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Sir John Gladstone and the Debate over the Amelioration of Slavery in the British West Indies in the 1820s

  • Trevor Burnard and Kit Candlin

Sir John Gladstone made a fortune as a Demerara sugar-planter and a key supporter of the British policy of amelioration in which slavery would be “improved” by making it more “humane.” Unlike resident planters in the British West Indies, who were firmly opposed to any alteration to the conditions of enslavement, and unlike abolitionists, who saw amelioration as a step toward abolition, Gladstone was a rare but influential metropolitan-based planter with an expansive imperial vision, prepared to work with British politicians to guarantee his investments in slavery through progressive slave reforms. This article intersects with recent historiography highlighting connections between metropole and colony but also insists on the influence of Demerara, including the effects of a large slave rebellion centered on Gladstone's estates (which illustrated that enslaved people were not happy with Gladstone's supposedly enlightened attitudes) on metropolitan sensibilities in the 1820s. Gladstone's strategies for an improved slavery, despite the contradictions inherent in championing such a policy while maintaining a fierce drive for profits, were a powerful counter to a renewed abolitionist thrust against slavery in the mid to late 1820s. Gladstone showed that that the logic of gradual emancipation still had force in imperial thinking in this decade.

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1 Williams, Eric, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, 1944).

2 Stephen, James, England Enslaved by Her Own Slave Colonies […]. (London, 1826). For proslavery in the 1820s, see Dumas, Paula E., Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (London, 2016).

3 For evangelical culture and antislavery after 1807, see Hall, Catherine, Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain (New Haven, 2012), chap.1. For revitalized slavery in the Atlantic world in the early nineteenth century, see Kaye, Anthony, “The Second Slavery: Modernity in the Nineteenth-Century South and the Atlantic World,” Journal of Southern History 75, no. 3 (August 2009): 627–50.

4 Ballantyne, Tony, “Humanitarian Narratives: Knowledge and the Politics of Mission and Empire,” Social Sciences and Missions 24, nos. 2–3 (2011): 233–64.

5 Burnard, Trevor, “A Voice for Slaves: The Office of the Fiscal in Berbice and the Beginnings of Protection in the British Empire,” Pacific Historical Review 87, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 3053.

6 Lambert, David, White Creole Culture: Politics and Identity in the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, 2005), chap. 2.

7 Gladstone was the heir of “progressive” planters in the eighteenth-century West Indies who wished to implant new ideas of agricultural improvement onto their plantations. Roberts, Justin, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750–1807 (New York, 2013).

8 Petley, Christer, “New Perspectives on Slavery and Emancipation in the British Caribbean,” The Historical Journal 54, no. 3 (September 2011): 855–80; and Draper, Nicholas, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge, 2010).

9 Gladstone, John [Mercator, pseud.], Letters Concerning the Abolition of the Slave-Trade and other West-India Affairs, by Mercator (London, 1807).

10 Ward, J. R., British West Indian Slavery, 1750–1834: The Process of Amelioration (Oxford, 1988); Turner, Mary, “Planter Profits and Slave Rewards: Amelioration Reconsidered,” in West Indies Accounts: Essays on the History of the British Caribbean and the Atlantic Economy in Honour of Richard Sheridan, ed. McDonald, Roderick A. (Kingston, 1996): 232–52; Thompson, Alvin O., Unprofitable Servants: Crown Slaves in Berbice, Guyana, 1803–1831 (Kingston, 2002), 3644; Dierksheide, Christa, Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in the Plantation Americas (Charlottesville, 2014); and Caroline Quarrier Spence, “Ameliorating Empire: Slavery and Protection in the British Colonies, 1783–1865” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014). J. R. Ward has revisited amelioration in Ward, “The Amelioration of British West Indian Slavery: Anthropometric Evidence,” Economic Historical Review, 11 January 2018,

11 Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 7, 144, 208, 235.

12 Dierksheide, Amelioration and Empire, chap. 6.

13 Bayly, Christopher, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830 (London, 1989), 11; Gambles, Anna, Protection and Politics: Conservative Economic Discourse, 1815–1852 (Woodbridge, 1999), 150.

14 Thompson, E. P., “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present 38, no. 1 (December 1967): 5697.

15 Spence, “Ameliorating Empire,” 305–6.

16 George Canning, Speech to the House of Commons, 16 March 1824, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 2nd series, vol. 10 (1820–30), col. 1095.

17 Among a vast literature on American slave owners as effective capitalists, see Follett, Richard, The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana's Cane World, 1820–1860 (Baton Rouge, 2005).

18 Hilton, Boyd, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1795–1865 (Oxford, 1988), 204, 219, 377. For the origins of Anglican evangelical influence on British politics, see Torrance, John, “Social Class and Bureaucratic Innovation: The Commissioners for Examining the Public Accounts 1780–1787,” Past and Present 78, no. 1 (February 1978): 5681.

