When is a Slave Not Really a Slave?
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.
Sir 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.