‘Mr Wakefield’s Speaking Trumpets': Abolishing Slavery and Colonising Systematically

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Abstract

This essay examines the significance of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s theory of ‘systematic colonisation’ within the transition from Caribbean slavery to settler colonisation to reveal the sequential relationship of these two imperial systems. In the context of industrialisation and social unrest, the anti-slavery movement performed an important purpose for Britain’s ruling classes by simultaneously accruing moral authority and sanctioning oppressive new forms of disciplined labour, including the treatment of Australian convicts as slaves. During the ‘ameliorative’ 1820s phase of the anti-slavery movement, experimental colonial schemes combined both abolitionist principles and pro-slavery interests, particularly visible in the form of arguments against free labour and the advocacy of racial, as well as class, labour hierarchies. Wakefield’s theory embodied principles of labour discipline drawn from the plantation, allied to new techniques of land commoditization, offering a solution to the looming problem of abolition. These principles were invoked in debating the emancipation bill introduced in May 1833, as all sides agreed on the need for freed slaves to work for wages; they were subsequently applied in the Caribbean after emancipation by planters attempting to maintain productivity during and beyond the apprenticeship period. After 1833, the abolitionists’ zeal could be turned to other causes, and reformers seeking to end transportation and develop the settler colonies deployed an entwined discourse of anti-slavery and systematic colonisation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-32
Number of pages32
JournalThe Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Aug 2021

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