Q&A: Abigail Swingen, Competing Visions of Empire

9780300187540-1Abigail Swingen is an Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University (Lubbock, TX). She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. She specializes in the Early Modern British Atlantic Political Economy. Competing Visions of Empire is her first book and was reviewed here yesterday. The following is part of our (relatively) new tradition of reviewing a book and then offering a Q & A with the author the following day. [NB: You can find my review from yesterday here.]

JUNTO: Your book, which began as your dissertation at the University of Chicago, focuses on how disputes over the “projected goals” and “perceived impact” in Britain’s oversees empire centered on labor—both free and involuntary. Can you tell us a bit more about how you became interested in this topic?

ABIGAIL SWINGEN: The general idea for the project evolved after I wrote my second seminar paper at the University of Chicago, which was about why Quakers made up such a large proportion of emigrants from England across the Atlantic in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I never really satisfactorily answered that question, but one of the things I focused on was the fact that Quakers were often sent as prisoners to the Caribbean colonies as punishment for violating acts against nonconformity. It occurred to me, although I didn’t fully explore this in my paper, that the Crown not only wanted to rid England of religious and political troublemakers, but also felt that it would be beneficial to the entire realm to channel forced labor to particular colonies. In other words, sending persecuted Quakers and other religious minorities as bound laborers would benefit colonies that needed laborers, which would in turn benefit the entire imperial economy. This kernel of the project evolved further while I was studying for my comprehensive exams. I began to wonder about how and why England developed an empire in the early modern period. The oft-repeated story, at least among historians of early modern England, is that most people in England weren’t paying much attention to things like overseas trade and colonial development. This seemed to beg the question, “well why did it happen?” Someone must have been paying attention. It turns out lots of people were paying attention, and understood exactly the implications of colonial development, particularly in terms of labor and trade. The project, although it transformed substantially over the next decade or so, originally developed as a way to try to answer that question. Why did England get an empire in the early modern era? What made it possible and desirable? And what role did issues of labor play in that development?

JUNTO: The overseas empire, as you note, was not a “forgone conclusion.” In fact, a number of people raised strenuous objections. What were some of the key objections towards an overseas empire, and how were they overcome?

SWINGEN: This is in many ways the crux of the book, the puzzle of the origins of the empire. The main objection to the development and expansion of the transatlantic empire was that it drained England of its own labor force. This was one of the major criticisms of the empire that emerged during the second half of the seventeenth century. And this was new and different; as many will know, during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries colonies were understood to be beneficial because they offered a place to send England’s apparently over-abundant population of unemployed and vagrant people. These perceptions did not always reflect reality, but ultimately it was the perceptions that mattered. And by the second half of the 1600s, many in England seemed to think that the domestic population was on the decline (it turns out they were probably correct). Many placed the blame on the fact that large numbers of people migrated to the colonies, either freely or as involuntary servants, during the middle decades of the century. It’s been estimated that tens of thousands of people did make the transatlantic voyage from England during this time. Despite these criticisms and concerns over domestic population, England’s empire was maintained and even expanded during this period. Why was this the case? I argue that the expansion of African slavery in the West Indies colonies of Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands made the empire acceptable to those who might have otherwise been critical of it. By relying on increasing numbers of enslaved Africans, for example, colonial planters needed fewer and fewer servants from England, which therefore addressed one of the main concerns of the critics of empire. The English government recognized this and during the 1670s and 1680s attempted to reap the economic benefits more directly by maintaining a monopoly over the transatlantic slave trade through the creation of the Royal African Company, which had a royally-granted charter. This monopoly was notoriously hated by colonial planters, privateers, and independent merchants, who saw the Company as a threat to their livelihood and the idea of monopoly anathema to their notions of English “liberty.” In confronting the Company, I argue, these various groups articulated their own ideas and visions of empire, which often competed with those emanating from the metropolis. I also argue that over the course of the late 1600s and early 1700s, those colonies that relied so heavily on slave labor were understood as being the economic powerhouses of the empire, and therefore all the more important for the imperial economy and the entire realm. Therefore the existing monopoly on the transatlantic slave trade from West Africa that was held by the African Company was considered antithetical to the economic health of the empire by those who wanted to see English involvement in the slave trade expand. An open slave trade, on the other hand, which allowed more merchants and planters to participate, was understood by an increasing number of people to be in the national and imperial interest. So the interesting development for me was that the colonies with the most enslaved Africans were actually understood to be the most important and integral to the English, and eventually British, empire. Slavery and the transatlantic slave trade built the early empire and made it acceptable and desirable to the political nation.

JUNTO: In the first part of your book, you discuss debates over convict transportation, which of course ultimately failed to keep up with colonial labor demands. Treatments of this topic tend to center on class conflicts, but also occurred during a period of English ambitions towards Ireland and Scotland. And of course, Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland resulted in the involuntary migrations of many Irish to the New World. How do the visions that drove expansion in Ireland, the West Indies, and say, Virginia compare? Are there similarities, or are they different visions?

SWINGEN: In some ways, the imperial visions for Ireland and the New World were driven by similar impulses. And indeed, in the 1650s and 1660s, they were often driven by the same individuals. And as I argue in the book, particularly during the Commonwealth and Protectorate periods, the English government hoped to conquer, subdue, and settle Ireland and New World colonies in similar ways. As other historians have argued, the idea of settling (or re-settling) populations in newly-acquired territory was central to the Cromwellian imperial regime. Of course implementation of this imperial vision in these different places varied, sometimes dramatically. In Ireland, there was a large native population that the English considered themselves superior to and in some locations summarily slaughtered; in addition, the English were at least somewhat familiar with the terrain and the structure of politics there. In Virginia, by the 1650s there was a certain level of familiarity, but not much. And in the West Indies, there was a strong desire to root out Spanish dominance of the region. But what these projects held in common was a root desire on the part of the English/British government to reap the economic and political benefits of having colonies and an empire, which for many meant reaping the benefits of harsh labor regimes. The same impulse, and again, many of the same men, drove the conquest of Ireland, the submission of Virginia and Barbados to the Commonwealth Navy, and eventually the conquest of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. These events and projects may not have looked the same in practice, but they shared in their origins an imperial vision in which English laws, foreign policy aims, and authority were dominant and unquestioned.

JUNTO: There have been a number of recent studies exploring the challenges of English ideas about “liberty” and “slavery” and what it meant as the English became more involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Michael Guasco’s Slaves and Englishmen is one. Will Pettigrew’s exploration of the Royal African Company, Freedom’s Debt, is another. It’s obvious a common theme in your book as well, in its exploration of multiple facets of unfree labor (African slaves and convict transportation). At what point do you see African slavery becoming particularly central to English imperial expansion?

SWINGEN: I think African slavery became central to English imperialism after there was a shift to using mostly slave labor in Barbados during the 1640s and 1650s. With this development, English planters, merchants, and especially the English government understood that there were extraordinary profits to be made through the exploitation of this labor source. Merchants, planters, and policy makers had long understood that what had hindered colonial development was the lack of a reliable labor supply, and the African slave trade seemed to address this major concern. In the book I argue that the expansion of the servant and slave trades lay at the heart of imperial designs executed by the English government beginning at least as early as the 1650s. For example, many of the men behind the planning and implementation of the Western Design, which resulted in the conquest of Jamaica in 1655, were involved in the transatlantic servant and slave trades to Virginia, Barbados, and the Leeward Islands. They hoped to further expand not only England’s empire, but also their markets in servile labor. Soon after the Restoration, the new regime not only decided to hold on to Jamaica (there were rumors that Charles II might give the island back to the Spanish), but the very same month the king issued a charter for a new trading company with a monopoly on all trade to and from Africa. Over the course of the next decade, this company morphed into the Royal African Company and gained a royally-granted monopoly over the slave trade to and from England’s New World colonies. I argue that the establishment of the African Companies not only illustrated the political and economic outlook of the Restoration governments, which was based on monopoly steeped in the authority of the royal prerogative. It also demonstrated that the English government hoped to exploit the economic potential of the transatlantic slave trade to its colonies as well as the colonies of other European powers, particularly the Spanish, who were not directly involved in the transatlantic slave trade themselves. Both Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York, were closely involved in the everyday governance of the companies; James served as governor from the middle of the 1660s until 1688. Thus the companies were at the center of English imperial designs and policy-making during the Restoration era.

