Travel, colonialism and slavery

From Robinson Crusoe to the anti-slavery activism of Olaudah Equiano and the letters of Ignatius Sancho: explore a range of writing produced during an age of travel, trade and colonial conquest, in which Britain vastly expanded its Empire, fuelled by its involvement in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

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An introduction to Gulliver’s Travels

Article by:
John Mullan

Jonathan Swift initially did his best to conceal the fact that he was the author of Gulliver's Travels. John Mullan explores how Swift constructed the work to operate as an elaborate game, parodying travel literature, pretending to be an autobiography and containing obviously false facts presented by a deeply unreliable narrator.

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Travel, trade and the expansion of the British Empire

Article by:
Jim Watt

In the 17th century, London was at the centre of global trade, with goods and individuals arriving in the capital from all over the world. Jim Watt looks at how travel, trade and empire shaped the works of Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Josiah Wedgwood, Oliver Goldsmith and Ignatius Sancho.

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Preface to Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

Article by:
Paterson Joseph

Paterson Joseph describes how his research into Black British history led him to write his first play, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. In this one-man show, Paterson Joseph inhabits the life of Ignatius Sancho, the 18th-century composer, aspiring actor, letter-writer and anti-slavery campaigner, who became the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election.

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African writers and Black thought in 18th-century Britain

Article by:
S I Martin

By 1780, Britain had a Black population of at least 20,000 people. S I Martin describes how four writers, taken from Africa as children and sold into slavery, grew up to write works that challenged British ideas about race, called for African brotherhood and demanded the abolition of the slave trade.

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Britain’s involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade

Article by:
Abdul Mohamud, Robin Whitburn

With a focus on the 17th and 18th centuries, Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn trace the history of Britain’s large-scale involvement in the enslavement of Africans and the transatlantic slave trade. Alongside this, Mohamud and Whitburn consider examples of resistance by enslaved people and communities, the work of abolitionists and the legacy of slavery.

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Voices in the campaign for abolition

Article by:
Brycchan Carey

From the mid 18th century, Africans and people of African descent – many of them former slaves – began to write down their stories. Brycchan Carey describes these writings and assesses their role in the abolition of slavery.

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The rise of consumerism

Article by:
Matthew White

With increasing variety in clothes, food and household items, shopping became an important cultural activity in the 18th century. Dr Matthew White describes buying and selling during the period, and explains the connection between many luxury goods and plantations in the Americas that depended on the forced labour of enslaved Africans.

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Robinson Crusoe: A world classic

Article by:
Michael A Seidel

Michael Seidel explains how Daniel Defoe came to write Robinson Crusoe, and why the novel and its protagonist have fascinated readers for centuries.

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An introduction to Robinson Crusoe

Article by:
Stephen Sharkey

Playwright Stephen Sharkey describes his own first encounter with Robinson Crusoe and examines how the novel was shaped by Daniel Defoe's religious dissent, imperialist beliefs and fascination with money.

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Oroonoko: Historical and political contexts

Article by:
Janet Todd

As a young woman, Aphra Behn was a spy for Charles II's government in Antwerp and probably in South America. Two decades later, she used these experiences to write Oroonoko, the story of a prince kidnapped from West Africa, enslaved and taken to a British colony in South America. Janet Todd explains how this extraordinary novella was shaped by the historical and political contexts and beliefs of Behn's time.

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The Rape of the Lock: A darker mirror

Article by:
Andrew Macdonald-Brown

Andrew Macdonald-Brown shows how Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock progresses from satirising the foolishness of wealthy young women to exposing the violence that results from unequal power relations, whether between men and women, rich and poor or imperial powers and colonised nations.

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Further themes

Rise of the novel

Discover how the novel emerged as a new literary form in the 18th century and examine pioneering texts, from Oroonoko and Robinson Crusoe to Gulliver’s Travels and Pamela.

Gender and sexuality

Examine representations of gender and sexuality in Restoration and 18th-century literature including Paradise Lost and The Rape of the Lock, and explore the works of early women writers such as Aphra Behn, Frances Burney and Margaret Cavendish.

Theatre and entertainment

From Restoration comedy to The Beggar’s Opera, She Stoops to Conquer and The School for Scandal: examine key plays alongside the history and conventions of Restoration and 18th-century theatre.

Politics and religion

The Civil Wars and the Restoration of the monarchy, the Enlightenment or ‘Age of Reason’, and British colonialism: investigate the political and religious contexts of Restoration and 18th-century literature.

Georgian society

Explore the Georgian period in its social, political and historical contexts, with overviews of popular politics, the rise of consumerism and entertainment.

Travel, colonialism and slavery

From Robinson Crusoe to the anti-slavery activism of Olaudah Equiano and the letters of Ignatius Sancho: explore a range of writing produced during an age of travel, trade and colonial conquest, in which Britain vastly expanded its Empire, fuelled by its involvement in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

Satire and humour

Discover how writers of the 17th and 18th centuries used satire and humour to address issues around politics and power, inequality and class, gender and marriage – as well as to entertain readers and audiences.

Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism

Explore polite culture, sensibility and sentimentalism in the 18th century, and how these concepts are reflected in the writing of the period.

Language and ideas

From Johnson’s Dictionary to letter-writing, newspapers and coffee-house culture: explore how different forms and mediums helped to develop and circulate language and ideas during the long 18th century.