“The Tardy Triumphs of a Cautious Policy”: Saint-Domingue and Imperial Reform in British Abolitionist Discourse

  • Anthony Wayne Keane-Dawes University of South Carolina


This article demonstrates that Saint-Domingue was at the forefront of abolitionists’ arguments about the future of the British West Indies, its profitability, stability and morality before the end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804. Although this group of writers each wrote at different points during the insurrection, all four used the image of Saint-Domingue and enslaved insurrection within their larger arguments of their vision of empire. The anonymous author and Clarkson wrote at the beginning of the slave insurrection and Britain’s political climate was not welcoming of dissent. Great Britain was in the midst of an anti-Jacobin backlash that was in response to the beginning of the Reign of Terror in France during the French Revolution. As a result of this turn of events, the anonymous author and Clarkson, therefore, had to be careful with other Britons not perceiving their writings as supporters of the revolution, even as they argued that the British Empire would eventually have its own version of Saint-Domingue if the trans-Atlantic slave trade continued to funnel enslaved laborers to the Caribbean. By contrast, when Stephen and Brougham were writing ten years later, they were not constrained by an Anti-Jacobin backlash, as had been the other two authors. Both Stephen and Brougham wrote at the height of the Napoleonic wars and were concerned with preventing the spread of slavery to newly acquired territories for the morality and safety of the empire. Despite apparent differences, all four writers presented their arguments as an imperial reform to strengthen the British Empire and avoid the French example of revolutionary instability in its plantation colonies and the metropole.