Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole

Slavery and Empire

Anonymous, Alecto and her Train at the Gate of Pandaemonium, or, The Recruiting Sarjeant Enlisting John-Bull into the Revolution Service (July 4, 1791)

The same period that birthed the Enlightenment—hardly a uniform project, but a movement often characterized by notions of “universal” equality and freedom and an obsessive pursuit of knowledge—also saw the heights of transatlantic slavery.  In the British Empire, opinions about the importance and morality of slavery traversed a wide spectrum.  Some eighteenth-century officials, such as Charles Hayes (1678–1760) in The Importance of Effectually Supporting the Royal African Company of England, Impartially Consider’d (1745), stressed slavery’s central role in supporting the nation and its global ambitions.  This was reiterated in this exhibition’s manuscript history of the Seven Years’ War that emphasized Britain’s status not only as a major European power, but as a strong force around the world.  Others highlighted the positives of slave society even more dramatically, in prints such as Thomas Vivarès’s A View in the Island of Jamaica, or Roaring River Estate, Belonging to William Beckford Esqr. Near Savannah la Marr (1778) and the anonymous West Indian Luxury!! (1803), both of which painted Caribbean plantations as idyllic spaces of natural and material abundance.  In contrast, by the end of the eighteenth century as the abolition movement began to take root throughout the Empire, more prints and manuscripts circulated that decried the horrors of slavery, as illustrated in William Elmes;s The Horrid Torture of Impalment [sic] Alive as a Punishment on Runaway Slaves (1808).  As debates over slavery—both the enslavement of African laborers and the metaphorical enslavement of colonists to the British imperial rule—proliferated throughout the Empire, so too did more sophisticated and elaborate written and visual manifestations of those debates.

Further Reading: Slavery and Empire