From Anti-Slavery to East India Reform: Trans-Atlantic Abolitionism, British Colonial Philanthropy, and Empire in India, 1838-43

This paper explores the ambivalent ways in which sections of the British anti-slavery movement addressed issues of colonial exploitation in India in the years after the Emancipation Act in 1833 and the end of apprenticeship in 1838. It follows British anti-slavery lecturer George Thompson’s campaign for East India reform through various stages of activism, comparing his activities in Britain with his later experiences in colonial Calcutta and Mughal Delhi. In Britain he travelled widely giving lectures on conditions in India, criticising various forms of colonial ‘mismanagement’ (including poverty, slavery, and the indentured labour system) and linking the ‘regeneration’ of India’s agricultural sector to the causes of trans-Atlantic abolitionism, and British free trade. In Calcutta he involved himself in emerging associational culture, lecturing to the Bengali intelligentsia on political participation and civic activism on the platforms of organisations like the Landholder’s Society, the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge, and the newly formed Bengal British India Society. In Delhi, he met with Bahadur Shah Zafar and took up the issue of EIC erosion of Indian forms of sovereignty, becoming the Mughal Emperor’s paid advocate in his ongoing dispute against the EIC. By following Thompson as he moved from the British anti-slavery circuits to Calcutta’s urban public sphere and then to the courtly ritual of the Red Fort, it consider the implications of these spaces for his evolving worldview. It suggests that while his experiences in India were instrumental in reshaping his understanding of empire from one that was initially framed almost entirely by his anti-slavery interests to one that encompassed a wider range of exploitative colonial practices, they also revealed the ambivalence of Thompson publicly performed ‘cosmopolitanism’ and professed affinity for his Indian ‘fellow subjects’. By highlighting the implications of an Anglo-centric framing of anti-slavery activism when exported to other colonial settings, it explores the limits of mid-nineteenth-century British colonial philanthropy when enacted in different spaces of Empire.