Letter defending the slave trade in the Gentleman's Magazine, volume 59

Description

Please note that this collection item contains racist stereotypes about African people and factual inaccuracies about the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in British colonies.

In the late 1780s, a debate raged in the letter pages of British newspapers and magazines on the subject of the transatlantic slave trade. Just as the abolitionists were gaining more support, the powerful West India lobby hit back. They used letters, such as this example, to oppose the abolition of the slave trade and circulate their own pro-slavery arguments.

The lobby was made up of individuals who owned plantations in the Caribbean and those who profited from the slave trade in some other way, whether directly or indirectly. The lobby had variable success: for many years, for example, they were able to tactically outmanoeuvre abolitionist bills in Parliament, as some MPs owned plantations and property connected to the slave trade. In 1807, Parliament passed an act to abolish Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.

What are the contents of this letter?

This letter, dated April 1789, opens with the statement that ‘The scheme of the abolition of the slave-trade is, in every view of it, absurd and impolitic’. The letter was published in The Gentleman's Magazine, a journal of news and gossip that did not support the abolitionist cause.

Written by an anonymous planter, the author uses racist anti-Black stereotypes to justify the system of slavery and the slave trade. For example, they claim that all African people are ‘idle’ without the system of slavery and that they have no culture (stating that they are ‘totally incapable of refinement, arts, or sciences’). The author shows no awareness of African societies and cultures, such as the artist and craft guilds of the kingdom of Benin, for example. The planter uses other propaganda tactics commonly adopted by those who supported slavery, such as claiming that 'work in the Plantations is not harder, or more oppressive, than that of our common labourers in England' and suggesting that enslaved Africans be called 'assistant planters' rather than ‘slaves’.

Full title:
Gentleman's magazine and historical chronicle.
Published:
1789, London
Format:
Periodical
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
249.d.1-23.

Full catalogue details

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Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain

Article by:
Professor John Oldfield
Themes:
Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery

Towards the end of the 18th century, a movement emerged calling for an end to the slave trade and, later, slavery itself. Professor John Oldfield traces the road to abolition from the 1780s to the 1830s, highlighting the impacts of grass-roots organisation, leadership, Black resistance and pro-slavery interests.

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