Sunday, December 6, 2020

J.R. Oldfield's "The Ties that Bind"

John Oldfield is Professor of Emancipation and Slavery at The University of Hull.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1866, and reported the following:
If readers open The Ties that Bind at page 99, they will find a discussion of the role of women in the boycotting of slave-produced goods. Whether as consumers or arbiters of taste, particularly in the domestic sphere, women took a lead in the non-consumption campaigns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Moreover, these campaigns were often framed in gender terms. The Quaker activist William Allen declared that women were “universally considered as the MODELS of every just and virtuous sentiment.” Their example, therefore, in “ABSTAINING FROM THE USE OF WEST INDIA PRODUCE [would] silence every murmur – refute every objection – and render the performance of duty as UNIVERSAL as their INFLUENCE.” A great deal of support for the boycotting of slave-produced goods undoubtedly came from women. As early as 1788, the British poet Hannah More urged a close friend “to taboo the use of West India sugar in their tea.” If anything, non-consumption gained in momentum during the nineteenth century. On both sides of the Atlantic, many ladies’ associations actively promoted abstinence from slave-produced goods, including sugar, coffee, and cotton. Another tactic was to put pressure on local shopkeepers to sell only Free Labor produce, thereby making explicit the connection between antislavery, consumption, and the world of goods.

The test works well but I should perhaps begin by qualifying this point. My book is not specifically about women or about gender relations. Rather, its focus is on two inter-related themes; the creation of what we might call a constituency for antislavery ("opinion building") and the importance of international co-operation ("transatlanticism)". As I argue in The Ties that Bind, antislavery was never a parochial British affair, any more than it was a parochial American affair. Instead, it was an international movement that bound together British and American reformers in dense transatlantic networks that, in turn, depended on reciprocity and trust. Women, however, played a crucial role in raising public awareness about slavery, whether as consumers or producers. Many women, as the test reveals, were involved in the non-consumption of slave-produced goods. They also distributed tracts and pamphlets and, in the USA, at least, involved themselves in collecting signatures for antislavery petitions, sometimes canvassing door-to-door. Others were part of transatlantic networks that formed a kind of international “sisterhood.” The Boston Antislavery Bazaar, to take an obvious example, depended a great deal on contributions from British women, including artefacts that they had designed and created themselves. The Boston Antislavery Bazaar was one of the most successful of all antislavery endeavors. Its endurance, moreover, highlighted the importance both of “consumerism” -- page 99 appears in a chapter entitled “Consuming Abolition” -- and international co-operation. In this sense, the test speaks directly to the central themes of The Ties that Bind, urging readers to consider how eighteenth and nineteenth-century antislavery activists worked together to create a constituency for abolition.
Learn more about The Ties that Bind at the Liverpool University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue