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New Left Review 87, May-June 2014


Robin Blackburn

GUNBOAT ABOLITIONISM

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. [1] Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain, Cornell University Press: Ithaca 2012, $29.95, hardback 303 pp, 978 0 8014 5108 9 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.

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