When Portuguese explorers and merchants launched the transatlantic slave trade from Africa to Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, Iberian precedent already provided a host of justifications for enslavement, based in part on Roman laws concerning “just war” and the status of non-Christians.
England’s New World empire emerged within a political, legal, and cultural context shaped not only by the peoples they encountered in the Americas, but also by deep contests over power within England itself and between England and other European countries.
The restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 not only restored the monarchy and the House of Lords, it also led to the consolidation of hereditary racial slavery in England’s colonies in the New World.
As the Stuart monarchs consolidated their power in the 1670s, the newly formed Whig Party emerged as a coalition party within the English Parliament. The Whigs viewed the Stuart monarchs as a threat to the liberties of English subjects and opposed mocharchical absolutism.
The Stuart kings continued to consolidate their power in the 1680s, forcing dissenters to seek exile abroad and prosecuting others for treason. James II’s accession to the throne in 1685 set off a broad and deep crisis, both in England and in the Americas.
The Glorious Revolution in England led to the establishment of basic reforms in government as well as important statements of rights, especially the English Bill of Rights of 1689. In the 1690s, rich critiques of absolute monarchy and defenses of “democratic” ideals emerged, including John Locke’s celebrated Two Treatises of Government.
Following the death of William III, Queen Anne returned to and expanded Stuart policies, particularly those involving the slave trade. Of particular importance was the Spanish “Assiento,” which granted the English exclusive rights to transport African captives to the Spanish colonies.
By the time of the American Revolution, the British Empire consisted of more than two dozen colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Only thirteen of them declared independence and participated in the war that resulted in the creation of a new nation. Slavery remained legal in most parts of the empire until the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
In the 19th Century, slavery and power were fiercely contested in the United States and the British Empire. But even as slavery was abolished in some states and colonies, it became more deeply embedded in others. In defending the peculiar institution, slavery’s proponents often relied on centuries old arguments and strategies, first used to justify and then expand slavery.
Whilst those abroade are thus acting and carrying on their Butcheries upon the Souls of men there, how quietly and unconcernedly in the mean time do we sit down here, and take our ease, not once in our thoughts reflecting upon this Calamity.
Morgan Godwyn, 1685
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This is a new Digital Humanities Project, supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (U.S.), the American Society for Legal History & the University of Maryland, College Park History Department.
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