In the twentieth century, Oxford has been home to two of the best-known anti-slavery historians – but they had radically different views of the abolition of 1807 and emancipation of 1834. Its home as a centre of research on Britain’s anti-slavery past has been assured by the presence of national documents on the campaign.
The first historian to write an account of the abolitionist crusade was by Sir Reginald Coupland. In a biography of Wilberforce (1923) and later in The British Anti-Slavery Movement, Coupland described the crusade as Britain’s moral lead in the world. For him, anti-slavery was a humanitarian mission that sat easily alongside his positive view of the British Empire.
As Beit Professor of Colonial History, Coupland had an office in the newly-completed Rhodes House, on South Parks Road. Built with a legacy from Cecil Rhodes, the building was to house a library, endowed with a manuscript collection. On its founding, the Rhodes Trust placed a priority on buying, from the continuing Anti-Slavery Society, the historical records of the early abolitionists. Ever since, and growing each year, Rhodes House has been home to the official papers of the society. Their arrival in Oxford seems to have coincided with Coupland’s tenure and interest in anti-slavery, and it is tempting to imagine he lobbied for their value as purchases.
The anti-slavery papers in Rhodes House have formed the basis of later historical assessments of the movement, and a host of academics have followed in Coupland’s footsteps. Perhaps the most important was another Oxford researcher, Eric Williams, who was born in Trinidad in 1911, and came to the university for his degree and doctorate. The latter was on the economic aspects of the abolition of the West Indian slave trade and slavery (1938) but did not get great attention until after it was published as the book Slavery and Capitalism much later.
Williams disagreed completely with Coupland. He argued that British morality and compassion had merely been incidental to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in their empire. For him, abolition and emancipation were motivated by economics. Britain had grown rich off the profits of the slave trade, but capitalists came to see the West Indies as a burden and obstacle to trade with the rest of the world. The humanitarian acts towards slaves were therefore, he argued, a way of destroying the West Indian economy to serve the profit motive of British capital. It is hard to imagine a more disparate pair of views than Coupland’s benevolent empire and Williams’ exploitative capitalists.
Since his work was published, historians have largely rejected the basis of Williams’ arguments, finding problems with his claims. However, his work has defined all later examinations, and focused attention on the way economic ideas and morality co-exist in society. As much as people have disagreed with his conclusions, he asked new questions that historians are still trying to answer. Williams was to find even greater fame than his history as the first Prime Minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. He had served as Premier of the colony under the last years of British rule, and led it until his death in 1981.
Williams is just one of the Caribbean intellectuals who studied at Oxford before being involved in their homelands’ final emancipation from British rule. Residents and visitors can now take a special tour of the city, themed on Black Oxford (http://www.blackoxford.net), which highlights at black Oxonians from the nineteenth century to the present day. In 2007, Oxford is playing its part in national celebration of the bi-centenary of slave trade abolition, with a service in Christ Church Cathedral and a series of cultural events. Meanwhile, the anti-slavery archives in Rhodes House are set for a new home in the twenty-first century when its archive closes, but will continue to keep Oxford at the heart of work on the remarkable story of anti-slavery from 1807-2007.
St. Catherine’s College, Oxford
Sir Reginald Coupland, Wilberforce (Oxford, 1923); The British Anti-Slavery Movement (London, 1933)
Eric Williams, Slavery and Capitalism (London, 1944)
A selection of antislavery pamphlets from the Rhodes library are republished this year by the Bodleian press, giving a chance to see some of the treasures in their collection: John Pinfold (ed.), The Memoirs of Captain Hugh Crow (Oxford, 2007); The Slave Trade Debate: Contemporary Writings for and Against (Oxford, 2007).