Investigating Slavery: Slave voices and imperial reform
In the early 1820s, the Liverpool Government launched an ambitious program to reform the condition of slaves across its Empire. Driven by the ‘Saints’ in Parliament, the British Colonial Office attempted to introduce uniform rights and protections for slaves in British colonies. The Trinidad Ordinance, first introduced in 1824 and eventually imposed on Britain’s crown colonies, was one medium for reform. Commissions of Inquiry, dispatched to almost every British colony from 1818-1830 and tasked with reporting back on the state of slavery, were another.
This paper examines the role Commissions of Inquiry played as instigators of and witnesses to this wider project of imperial reform. It argues that the commissioners had a marginal role in setting the terms of slavery’s amelioration, as their recommendations for law reform almost always arrived too late to shape imperial policy. However, the commissions had more impact on the ground. Focusing on the Cape, we show how the Commissioners of Eastern Inquiry inserted themselves into everyday conflicts between slaves, masters and officials, taking on the role of de facto protectors. Their investigation of slave complaints was unusual, but showcases an important function of commissions of inquiry, nevertheless. They embodied the Crown in empire, creating new pathways of complaint and surveillance that bound peripheries and centre in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War.
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Lisa FordProfessor of History at UNSW
Lisa Ford is Professor of History at UNSW, and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities. Her major publications include the multiple prize-winning Settler Sovereignty (Harvard, 2010); The King’s Peace (Harvard, 2021); and Rage for Order (co-authored with Lauren Benton, Harvard, 2016). Ford has edited Settler Colonial Studies; and co-edited Australian Historical Studies, the Cambridge Studies in Legal History Series, and the forthcoming Cambridge Legal History of Australia. Her work (including this paper) has been funded by a series of grants from the Australian Research Council in Australia.
Naomi Parkinsonis a scholar of British imperial history, who has worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Project Manager at the University of New South Wales.
Naomi Parkinson is a scholar of British imperial history, who has worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Project Manager at the University of New South Wales. Following her PhD (Cambridge, 2018), she is at work on a book that examines contests for political rights in the post-emancipation British Empire (c.1820-1865). With an international team of scholars, she is has co-authored a series of articles and a book manuscript on Royal Commissions of Inquiry (c.1818-1830), detailing their role in the transformation of law, governance and unfree labour across the British colonial world.