Dr George William Van Cleve – Remarks on Freedom’s Debt

Remarks on William A.Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt : The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752[1]  

                                   by Dr. George William Van Cleve

Dr. William Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt is a well-crafted, well-written, and important book that will become a standard work in its field.  Following are brief comments on its content, the issues it addresses, and its argument.

This is a book on an important part of the history of British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, told through the lens of the Royal African Company.  The Company was a royal monopoly chartered under Charles II, which ultimately was superseded by a deregulated trade conducted by individual traders and partnerships after a legal and political struggle lasting decades.  The book analyzes the political failure of the Royal African Company monopoly, which led directly to a massive expansion of British involvement in the slave trade.

I.  The Book’s Content

The book thoroughly and perceptively analyzes the legal and political support and opposition for the company, particularly in the period from 1672-1712.  It then provides a revealing examination of the ideas put forth in the debate; and next considers the  strategies they used to gain their political objectives.  Finally, it reviews the later history of the Company’s activities and controversies, such as its involvement with the South Sea Company of the 1720s, and its efforts to have its monopoly reinstated in the 1740s.  Each of these topics is thoroughly researched using an impressive array of primary source materials.

II.  Key Issues

1) What role did changes in British politics play in the fate of the RAC and the slave trade? 2) What role did ideas about the British national interest and freedom play? 3) How did the fight over the slave trade influence British abolitionism?

III.  Argument of the book

Briefly, the book’s argument is this.  The failure of the RAC was not about economics.  RAC were not just bad businessmen, as Kenneth Davies argued.  The book challenges economists’ argument that an increased demand for slaves inevitably led to a more efficient method for expanding the trade.  Instead, the critical question is why Parliament chose to side with the independent traders–what were the reasons for what was ultimately a political choice?  After all, Parliament made a strikingly different choice in the case of the East India Company, and politicians don’t necessarily choose efficiency.  The book advances a modern explanation that integrates politics and economics.  It views this as at bottom a struggle between competing interest groups advancing conflicting ideas of freedom. A modern, Whig, atomistic, Mandevillian conception of freedom won out–and sealed the fate of hundreds of thousands of slaves.  This is the book’s central insight: it allows us to see that the growth of the slave trade was at base rooted in the triumph of modern conceptions of liberal government and individual liberty. It perceptively historicizes the British idea of freedom. But that raises anew the question of the real roots of British abolition–since once one gets past the idea that abolition simply “universalized” a timeless concept of liberty and applied it to Africans, it is necessary to acknowledge that other factors were also at work.


[1] Delivered orally in somewhat different form, 25 January 2014, London. 

Please see The Team  for further information about Dr George William Van Cleve, Senior Research Fellow.

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