Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843

Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843

Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843

Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843

Synopsis

This book explores the complex interactions between imperial expansion, political abolitionism and colonial philanthropy that underpinned the ambivalent attitudes of both British evangelicals and East India company officials towards the existence of slavery in India in the period 1772 -1843."

Excerpt

In June and July 1833, the Houses of Parliament met to discuss the renewal of the East India Company’s (EIC) Charter, the royal grant that allowed this joint stock company first to trade with, and later to rule, India (Fig. 1). Tucked away among sections that removed the Company’s remaining trade monopolies, divested it of its commercial functions and transferred greater authority to the parliamentary Board of Control, was a clause stating that by 12 April 1837 ‘all rights over any person, by reason of that person being in a state of slavery, shall cease’. Sponsored by Charles Grant (the younger) and Thomas Babington Macaulay, two men from prominent political families closely connected with both Clapham Sect abolitionism and East Indian trade, this clause was raised in the House of Commons at the same time that the more famous legislation dismantling the system of African chattel slavery in Britain’s colonies was beginning its journey through parliament. As the EIC’s Indian territories were specifically excluded from the Emancipation Bill, the Charter negotiations offered abolitionists a timely opportunity to put pressure on the East India Company to adopt similar reforms. The sudden attempt to end slavery in India in 1833 was unprecedented, however, for, although the existence of coercive labour conditions on the subcontinent had haunted the peripheries of abolitionist debate throughout the 1820s, Indian slavery had previously been conspicuous primarily by its absence from popular discourses of both colonial philanthropy and parliamentary reform. Little preparatory research into conditions in India was done in 1833, and the terms of the original clause, which allowed only four years to prepare and made no mention of financial recompense, were extremely radical. They certainly exceeded those of the Emancipation Bill, which provided both £20 million compensation for dispossessed West Indian planters and a gradual transition from slavery to free labour via the apprenticeship system.

The EIC’s governing body in London, the Court of Directors, was predictably alarmed at the implications of suddenly abolishing slavery in India, and their representatives in parliament gathered significant support in opposition to what they perceived to be a rash and ill-thought-out measure.

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