Dr Padraic X. Scanlan, Assistant Professor, Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science
Abstract: The abolition of slavery in Britain's colonial empire, on 1 August 1834, was widely celebrated in Britain as a triumph for the reforming power of free labour. And yet in Britain, wage labour seemed to be in crisis. Industrialisation and the enclosure of public land pushed workers, and particularly agricultural workers, into insecure and poorly-paid jobs. Arson and sabotage were common. Many British legislators and colonial officials held the laws of political economy to be natural and involate; wages and contracts were supposed to work on emancipated former slaves and on British farm workers in the same predictable way and liberalism was theoretically blind to race. However, during the era when British antislavery was ascendant, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the late 1830s, the idea of enslaved people as 'peasants' had become a commonplace among both defenders of slavery and abolitionists. This paper explores how this idea of slaves-as-peasants, a fantasy of black labour on sugar plantations that was simultaneously rural, idyllic, grateful and respectful of hierarchy was coproduced by slave-owners and white abolitionists. In theory, the line between slavery and freedom was bright; in practice, the line between slave labour and wage labour was much less clear. Racialised ideas about work shaped the laws put in place to end slavery, and circulated widely, far beyond the Caribbean, shaping the culture of work and the material circumstances of workers across the early Victorian world.