Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of the British Atlantic Empire, by Abigail L. Swingen

Donald M. MacRaild on an exploration of imperial expansion in the 17th century

April 2, 2015

Competing Visions of Empire is an important contribution to our understanding of the interactions of domestic politics, international relations and colonial and imperial progress in the Atlantic world. Central to Abigail Swingen’s book are the unfolding of debates about how to provide labour for the colonies, leading to free and bonded European migrations being dwarfed in the plantation colonies by a massive explosion in African slavery. Competing and complementary discussions about trade and empire are interestingly located within the wider context of major political developments in Britain: the Interregnum, the Restoration, the Exclusion Crisis, the Popish Plot and so on. Whig power and wealth, and Tory attempts at countering them, feature strongly at certain moments.

Workers bonded by various means – such as indentured servants and convicts working their sentences – were central to discussions about the development of the early Empire. In the first half of the 1600s, with its population rising markedly, England was seen as having a surfeit of people, “who”, as one sermon claimed, “do swarm in the land, as young bees in a hive”. In such circumstances, the colonies were a useful pressure valve for social and political threats. Yet initially most migration was voluntary. It was in the 1650s and 1660s, when England’s population fell by nearly one-tenth, that paupers, vagrants and cut-throat gibbet-dodgers began to be sought by men like the sugar planter Christopher Jeaffreson. His attempts to secure 300 convicts to work on his lands in St Kitts in the West Indies faced great difficulties: the extortionate sureties required, the bribes demanded by corrupt gaolers, countless official blocks and the low quality of the available inmates. Moreover, as labour-intensive cane production became more popular, in sugar islands such as Barbados slave numbers rose rapidly to account for more than three-quarters of immigrant labour. Simultaneously, wider forces reduced the supply of free or bonded white English labour. The home population declined markedly so that from the 1670s, “English men and women were not simply forgoing the West Indies colonies…they were also no longer going to the North American colonies in significant numbers”. Slaves replaced them in one economy, and Germans and the Scots-Irish in others.

Swingen closely reads masses of contemporary manuscript sources to explore imperial expansions in the West Indies under Oliver Cromwell; the rise of the monopolistic Stuart-run Company of Royal Adventurers; and the Royal African Company’s loss of its monopoly on trade with West Africa following the deposing of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That setback had no effect on the slave trade, however, because in the 1690s slave labour was fully accepted as integral to the colonial economy and, therefore, to homeland needs.

Debates about Empire were many and diverse, but two strong continuities emerge: that trade was competitive between nations (hence the Navigation Acts imposed to stymie non-English traders); and that slavery was increasingly central to the health of the colonial economies and to British national interests. Any doubts about the latter were removed in 1713 when Britain’s South Sea Company received the asiento, the contract to supply slaves to the Spanish Empire. This not only reflected British commitment to utilising slaves in their own Empire, but also to providing them for others’ empires, too.

Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of the British Atlantic Empire

By Abigail L. Swingen
Yale University Press, 288pp, £60.00
ISBN 9780300187540
Published 23 April 2015

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