the third quarter of the eighteenth century, represented the first attempts at humanitarian intervention. Conversion to Christianity constituted just one element of the programme. Reformers hoped to encourage marriage among slaves. And they wanted to eliminate or reduce the cruelties that made slavery distinctively inhumane. To this end, they argued for the enforcement of existing laws and called for the enactment of new legislation that would protect slaves from the worst abuses. At the same time, they hoped to interest colonial and imperial administrators in establishing more sustained oversight of the master-slave relationship in the Americas. The reform ethos seems to have had some influence on individual slaveholders in the British and Portuguese colonies in particular, as those who regarded themselves as devout or Enlightened looked for ways to practise a 'gentle' form of slavery. The political and institutional obstacles to comprehensive reform, however, could suggest the need for more radical remedies. The Reverend James Ramsay, an influential figure in the early antislavery campaigns in Britain during the 1780s, came to espouse slave trade abolition only after two decades of failing to persuade plantation owners in his St Kitts parish to endorse the conversion of slaves to Christianity.14

The prospects for reform owed much to the opportunities for dissent. Spanish and Portuguese officials would not permit critics of slavery to do more than call for humane treatment and Christian instruction. In the eighteenth century, this was as far as the Catholic Church was prepared to go.15 The Church of England proved no more amenable to innovation on the question of slavery. Protestant Dissenters who lived under the far more tolerant British state, however, had the freedom to reach their own decisions regarding the customary religious justifications for human bondage. For this reason, slaveholders in the British plantation colonies, in particular, left themselves unusually vulnerable when they blocked attempts to bring slavery in line with the ideal of Christian servitude. Their resistance to Christian conversions helped certain uncompromising seekers of moral purity decide that slavery was not only unpleasant (and perhaps, therefore, justifiable on pragmatic grounds) but also a sin, and therefore a violation of divine law. This meant that slaveholding could be listed among the many other wicked habits that true Christians could and should renounce, such as gambling, cursing, intemperance, and profanation of the Sabbath. The institution of slavery could be seen not as the inevitable consequence of the sinful condition of humanity but, instead, as a voluntary and unfortunate choice of the sinner.

A willingness to renounce slavery became a test of moral purity for certain religious communities in North America during the last half of the eighteenth

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment