“The evils of slavery cannot be mitigated”: The Amelioration and Emancipation of Slavery in the British Empire, 1785-1865

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Weisenberg-Vincent, Josh
Keyword
Slavery , Emancipation , British Empire , Nineteenth Century , British Caribbean , Amelioration
Abstract
This thesis illustrates that amelioration stalled, postponed, and often blocked the general movement towards emancipation in the British Empire during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. It challenges the predominant notion among historians that there was an automatic sequence from amelioration—the act of improving conditions of slavery—to emancipation—the act of freeing enslaved people. The promises of improvement made between the 1780s and 1830s did not and could not have produced freedom. No matter how Britons used the idea of amelioration, whether for humanitarian or self-interested reasons, the result remained the same: slavery was strengthened through amelioration. Amelioration was incomplete, ineffective, and foredoomed because of its failure to see the enslaved as equal human beings. This is illustrated through intellectual and political understandings of amelioration, as well as the practical implementation of ameliorative policies. Emancipation was produced because of the failure of amelioration rather than its success. By analyzing parliamentary papers, newspaper articles, colonial dispatches, pamphlets, and a wide array of secondary sources, this thesis examines how pro- and antislavery proponents contemplated and negotiated the meanings and goals of amelioration and emancipation. It traces strands of amelioration in both the British metropole and plantation colonies, with special emphasis in the British Caribbean. The first chapter examines the long arc of amelioration, illustrating that it was not emancipatory and played a key role in discussions on the abolition of the slave trade. In the next chapter, this thesis interrogates the idea of gradual emancipation and shows that reforms emerging in the 1820s—the supposed decade of amelioration—was an obstacle to emancipation. Finally, the third chapter argues that the failure of amelioration, in theory and practice, resulted in the sudden shift from gradual to immediate emancipation in the early-1830s.
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