Monday, October 1, 2012

Richard Huzzey's "Freedom Burning"

Richard Huzzey is Lecturer in History at Plymouth University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain, and reported the following:
The ninety-ninth page of my book certainly touches on the broader themes of the volume and the writing style reflects 'the quality of the whole' in my eyes, in so far as I'm mostly pleased but always wonder how sentences might be improved:
Victorians had to decide whether an anti-slavery nation could or should wean itself off such an addition to the fruits of slavery. Sugar created a particular dilemma because [as Benjamin Disraeli noted] 'all considerations mingle in it; not merely commercial, but imperial, philanthropic, religious; confounding and crossing each other, and confusing the legislature and the nation lost in a maze of conflicting interests and emotions'.
This page comes at the opening of a section on how free traders dismantled the tarrifs protecting Britain's free-labour sugar against foreign slave-grown imports. The public squabble over whether "cheap sugar means cheap slaves" is just one issue where I trace how Victorians differed over the ways in which anti-slavery principle could be compatible with economic prosperity. In raising questions about moral responsibility in a globalising world, the page shares a concern with the rest of the book, pregnant with modern parallels. Later I look at the fight over whether taxpayers should fund the Royal Navy’s continuing mission to hunt and capture slave traders, for example, and debates over whether humanitarian intervention.

Throughout the book, I’m interested in the breadth and shallowness of anti-slavery sentiment in Britain. It’s broad, because I suggest that it’s publicly disastrous for Victorians to defend human bondage. But it’s also shallow, because support for emancipation did not challenge racist views. Indeed, racism was unshackled from the stigma of pro-slavery, while many abolitionists were happy to see black West Indians or African societies forced to behave as anti-slavery theories dictated.

I part company with historians of the British empire who see Victorian denunciations of slavery – in the course of conquering much of Africa and devising new systems of forced labour – as a pious deception. Rather, I think we should see opposition to slavery as an idea which could be married to a host of different policies: Anti-slavery arguments could fuel free trade or protectionism, pacifism or humanitarian intervention, decolonisation or imperialism. What interests me in the book is why an aggressive, racist strain of anti-slavery fuelled the scramble for African empire and why British emancipation came fifty years before (not fifty years after) that subjugation.
Learn more about the book and author at Richard Huzzey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue