The Politics of Slavery

Scholars writing on the political history of the British Atlantic slave trade have a tendency to focus the parliamentary and public support for the British abolition movement at the coast of overlooking the public and parliamentary support for the expansion and protection of the slave trade which occurred in 1698 and again in 1750.

In 1998, J.R. Oldfield wrote the “in recent years… scholars have shifted their attention away from  the ‘high politics’ of formal,. parliamentary abolition, to the more popular aspects of the abolition movement.”[1].  This trend in the late 1990s, most likely influenced by cultural history, print culture, and revisions in the governance of the British state most likely influenced a different perspective on the abolition movement which focused more on the public’s pressure on the state to institute reforms in the slave trade.

As recent scholarship, by William Pettigrew, however has shown, the same political pressure on parliament by the public occurred during the expansion of the slave trade.[2] Pettigrew’s work focused not he the public politics of competition between free traders and the Royal African Company from 1690 to the demise of the company in 1752.  Free traders used popular support and anti-monopoly sentiments form the Glorious Revolution to argued that free trade with Africa was part of their constitutional right as free English men to trade for slaves.  After the demise of the Royal African Company, however, these debates continued with the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, though some of the participants were different many of the arguments remained that same–should the Africa trade be organized by a joint stock company or free to all English merchants.  Unlike the previous debates, the post-Royal African Company debates concerned the governance of a series of trading establishments not he African shore and not with the overall right to trade for English merchants.

Historian Christopher Brown, in “The British Government and the Slave Trade: Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713—83,” briefly touched upon the politics of the CMTA in England, but he did not account for the burgeoning literature on the Gold Coast slave trade that has been coming out over the past few years, which helps connect the public and cross cultural concerns with the politics of the expansion of the slave trade and how that trade should be governed.[3]

In 1750, parliament passed An Act for Extending and Improving the Trade to Africa, which incorporated the CMTA as a non profit regulated company in hopes of snythasysing the benefits of both free trade and the long time use of joint stock companies to outsource the expansion and protection of Empire.  Debates over the state and status of the CMTA took place in the public sphere and should be considered as an addition to Pettigrew’s analysis of the public and government’s participation in the expansion of the slave trade.

A political (transnational political) history of the CMTA is in the works, with special focus on the private and public political strategies of merchants and company men involved the organization of the slave trade, in particular, and the changing roles of companies, merchants, and the state during a pivotal era in the expansion of the British Empire.

  1.  Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion Against the Slave Trade 1787-1807 (Studies in Slave & Post-slave Societies & Cultures): J.R. Oldfield: 9780714644622: Books. (n.d.). Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion Against the Slave Trade 1787-1807 (Studies in Slave & Post-slave Societies & Cultures): J.R. Oldfield: 9780714644622: Books. Retrieved October 10, 2015, from
  2. Pettigrew, William A. Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752. UNC Press Books, 2013;

    Pettigrew, William A. “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714.” William and Mary Quarterly (2007): 3–38.
    3.  Brown, Christopher Leslie. “The British Government and the Slave Trade: Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713-83.” Parliamentary History 26, no. 4 (2007): 27–41; see also

    Brown, Christopher L. “The Politics of Slavery.” In The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 232–250. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009;

    Carretta, Vincent, and Ty M Reese. The Life and Letters of Philip Quaque, the First African Anglican Missionary. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
    Reese, Ty M. “African Commercial Enclave.” In Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World, edited by Simon Middleton and Billy Gordon Smith. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
    Reese, Ty M. “An Economic Middle Ground?: Anglo/African Interaction, Cooperation and Competition at Cape Coast Castle in the Late Eighteenth Century Atlantic World.” Interactions: Regional Studies, Global Processes, and Historical Analysis (n.d.). Accessed October 8, 2014.
    ———. “Controlling the Company: The Structures of Fante-British Relations on the Gold Coast, 1750–1821.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 1 (2013): 104–119.
    ———. “Facilitating the Slave Trade: Company Slaves at Cape Coast Castle, 1750-1807.” Slavery & Abolition 31, no. 3 (September 2010): 363–377.
    ———. “‘Sheep in the Jaws of so Many Ravenous Wolves’: The Slave Trade and Anglican Missionary Activity at Cape Coast Castle, 1752–1816.” Journal of religion in Africa 34, no. 3 (2004): 348–372.