Anna Gambles's Protection and politics (1999) established the existence of a sophisticated and pervasive conservative economic discourse in Britain in the decades before Repeal. This article argues that the imperial aspect of that discourse – comprising ideals of imperial economic integration, imperial preference, and British navigational prowess – has been mistakenly understood as a response to ‘the imperialism of free trade'. In fact, these ideals were evolved primarily as the intellectual response of the West Indian lobby to the Anti-Slavery Society's campaign for the emancipation of British colonial slaves. Emancipation was regarded as a prospective economic disaster for the British plantation system and so the years after 1823 witnessed the vigorous and sophisticated defence of West Indian slavery by rhetorical and discursive means traditionally ascribed the label of ‘conservative economics'. This article argues that the imperial economic discourse hitherto considered ‘conservative’ should more properly be recognized as ‘pro-slavery’, something underscored by the pro-slavery sympathies of the writers credited with the articulation of this discourse, and by the almost exclusive relevance of its arguments to West Indian, as opposed to other colonial possessions.
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