Review: Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of the British Slave Trade 1688-1714, by William Pettigrew


In “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of the British Slave Trade 1688-1714,” William Pettigrew argues that historians too often explain England’s participation in the slave trade through “atomized economic calculations of colonists and their suppliers,” rather than broader political participation of the English populace and the state’s role in expanding the slave trade inn the late seventeenth century. Rise of the slave trade is most often viewed through a narrow economic analysis, but Pettigrew reviews this rise through a broad “political context,” there by showing “how modern political culture and institutions were involved in the escalation” of the slave trade.   “From 1690 to 1714, members of Parliament debated the slave trade in sixteen parliamentary sessions, absorbing about the same amount of legislative time as discussions of its abolition.”[1] From the 1690s to the bankruptcy of the Royal African Company, the main question among Britons was: would a corporate monopoly, run by the Royal African Company, or open trade best serve the national interest and meet rising demand for slave labor in the Americas?[2] Political history of England’s participation and escalation of the slave trade were “important determinants to modernity.”[3]

The political history of the British abolition movement, according to historian William Pettigrew, receives more attention than England’s expansion of the slave trade in the late seventeenth century. Historians, too often, explain England’s participation in the slave trade as the accumulated results of “atomized economic calculations of colonists and their suppliers,” rather than the result of politics. Pettigrew argues that scholars should consider the political history of the escalation of the slave trade, which he argues held important implications for the rise of modernity and liberalism.

This is a brief overview of Pettigrew’s article. My intention is to focus on several points relevant to an upcoming work about the demise of the Royal African Company and the development of an experimental company—the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa.   I focus on tension felt between open public discourse and contempt for monopolies, which Pettigrew writes about in his article, because these issues are important for understanding the history of liberalism in the long duree, and for understanding Britain’s transition from corporatism to free trade imperialism, which I cover in my following essay.[4] The contradictions between liberty and the origins of liberalism can be found in works such as Seth Rockman’s “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism”; Susan Buck-Morss’s “Hegel and Haiti”; Liberalism: A Counter History (2011); and many other works. Liberalism, as an economic and political philosophy, extolls freedom, but through a deep reading of the history of liberalism from the late seventeenth century to the present, we find copious contradictions. Slavery played a central role in the very origins of liberalism.

Pettigrew transformed his article into a book Freedom’s Debt: the Royal African Company and the politics of the Atlantic slave trade, 1672-1752 (2013), where he goes into greater detail about the demise of the Royal African Company. Both the essay and the book are revisionary histories about the decline of the company, but together they reveal much more. In 1698, William and Mary refused to renew the Royal African Company’s monopoly charter on the African trade; thereby setting an unprecedented free trade policy with African that exponentially increased the sale and transport of slaves to America. His essay covers the beginning stages of the free trade movement from 1698 to 1714. William and Mary opened trade, experimentally, for several years, but free trade proved too successful to abandon. By 1750, free traders successfully defeated the Royal African Company, but their success cannot be attributed to economics alone. The success of free trade “elucidates the part played in the slave trade’s development by the emergence of the modern British state and a more open political culture.”[7] Private merchants claimed that it was their natural right as free Englishmen to trade freely with Africa. According to Pettigrew, this not only “complicates liberalism’s association with liberty,” but also reveals how “liberal institutions proved instrumental in escalating the worst brutalities of British imperialism.”[8]

The political influence of private merchants resulted, in part, to the Glorious Revolution, when King James II abdicated and William and Mary took the English thrown. At this point Parliament took control over the nation’s finances. During the 1690s, the political framework of England changed as parliament gained more power. Petitions to parliament expanded and allowed merchants more access and power within parliament. Prior to the Revolution, the Crown depended, largely on corporations to expand and maintain the Empire, in return for financial and military support for national interest. King James II granted the Royal African Company its monopoly in 1672, but in he 1690s, parliament claimed that this monopoly was not legal because it was awarded to the company without consent by parliament, when the company’s charter came up for renewal in 1698, William and Mary refused to renew it. The public associated monopolies, especially the RAC with the absolutist pretensions of the previous Stuart monarch–Charles II and James II, this helped them gain support. They refused, in part because of growing petitions, politics, and legal maneuvering by merchants interested in open trade with Africa.[9]

Both the company and merchants used petitions to effect political legislation, but they   solicited different groups. For instance, the Royal African Company targeted people with high social standing, while private merchants sought quantity over ‘quality’ of persons, thereby democratizing the process. “The Separate traders also placed more value on the number of signatures rather than their quality as the company did.”[10]

Both the Company and merchants used print to convey their arguments and solicit public support. According to Pettigrew, the Company used writers who were better known than those private merchants used. For instance, both Charles Davenant and Daniel Defoe wrote on behalf of the company. On the other hand, private merchants “couch[ed] their opposition [to the company] in constitutional terms.” Because monopolies were associated with absolutism, they “reinterpreted certain aspects of the company’s charter… as emblematic of Jacobite tyranny.”[11] Free trade with Africa for slaves became a sign of English liberty. Pettigrew writes: “by celebrating the societal benefits of individual economic self-interests, opponents of the company’s monopoly yoked economic self-interest, opponents of the company’s monopoly yoked the cause of political liberalism to economic growth.”[12]

This newfound ideal of economic liberalism, self-interest, liberty, and the slave trade, quickly expanded overseas “A changing balance of power in Britain’s Atlantic empire saw a devolution of political initiative to those at the colonial periphery at the same time that those colonial interest began to develop a political presence in the metropolis.”[13]

Pettigrew walks through the steps that ended the free trade experiment in 1712, but free traders continued trading. The RAC gained the Asiento trade from Spain, where the Company traded slave to Spain in the Americas, but with the introduction of the South Sea Company and its disastrous consequences, private merchants gained political momentum and used it to continue their political and economic advantages. Private merchants successfully “blocked company attempts to secure statutory confirmation for their charter by publically embarrassing the company with references to their own superior economic record and by cultivating the support of a far more impressive petitioning interest than the company could achieve.”[14]

The public attention and support of free trade and English liberty, brought attention to the fact that “enslaved African labor was integral to the expansion of Britain’s plantation economies.” This helped to “commodify African slaves.” He argues that constitutional debates of the slave trade worked in tandem with liberalism and a more open and free public political sphere. These contradictions–between liberty and slavery–are not peculiar to the origins of the English slave trade, but continued throughout the nineteenth century and examples can be found in the writings of historians on slavery’s capitalism. Pettigrew argues, “during the eighteenth century, freedom acquired economic and humanitarian meaning in addition to its seventeenth century political definition. All became determinants of modernity. Yet their asynchronous evolution did much… to complicate freedom’s association with political liberty.”[15]

–Todd Burst


[1]. Pettigrew, William A. “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714.” willmaryquar The William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 3-38, 3.

[2]. Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 37

[4] Although Pettigrew does not specifically address the extent to which England/ Britain outsourced Empire to corporations, he provides a good starting point for understanding new “economic histories” in light of the revisions in the history of the English state that have occurred over the past few decades.

[5]. Pettigrew, William A. “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714.” willmaryquar The William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 3-38, 3.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ibid. 8

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. From pgs. 10-12, Pettigrew goes into the relationships between the Crown and monopolies. He also mentions a legal case, which opened the door to later petitions on part of private merchants–Nightingale v. Bridges. See pg. 11. Also, Pettigrew does not use the term outsource.

[10]. Ibid. 13

[11]. Ibid. 15.

[12]. Ibid. 16.

[13]. Ibid. 20.

[14]. Ibid. 31.

[15]. Ibid. 38.


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