Richard Huzzey opens his study of Victorian Britain’s anti-slavery crusade with an account of a British naval force burning a village on the Gallinas River in West Africa in 1845; a painting of this event made by a witness supplies the image on the book’s cover.footnote1 The commander believed that African traders had been using the site to traffic slaves. This was not an isolated occurrence—the bombardment of Lagos in 1850 followed the same pattern. For nearly half a century, Britain maintained a large squadron on the West African coast in order to enforce ‘abolition’—an anti-slave trading policy initially proposed by pacifists, but which was later adopted by the country’s rulers as part of a new way of waging war. This would allow Britain to respond to the ideological challenges of the epoch by redefining the moral basis of its conflicts with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and the United States of Thomas Jefferson. Huzzey’s book is dedicated to exploring how Britain could present itself as—and believe itself to be—an ‘anti-slavery nation’, while remaining the metropolitan hub, and maritime arbiter, of a slavery-based Atlantic economy and empire.

In Huzzey’s account, these apparently divergent and contradictory vocations fitted quite snugly together. Whereas much previous scholarship has focused on the emergence of British abolitionism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and its impact on the Americas, Freedom Burning directs attention to the comparatively neglected topic of what happened to British anti-slavery once it became official state policy. Huzzey, who is based in Liverpool—itself an important 18th-century slave-trading hub—and is co-director of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, sees the Victorian age as one of an ‘anti-slavery pluralism’, in which a ‘complex network of interests and agendas’ co-existed. He is concerned not so much with impugning motives as with exploring mentalities, and focuses not on slave emancipation in the Americas but rather the abolitionist project in Africa. Adopting a broadly thematic approach, Freedom Burning sets out in its opening chapters the strategic orientations of the movement against slavery, its multi-faceted relationship to domestic markets and social reform, and its incorporation into official diplomatic and legal frameworks. The second, and strongest, half of the book deals with the convergent histories of anti-slavery and imperial expansion, especially their relation to the construction of a national interest, British world power and economic growth.

Freedom Burning does not address the origins of abolitionism prior to the 1830s, but since many of the phenomena Huzzey discusses took root in this period, some preliminary points are in order. British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is often treated in splendid isolation, yet the decision was taken at a critical juncture: it helped the government to outflank the burgeoning agitation of the Societies for Peace, and to rally a war-weary populace for renewed sacrifices. Abolition was brandished as a lofty war aim, one ideally suited to symbolize a maritime Pax Britannica. The idea of halting the slave traffic had first arisen during the American War of Independence, with the rebels announcing a temporary boycott and some in Britain calling for permanent abolition. After the humiliation of defeat in North America, a reforming wing of the British oligarchy came to see abolition of the Atlantic slave trade as a fitting goal of imperial policy. The Anti-Jacobin panic, and a gigantic slave revolt in Saint Domingue, doomed all reform initiatives for a time, and persuaded William Wilberforce to cease pressing the cause in Parliament. However, the renewal of war with France in 1804 made Britain a de facto ally of Haiti, founded that year by black abolitionists after they had defeated Napoleon’s attempt to restore slavery in Saint Domingue. Victory at Trafalgar removed the threat of invasion and sealed Britannia’s global naval supremacy. By 1807 Westminster knew that the us Congress was likely to end slave imports the following year, and wished to deny the Americans moral capital on such a resonant issue. Official British abolitionism also served as a neat and necessary complement to the mundane preoccupation of British diplomacy, namely free trade.

After 1807, the question of the slave trade became a core ingredient of British domestic and international policy. In 1811, Parliament made complicity in the slave traffic by a British merchant tantamount to piracy, the punishment for which was hanging. In 1814 news leaked out that the victorious powers were planning to return ‘Saint Domingue’ (Haiti) to France in a bid to bolster the Restoration and encourage French attachment to commerce, seen as an antidote to militarism. There was a massive outcry against the idea, and Whitehall hastily abandoned it. Instead, British diplomats in Vienna secured a general declaration of the powers against the Atlantic slave trade—recognition that, in British eyes, abolitionism was the new coin of legitimacy. Slave revolts in Barbados (1815) and British Guiana (1823) then encouraged British abolitionists to turn their attention to their country’s own slave colonies, leading not only to a new and larger abolitionist campaign but also to a convergence between slave revolt and metropolitan anti-slavery, culminating in the Emancipation Act of 1833. Even after the Act was passed, a compulsory, unpaid ‘apprenticeship’ for the freedmen remained in place: it was finally abolished in 1838. Though the British decreed emancipation forty years after the French Convention, and thirty years after the founding of Haiti, it allowed governments in London henceforth to present themselves as the arbiters of civilized commerce.

The target of the British attack was not slavery itself but the international slave trade. Once the latter was struck down, it was claimed, slavery itself would wither and die—a notion belied by the rapid growth of the us slave population. The narrow focus on the slave trade undermined official British claims to be an ‘abolitionist nation’, and generated contradictions that traversed the period under discussion in Huzzey’s book. Formal renunciation of the slave trade was accompanied by a persistent Atlantic traffic. The governments in Madrid and Rio de Janeiro were bullied into signing treaties which gave British cruisers a ‘right of search’ allowing them to board suspect vessels and remove slaves. (Some were taken to British colonies and settlements, but those handed over to the Spanish or Brazilian authorities and sent to Cuba or Brazil—known as libertos—were treated as a species of state property whose status was little better than that of actual slaves.) Between 1831 and 1865, the Royal Navy’s West African squadron—composed of twenty to thirty ships and half a dozen coastal bases, with a combined strength of up to 4,000 men—seized 486 ships carrying 145,000 slaves, and searched a thousand more. Yet impressive as this effort may have seemed, the bid to extinguish the Atlantic slave trade encountered grave problems. The ocean was vast, and Britain’s treaty partners duplicitous: the Spanish and Brazilian authorities had no liking for a policy imposed on them by Whitehall, and connived at the continuing traffic in slaves. British high-handedness even alienated governments, such as that of Louis Philippe in the 1830s and 40s, which were quite effective in suppressing the trade. Between 1808 and 1865, some two million slaves were purchased on the African coast and brought to the Americas, mainly by Luso-Brazilian and Hispano-Cuban merchants. British merchants kept their distance, but continued to buy slave-grown sugar and cotton and to sell textiles and manufactures to Cuban and Brazilian slave traders. Military suppression thus enabled British governments to present themselves at home and abroad as the champions of abolition, even as Britain remained commercially entangled with slave-grown produce.