After abolition: British humanitarian colonialism, the Niger Expedition and the drive to remake African labour

Elizabeth Elbourne at the seminar series, Slavery Old and New: Labour Exploitation Through the Ages and Around the Globe

Monday, January 19

A video of this event can be found here.


After Britain abolished first the slave trade in 1807 and then slavery itself in the British empire in 1834, British abolitionists turned their attention to abolishing the slave trade elsewhere in the world in a manner that raises issues of relevance to contemporary debates about international law and humanitarian intervention. Abolition became a justification for colonialism even as the British tested the limits of international law in intercepting slave trading vessels. This paper looks more particularly at the Niger Expedition of 1841-42 which aimed to persuade African chiefs to sign treaties abjuring slavery and the slave trade in exchange for preferential commercial exchange with Great Britain. Three exploratory steamships were dispatched down the river Niger, led by “godly” ship captains with a public mandate for negotiation and a private mandate for the acquisition of territory, accompanied by scientists, missionaries and agents charged with developing a model farm to teach cotton production. Although the expedition was a failure with a catastrophic death rate from disease, it raised important questions around treaty-making, contract (could non-Christian African chiefs be adequate contracting agents and if not could abolition exist without colonialism?), ethical commerce (how could commerce be made morally viable, especially if carried out by immoral agents?), humanitarian intervention and the legal limits of sovereignty. Inspired in part by an eschatological faith that they were agents of God’s will in creating moral labour practices, men and women who had been deeply involved in the abolition of the slave trade pushed a colonial agenda that was more aggressive than that of the Colonial Office. The expedition can also fruitfully be seen as a failed development project.

Elizabeth Elbourne is Associate Professor and Chair, in the Department of History and Classical Studies, McGill University. Her publications include the collection Sex, Power and Slavery (Ohio University Press, 2014; co-edited with Gwyn Campbell), and Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions and the Contest for Christianity in Britain and the Eastern Cape, 1799-1853 (McGill-Queens, 2004). She has just finished a stint as joint editor (with Brian Cowan) of the Journal of British Studies.

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