19 Gambles, Protection and Politics, 19–21, 149.

20 MacQueen, James, The West India Colonies […]. (London, 1824), 16; Lambert, David, “The ‘Glasgow King of Billingsgate’: James MacQueen and an Atlantic Proslavery Network,” Slavery and Abolition 29, no. 3 (2008): 389413.

21 Benton, Lauren and Ford, Lisa, Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850 (Cambridge, MA, 2016), 85116.

22 Thompson, Neville, Earl Bathurst and the British Empire, 1762–1834 (Leeds, 1999), 177.

23 The protector of slaves in Berbice was a newly created office, after 1826 replacing the fiscal as someone who heard enslaved people's complaints and had responsibility for ensuring laws on slave amelioration were kept. See Thompson, Unprofitable Servants, 29; Browne, Randy and Burnard, Trevor, “Husbands and Fathers: The Family Experience of Enslaved Men in Berbice,” New West Indian Guide 91, nos. 3–4 (2017): 193222.

24 Spence, “Ameliorating Empire,” 240–41.

25 Cort to Gladstone, 22 April 1824, Gladstone–Glynne Correspondence, Flintshire Record Office, UK (hereafter GG).

26 Gladstone to Cort, 8 July 1824, GG.

27 Ibid.

28 Browne, Archibald, Three Discourses: The First, on the Duty of Subjects to Their Sovereign and the Government under which They Live: the Two Last on the Duty of Slaves in Reference to Their Present Condition and Their Respective Masters […]. (London, 1824).

29 da Costa, Emilia Viotti, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (New York, 1994), 232.

30 Dierksheide, Amelioration and Empire, 189; Petley, Christer, “Gluttony, Excess and the Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean,” Atlantic Studies 9, no. 1 (January 2012): 85106.

31 Huskisson to Gladstone, 2 November 1823, GG.

32 Checkland, S. G., The Gladstones: A Family Biography, 1764–1851 (Cambridge, 1971), 186.

33 Thompson, Earl Bathurst and the British Empire, 173–76.

34 Ibid.; Porter, Andrew, “‘Commerce and Christianity’: The Rise and Fall of a Nineteenth-Century Missionary Slogan,” History Workshop Journal 28, no. 3 (September 1985): 597621; Hall, Catherine, Civilizing Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830–1867 (London, 2002); and Elbourne, Elizabeth, Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799–1853 (Montreal, 2002).

35 Holt, Thomas, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore, 1992), pt. 1.

36 Gladstone, John and Cropper, James, The Correspondence between John Gladstone, Esq., M.P. and James Cropper, Esq., on the Present State of Slavery in the British West Indies and in the United States of America […]. (Liverpool, 1824), 17.

37 Davis, David Brion, “James Cropper and the British Anti-Slavery Movement, 1821–1823,” Journal of Negro History 45, no. 4 (October 1960): 241–58; Davis, , “James Cropper and the Anti-Slavery Movement, 1823–33,” Journal of Negro History 46, no. 3 (July 1961): 134–73.

38 Gladstone and Cropper, Correspondence, 11.

39 Davis, “James Cropper and the Anti-Slavery Movement,” 160–61. Another important debate initiated by a proslavery West Indian was over Sierra Leone as a failed economic experiment. Lambert, David, “Sierra Leone and Other Sites in the War of Representation over Slavery,” History Workshop Journal 64, no. 1 (Autumn 2007): 103–32.

40 Gladstone and Cropper, Correspondence, 2.

41 Lipscomb, Patrick C., “Party Politics, 1801–1802: George Canning and the Trinidad Question,” Historical Journal 12, no. 3 (September 1969): 442–66.

42 Gladstone and Cropper, Correspondence, 11.

43 Bowen, H. V., The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756–1833 (Cambridge, 2005), 253.

44 Gladstone and Cropper, Correspondence, 11.

45 Ibid., 7.

46 Higman, B. W., Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834 (Baltimore, 1984), 76, 415.

47 Paugh, Katherine, The Politics of Reproduction: Race, Medicine, and Fertility in the Age of Abolition (Oxford, 2017); Higman, B. W., “Slavery and the Development of Demographic Theory in the Age of Industrial Revolution,” in Slavery and British Society, 1776–1846, ed. Walvin, James (Baton Rouge, 1982), 164–94.

48 Drescher, Seymour, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation (Oxford, 2002), 3536.

49 For the demographic destructiveness of sugar regimes, see Tadman, Michael, “The Demographic Cost of Sugar: Debates on Slave Societies and Natural Increase in the Americas,” American Historical Review 105, no. 5 (December 2000): 1534–75.

50 Dickson, William, Mitigation of Slavery, in Two Parts (London, 1814), 193, 248.

51 Gladstone to Cort, 25 August 1823, GG.

52 Davis, “James Cropper and the British Anti-Slavery Movement,” 258.

53 Sheridan, Richard B., “The Condition of the Slaves on the Sugar Plantations of Sir John Gladstone in the Colony of Demerara, 1812–49,” New West Indian Guide 76, nos. 2–3 (2002): 243–69.

54 Checkland, Gladstones, 191–92.

55 Davis, “James Cropper and the British Anti-Slavery Movement,” 244.

56 Gladstone and Cropper, Correspondence, 17.

57 Dierksheide, Amelioration and Empire, 207.

58 Gladstone, John, Letters Addressed to […] the Earl of Clancarty […] on the Inexpediency of permitting the Importation of Cotton Wool from the United States during the Present War (London, 1813).

59 Cowen, M. P. and Shenton, R. W., Doctrines of Development (London, 1996), 4.

60 Hilton, Boyd, A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? England, 1783–1846 (Oxford, 2006), 307, 315.

61 Thompson, Earl Bathurst and the British Empire, viii, 176, 180.

62 Wilberforce, William, A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade Addressed to the Freeholders and Other Inhabitants of Yorkshire (London, 1807), 130, 258.

63 Gladstone and Cropper, Correspondence, 15.

64 Ibid., 16.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid.

67 Gladstone to George Canning, 18 October 1823, GG.

68 Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, 205.

69 Davis, David Brion, From Homicide to Slavery: Studies in American Culture (Oxford, 1986), 273–74.

70 Rosenthal, Caitlin, “Slavery's Scientific Management: Masters and Managers,” in Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, ed. Beckert, Sven and Rockman, Seth (Philadelphia, 2016), 6286; and Higman, B. W., Plantation Jamaica, 1750–1850: Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy (Kingston, 2005).

71 Gladstone to Cort, 15 May 1823, GG.

72 Ibid.

73 Matthews, Gelien, Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement (Baton Rouge, 2006), 3940.

74 Ibid., 41.

75 Gladstone to Cort, April 1824, GG.

76 Hu-Jung, Moon, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore, 2006), 3.

77 Gladstone to Cort, 25 May 1823, GG.

78 Gladstone to Cort, 25 August; 31 October 1823, GG.

79 Checkland, Gladstones, 124.

80 Gladstone to Edmonstone, 8 November 1823, GG.

81 Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, 35; Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 6–7.

82 Lambert, White Creole Culture, 16, 147.

83 Proceedings before the Privy Council against Compulsory Manumission in the Colonies of Demerara and Berbice (London, 1827).

84 Lampe, Armando, Mission or Submission: Moravian and Catholic Missionaries in the Dutch Caribbean during the Nineteenth Century (Gottingen, 2001).

85 Irons, Charles F., The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill, 2009).

86 Higman, Plantation Jamaica, 22–29.

87 Quinault, Roland, “Gladstone and Slavery,” Historical Journal 52, no. 2 (June 2009): 363–83.

88 Huzzey, Richard, “Free Trade, Free Labour and Slave Sugar in Victorian Britain,” Historical Journal 53, no. 2 (June 2010): 359–79.

89 Sir Robert Peel, 18 May 1841, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, 3d ser., vol. 58, col. 618.

90 McClelland, Keith, “Redefining the West India Interest: Politics and the Legacies of Slave-Ownership,” in Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, ed. Hall, Catherine et al. (Cambridge, 2014), 127–62, at 155.

91 For the flight of planters from the British West Indies after emancipation, see Hall, Douglas, “The Flight from the Estates Reconsidered: The British West Indies, 1838–1842,” Journal of Caribbean History 10–11 (1978): 724.

92 For the “Gladstone slave trade” in South Asian indentured servants, see Kale, Madhavi, Fragments of Empire: Capital, Slavery, and Indian Indentured Labor Migration in the British Caribbean (Philadelphia, 1998), 25, 32–34. For contemporary criticism of Gladstone, see Connolly, Jonathan, “Indentured Labour Migration and the Meaning of Emancipation: Free Trade, Race and Labour in British Public Debate, 1838–1860,” Past and Present 238, no. 1 (February 2018): 85119, at 90.

93 Rose, J. L .G., “‘Behold the Tax Man Cometh’: Taxation as a Tool of Oppression in Early Post-Emancipation British Guiana, 1838–48,” in In the Shadow of the Plantation: Caribbean History and Legacy, ed. Thompson, Alvin O. (Kingston, 2002), 297313.

94 Huzzey, Richard, “Concepts of Liberty: Freedom, Laissez-Faire, and the State after Britain's Abolition of Slavery,” in Emancipation and the Remaking of the British World, ed. Hall, Catherine, Draper, Nicholas, and McClelland, Keith (Manchester, 2014), 149–71; Checkland, Gladstones, 321–25.

95 Cited in Quinault, “Gladstone and Slavery,” 379.

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