How did the arguments developed in the debate to abolish the slave trade help to construct a British national identity and character in the late eighteenth century? Srividhya Swaminathan examines books, pamphlets, and literary works to trace the changes in rhetorical strategies utilized by both sides of the abolitionist debate. Framing them as competing narratives engaged in defining the nature of the Briton, Swaminathan reads the arguments of pro- and anti-abolitionists as a series of dialogues among diverse groups at the center and peripheries of the empire. Arguing that neither side emerged triumphant, Swaminathan suggests that the Briton who emerged from these debates represented a synthesis of arguments, and that the debates to abolish the slave trade are marked by rhetorical transformations defining the image of the Briton as one that led naturally to nineteenth-century imperialism and a sense of global superiority. Because the slave-trade debates were waged openly in print rather than behind the closed doors of Parliament, they exerted a singular influence on the British public. At their height, between 1788 and 1793, publications numbered in the hundreds, spanned every genre, and circulated throughout the empire. Among the voices represented are writers from both sides of the Atlantic in dialogue with one another, such as key African authors like Ignatius Sancho, Phillis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano; West India planters and merchants; and Quaker activist Anthony Benezet. Throughout, Swaminathan offers fresh and nuanced readings that eschew the view that the abolition of the slave trade was inevitable or that the ultimate defeat of pro-slavery advocates was absolute.
'Employing a careful rhetorical approach to a substantial archive of antislavery and proslavery writings, Debating the Slave Trade offers a thoughtful analysis of the relation between the language of reform and the often fraught issue of British national identity in the late eighteenth century. What makes this book unique is the scholarly attention it pays to the printed texts on both sides of the slavery debate; it effectively and sometimes elegantly brings antislavery and proslavery writings into cultural conversation with one another, a conversation constantly reformulating not only the questions of humanity and liberty but also the terms of civilized, British identity during an age of imperial expansion and revolutionary violence.' Philip Gould, Brown University, USA ’... we now have a much clearer sense of how eighteenth-century slave-trade debates evolved over time, just as we have a clearer sense of how they impinged on questions of national identity. Written in a clear and accessible style and nicely produced by Ashgate, this is a book that deserves a wide readership.’ Journal of British Studies 'Swaminathan's Debating the Slave Trade is a valuable contribution to the literature and should be read by scholars of the slavery debates from whichever fields they walk.' Literature and History 'This monograph makes important contributions to the history of slavery and abolition, the study of British national identity, and our understanding of the development of imperial ideology. It provides a powerfully argued, theoretically sophisticated, and nuanced discussion, making it essential reading for scholars and postgraduate students. ... this is an ambition and fascinating research monograph.' American Historical Review ’Swaminathathan’s intelligent and nuanced study is an important historical backdrop to our contemporary debates over these Christian foundations of British nationhood.’ Churchman