Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Political economy and antislavery opinion: Malachy Postlethwayt's remarks on the slave trade (1740-1760)

Londe Silva Ana Paula Londe Silva, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

Thomas Clarkson’s History of the abolition of the British slave trade (1808) was the first historical narrative of British abolitionism. In his book, Clarkson named some forerunners of the abolitionist cause in Britain, who earlier “favored the cause of injured Africans” and somehow “prepared” the minds of the late 18th century abolitionists, including his own, to act against slave trade. But when naming these early forerunners, Clarkson considered the mere antislavery inclination as genuine abolitionism. Therefore, his narrative can be very misleading, especially because the abolition of colonial slavery was not always the goal of the 18th century antislavery writers. Those engaged in the public debate often deployed antislavery as a weapon against their opposers and/or to defend a particular political agenda regarding the British Empire. This behavior becomes clear when we consider the political economy discussion underlying the debate on colonial slavery. Malachy Postlethwayt’s remarks on the slave trade well illustrate this case. Signing as “A British merchant”, he published a tract in 1745 stating that the slave trade was the heart of the British colonial policy and, therefore, promoted the Empire’s prosperity. Just a few years later, in the Dictionary of trade and commerce (1751-1755), he started to question whether the slave trade was, in fact, advantageous to England. Behind his shift towards antislavery seems to be a project to encourage British colonization of unexplored African territories. Thus, the paper proposed will investigate whether Postlewayt’s remarks on the slave trade could illustrate that antislavery opinion was mobilized in the public debate to defend a particular project regarding British imperial policy in the mid-18th century. In doing so, we expect to show why the mere antislavery inclination means neither that people were abolitionists, nor that they were questioning the British colonial enterprise build under African enslavement.

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Keywords: British Empire, colonial slavery, slave trade, antislavery, 18th century