In This Review

Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and Its Abolition
Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and Its Abolition
By David Richardson
Yale University Press, 2022, 384 pp

Powered by mass demand for West Indian sugar, the immense profitability of transporting slaves, and the dominance of the Royal Navy, the United Kingdom became the leading slave trader of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The British government exploited such trade to cement its dominance over its imperial rival Holland, and traders in British cities such as Liverpool reinvested their gains to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Despite the lucrative benefits of slavery, Parliament abolished slave trading in 1807 and slavery itself three decades later. Some historians attribute these reforms to the declining profitability of colonial sugar production and shifts in the economics of empire induced by the American Revolution. Others stress a powerful abolitionist movement led by members of dissenting religious denominations, who pioneered modern mass mobilization techniques still employed by activist and advocacy groups today. Richardson points instead to the high costs of sending British troops to suppress slave revolts in the West Indies and the desire of British strategic planners to shift their attention and British resources to cementing mercantilist and strategic advantages over other European colonial powers.