‘Devoted Islands’ and ‘That Madman Wilberforce’

The debate about the reform and dismantling of the British-Atlantic slave system, which began in earnest during the 1780s, threatened more than the economic interests of the British-Caribbean planter class. The rise of humanitarianism was one aspect of a new mode of British imperialism that also challenged slaveholders’ self-image as loyal and free members of an extended British world. Questions of national identity, patriotism and the British constitution were central to the trans-imperial controversy over slavery. Private letters and contributions to public debates demonstrate that proslavery reactions to abolitionism were deeply rooted in a set of assumptions about the symbiotic relationship between colony and metropole, in which white slaveholders in the West Indies helped to prop up prosperity and order throughout the transatlantic British world. Slaveholders claimed that reforms to the slave system were dangerous acts of betrayal and affronts to their status as freeborn Britons. Focusing on these issues sheds fresh light not only on the abolition debate and late-eighteenth century tensions about the future of the empire, but also on the broader theme of imperial conflicts over settler rights and white colonists’ claims to British liberties. Click here