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 Post subject: R. Huzzey, Freedom Burning Anti-Slavery and Empire
Unread postPosted: 14 Jun 2016, 07:43 
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Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (New York, Cornell, 2012)

Freedom Burning by Richard Huzzey, published 2012, is a recent and important addition to the history of British Slave Trade Suppression in the Victorian era. In his work Huzzey examines the History of Anti-Slavery from both the metropole and its colonies. Huzzey takes an almost comprehensive approach on the issue exploring cultural, military and political factors during Britain’s Suppression of the Slave Trade. He also examines the notion of Britain as an anti-slavery nation, how suppression operations almost became the norm to a Victorian audience and even came to be seen as a waste of resources and a futile quest. Therefore Huzzey’s history is almost certainly a cultural one in character, however he also employs other techniques in his research which could be deemed as structural particularly when it comes to Government and Military matters.

Huzzey’s work is focussed on the period after the Emancipation in 1834, however his work is unusual given the breadth of the topic he has chosen. Unlike other works which might only focus on a legal, political, military or cultural history Huzzey has attempted to combine all four. This was a gallant attempt although in places he perhaps should have devoted more attention, Turley who is broadly supportive of the work suggests a greater examination of popular opinion within cities such as Birmingham and Manchester ; personally I found some of his explanations in the diplomatic/military sphere could have been longer. His history is primary one of Britain and is therefore written primarily as a history from the metropole. In his history Huzzey analyses the rise and fall of the anti-slavery movement and assesses Britain’s position as an “anti-slavery nation” The first part of his work is mainly a cultural history in which he examines a number of factors such as public perceptions of slavery leading up to and beyond the Emancipation in 1830. From this point there is a step change in his writing style, he ably summarizes Britain’s actions against the Slave Trade. He trades popular perceptions and feelings for figures, statistics and government documents, he looks into the political and military actions, the modus operandi of the anti-slavery campaign. The last part of Huzzey’s work focusses mainly on the decline in Britain’s anti-Slavery zeal, having established the general popular feeling against slavery in previous chapters Huzzey shows how it declined. This is as is generally agreed by most historians to do with a combination of diplomatic and economic pressures. Most crucially the rise of the Free Trade Movement which protested against British Protectionism, but in the process welcomed slave-grown sugar onto the British market. In the latter parts of the work Huzzey looks into the later decades of Suppression, the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the period in which Britain begins to assert its Imperial Dominance upon the world in a way which in the 1830’s it had never dared, such as the blockade against Brazil and later the scramble for Africa. From here Huzzey returns to the cultural school describing many of the strange contradictions within British culture, the prevailing air of racism which manifested itself in the idea of the ‘white man’s burden.’

In the study of Slave Trade Suppression there is still a firm divide between structural/materialist and cultural history. The structural history of Slave Trade Suppression takes its shape in the materialist school, factors such as the economics and imperial motivations for suppression. The cultural history is much more focussed on the culture and politics. This divide is summed up excellently by Nicholas Draper (a self-confessed author of the materialist school) in his review on the subject. Huzzey with this work can firmly be placed in the cultural school. His study of broader culture, ideology and politics; often from the position of the metropole, makes for a very convincing argument. However it is not an argument without flaws, a cynic may describe his methodology as wishy-washy, focussing mainly on the ideologies of the people in Britain rather than the actual action taken against slavery itself, in other words the rejection of the materialist narrative. It could also be said his book his broadly centric on the metropole, although some time is dedicated to talking about colonies and naval officers in the field. In the study of Slave Trade Suppression what is really needed is a balanced approach, however at this point the school is far too polarised. Huzzey favours the examination of ‘soft-power’ as opposed to ‘hard-power’, this approach is effective in avoiding the trappings of Imperial Histories of the past, which typically focussed on great men doing great deeds which are pitfalls the historian can easily fall into when being drawn into a narrative. However in Freedom Burning some attempt is made to reach to the materialists and bridge the gap, but given Draper’s reception of the work it unfortunately seems this has failed.

Huzzey’s work is interesting and well informed, although his attempts to give a comprehensive narrative; which could perhaps be described as an attempt at writing ‘the’ history as a opposed to ‘a’ history, were not entirely successful in places. Given the breadth of the work experts in sub fields are always going to find criticism. However as a starting a point for greater research into the many sub-fields of Slave Trade Suppression it is excellent. In many ways Huzzey’s book should be seen as an attempt to bridge the gap between the materialist and cultural school of Slave Trade Suppression, although avoiding citing any of the materialist schools most ardent supporters in any major capacity he is still moderately successful in this. His choice of secondary works was however wise, historians such as Temperley, Eltis and Bethell was well respected in their fields. As a student interested in the naval history and diplomatic relations of the period Huzzey’s work was interesting and greatly helped as an introduction to the topic and also in understanding the popular mood. However if I were to suggest anything it would be to devote greater attention to the ‘hard-power’ methods and infrastructure employed by Britain against the slave trading states.

Huzzey, R., Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (New York, Cornell, 2012)

Turley, D. ‘Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain, by Richard
Huzzey’ English Historical Review, CXXIX 537 (April 2014) p. 478-480

Draper, N. ‘Review: Freedom Burning: Anti-slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain,’ Journal of British Studies, Volume 52, Issue 03, (2013), p 801 - 802

UKC Military History Society President, 2013-2015
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