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 PETLEY, Christer

PETLEY, Christer

Professor @ University of Southampton, UK


Christer Petley is Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Southampton, UK, and a former Chair of the SCS. His work has focused on Caribbean history and the histories of slavery and abolition, with a focus on the Anglophone Caribbean in the period between c.1770 and 1838. He has worked in particular detail on the social history and political cultures of slaveholding whites in Jamaica and on the debates that led to the ending of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery during the 1830s. His books include Slaveholders in Jamaica: Colonial Society and Culture during the Era of Abolition (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009) and White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). He has published edited collections on the fall of the planter class, material cultures of slavery and abolition, and on the Royal Navy and the Atlantic world. His two most recent research articles are: ‘Slaveholders and Revolution: The Jamaican Planter Class, British imperial Politics, and the Ending of the Slave Trade, 1775–1807’, Slavery & Abolition 39/1 (2018); and ‘Managing “Property”: The Colonial Order of Things within Jamaican Probate Inventories’, Journal of Global Slavery 6/1 (2021).

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Race and the Legacies of Enslavement


The Caribbean and the 1807 Abolition Act

As Eric Williams pointed out in Capitalism and Slavery (1944), it would be ‘a grave mistake’ to view the battle over slavery ‘as if it were merely a metropolitan struggle’. However, from the 1970s, Williams’s critics and the literature they influenced tended to represent the British parliamentary debate that led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 in precisely that way: mainly as a metropolitan struggle. This paper builds on more recent work that has re-emphasised the importance of Caribbean perspectives to our understanding of abolition. In particular, it develops the argument put forward by Claudius Fergus—that the case for ending the slave trade came before parliament under ‘the banner of a new philosophy of colonialism’. That new philosophy was part of an official administrative mindset that set a new course for British colonialism in the Caribbean during the 1790s and 1800s. It was shaped by concerns over the security of British colonies during an era of costly Caribbean warfare and by events in the Francophone Caribbean, especially the Haitian Revolution. It cut across parliamentary factions and was crucial to eventual success of the 1807 Abolition Act. Drawing on evidence from official correspondence in British and Jamaican archives, this paper demonstrates that while the Abolition Act of 1807 was influenced by metropolitan abolitionist campaigns, its rationale reflected a far wider transatlantic set of political struggles. It was an act of empire that responded to the actions and revolutionary potential of enslaved people from across the Caribbean.

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