of our Earth may be its commercial slavery and its slave trade’. He viewed an inter-racial, intercontinental slave trade as distinctly aberrant and abhorrent because it existed outside the patterns of history that he assumed to be natural, inviolable and progressive. Helps discerned that there was a ‘natural’ phase of slavery in ancient societies, such as Greece or Rome, which was ‘gradually modified by Christianity and advancing civilization’. However, he believed that the early modern slave trade of the New World indicated Christendom sliding backwards, with Europeans re-establishing forms of slavery in their Atlantic empires.

Not everyone in 1855 thought about extra-terrestrials when they imagined the schematics of history, civilisation and labour. But Sir Arthur was typical in considering slavery in these broad terms as he and other Britons attempted to categorise and explain the great variety of forms of human labour and servitude they encountered around the globe. In the 20th century, bodies such as the League of Nations and the United Nations have struggled to create their own concrete and legal definitions of slavery. Their problems mirror those that Victorians faced when projecting British power or ruling imperial territories. Following the acts that abolished the slave trade in 1807 and West Indian slavery after 1833, Britain’s empire was transformed into a declared enemy of human bondage. Yet the inadequacies and omissions of subsequent debates over slavery do not simply reveal the limits of British abolitionism; they also demonstrate the complexities of Victorian thinking about race and empire.

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