Slave Empire

Padraic X. Scanlan

£25.00

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Little, Brown Book Group
26 November 2020
ISBN: 9781472142351
Hardback

From the publisher

'Engrossing and powerful . . . rich and thought-provoking'
Fara Dabhoiwala, Guardian

'Path-breaking . . . a major rewriting of history'

Mihir Bose, Irish Times

'Slave Empire is lucid, elegant and forensic. It deals with appalling horrors in cool and convincing prose.'

The Economist

'A sweeping and devastating history of how slavery made modern Britain, and destroyed so much else . . . a shattering rebuke to the amnesia and myopia which still structure British history'
Nicholas Guyatt, author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation

'Scanlan shows that the liberal empire of the nineteenth century was the outcome of the long encounter of antislavery and economic expansion founded on enslaved or unfree labour. Antislavery was itself the excuse for empire'
Emma Rothschild, Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History, Harvard University

'Fresh and fascinating, a stunning narrative that shows how an empire built on slavery became an empire sustained and expanded by antislavery. . . deftly combines rich storytelling with vivid details and deep scholarship'
Bronwen Everill, author of Not Made By Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition

'Lively and informative . . . there is a clear, almost textbook-like, account of the sugar plantation system . . . particularly good on the ill-fated "apprenticeship" scheme that was linked to abolition after 1834'

Krishan Kumar, University Professor and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, author of Empires: A Historical and Political Sociology, Times Literary Supplement

'This accessible synthesis of recent scholarship comes at the right time to help shape current debates about Britain and slavery'
Nicholas Draper, author of The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery

'Powerful, often devastating, always compelling'
All About History


The British empire, in sentimental myth, was more free, more just and more fair than its rivals. But this claim that the British empire was 'free' and that, for all its flaws, it promised liberty to all its subjects was never true. The British empire was built on slavery.


Slave Empire puts enslaved people at the centre the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In intimate, human detail, the chapters show how British imperial power and industrial capitalism were inextricable from plantation slavery. With vivid original research and careful synthesis of innovative historical scholarship, Slave Empire shows that British freedom and British slavery were made together.

In the nineteenth century, Britain abolished its slave trade, and then slavery in its colonial empire. Because Britain was the first European power to abolish slavery, many Victorian Britons believed theirs was a liberal empire, promoting universal freedom and civilisation. And yet, the shape of British liberty itself was shaped by the labour of enslaved African workers. There was no bright line between British imperial exploitation and the 'civilisation' that the empire promised to its subjects. Nineteenth-century liberals were blind to the ways more than two centuries of colonial slavery twisted the roots of 'British liberty'.

Freedom - free elections, free labour, free trade - were watchwords in the Victorian era, but the empire was still sustained by the labour of enslaved people, in the United States, Cuba and elsewhere. Modern Britain has inherited the legacies and contradictions of a liberal empire built on slavery. Modern capitalism and liberalism emphasise 'freedom' - for individuals and for markets - but are built on human bondage.