JUNTO: 1670 marks a key turning point in imperial policy that affected visions of empire. The Glorious Revolution, and its aftermath are of course, other critical points of change. How do shifts in power affect the imperial vision? In other words, how do the political changes of 1670 and the 1690s compare in terms of how they affected visions for Britons overseas empire?

SWINGEN: I see a real shift occurring in terms of imperial policies in the mid-1670s and then again, as you say, in the 1690s. As I argue in the book, in large part any shift toward more aggressive imperial policies had to do with fears at the center of political instability, unrest, and during the Exclusion Crisis, even the possibility of civil war. Other scholars have noted that the government of Charles II during the mid-to-late 1670s attempted greater centralization and control of the colonies through the implementation and enforcement of laws designed not only to better reap the economic rewards of colonial production, but also to bring the colonies more in line with English laws and subjection to the royal prerogative. Most historians who have noted this trend have tended to ignore, however, the important place that the Royal African Company played in English imperial designs during the reigns of Charles II and James II. They have also tended to ignore the role that the growing prominence of slavery in the West Indies colonies played in shaping perceptions about the empire’s importance at the center, which in turn influenced imperial policies and directives. I argue that these attempts at greater control and centralization stemmed at least in part from the African Company’s desire to monopolize the transatlantic slave trade for the benefit of England and the Crown. The Company, after all, owed its existence to a royal charter, granted by the prerogative authority of the king. For many colonists, particularly planters, privateers, and private merchants excluded from the Company, the Company represented what I call the “commercial arm” of the royal prerogative in the colonies. They resented its monopoly and the aggressive attempts on the part of the Crown to support that monopoly through legal and political channels. Thus at the center of imperial conflict and competing ideas of how the empire should be governed were contests over the slave trade and how it should be managed.

A slightly different trajectory occurred during the 1690s, because in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, the Royal African Company no longer enjoyed its guaranteed monopoly. This was not necessarily because the idea of the royal prerogative had disappeared or had somehow diminished, but rather because of the Company’s specific ideological association with the exiled Stuart regime. In addition, African slavery in the English colonies and England’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade were widely seen to be in the national and imperial interests. Therefore a monopoly over that trade was increasingly understood to be in opposition to those interests. Contemporaries recognized that monopolies necessarily limited merchant participation in any trade, and suspected that if the slave trade was instead left open or under the auspices of a “regulated” company, the slave trade would flourish, and so would England’s colonies. In the book I trace the development of public debates regarding how the slave trade ought to be managed that occurred during the 1690s and early 1700s. Many of the anti-monopolist ideas that emerged from the debates owed something to anti-Company rhetoric that had emerged during the 1670s and 1680s in both the colonies and in England. In some ways those anti-Company interests, specifically planters and private merchants (or “separate traders” as the Company labeled them) won the debate through a combination of political maneuvering and successful public relations.

JUNTO: What are you working on now that Competing Visions of Empire is out?

SWINGEN: I have a number of smaller projects in the works, some related to this one. The next larger project has to do with England’s Financial Revolution of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and how and why it succeeded. Scholars have usually focused on the institutions that facilitated this development, such as the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, stock exchanges, and insurance companies, which were driven by the expansion of credit and the creation of the national debt by the English government. But I want to look at how and why people came to accept the Financial Revolution and the institutions of investment that were associated with it. After all, it could be said that the Financial Revolution did not have an auspicious beginning, considering its origins amidst international wars, a crisis in the value of coin, recurrent credit crunches, not to mention the catastrophic South Sea Bubble of 1720. In addition, there was widespread fear and distrust of these new institutions of investment and the political and economic power they represented. I want to explore why and how the Financial Revolution not only developed but survived by looking at the political culture that surrounded new investment opportunities. How and why did people in Britain place monetary as well as cultural and political value on the new institutions of investment? In addition, what role did popular understandings of the empire (and possibly of forced labor regimes in the colonies) as an investment opportunity play in this development?

2 comments on “Q&A: Abigail Swingen, Competing Visions of Empire

  1. Benedict@Large says:

    Thanks for the follow-up interview. It’s always nice to hear what an author thinks their book represents.

  2. […] Junto reviewed and interviewed Abigail Swingen about her new book, Competing Visions of Empire: Labor, Slavery, and the Origins of […]


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