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Barbaric Traffic

Barbaric Traffic

Commerce and Antislavery in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

Philip Gould

ISBN 9780674011663

Publication date: 11/27/2003

Eighteenth-century antislavery writers attacked the slave trade as "barbaric traffic"--a practice that would corrupt the mien and manners of Anglo-American culture to its core. Less concerned with slavery than with the slave trade in and of itself, these writings expressed a moral uncertainty about the nature of commercial capitalism. This is the argument Philip Gould advances in Barbaric Traffic. A major work of cultural criticism, the book constitutes a rethinking of the fundamental agenda of antislavery writing from pre-revolutionary America to the end of the British and American slave trades in 1808.

Studying the rhetoric of various antislavery genres--from pamphlets, poetry, and novels to slave narratives and the literature of disease--Gould exposes the close relation between antislavery writings and commercial capitalism. By distinguishing between good commerce, or the importing of commodities that refined manners, and bad commerce, like the slave trade, the literature offered both a critique and an outline of acceptable forms of commercial capitalism. A challenge to the premise that objections to the slave trade were rooted in modern laissez-faire capitalism, Gould's work revises--and expands--our understanding of antislavery literature as a form of cultural criticism in its own right.

Praise

  • This is a very important book which convincingly rethinks the fundamental agenda of Anglo-American anti-slavery literature from 1775 to 1808 (the end of the British slave trade). This is no small feat. Anti-slavery texts, Gould argues, offered less a critique of slavery than a critique of the slave trade. By distinguishing between good commerce (the importing of commodities that refined the manners) and bad commerce (the importation of slaves), these texts both critiqued commercial capitalism and outlined its acceptable and necessary forms. Thus anti-slavery texts endlessly deferred the issue of abolition in order to serve as a site of moral uncertainty about whether commercial capitalism would debase or civilize modern society. Sin is less feared than the depravity of manners which could corrupt Anglo-American culture at its core. Because virtuous and vicious commerce turned on the nature and regulation of passions, much was at stake. Closely attending to a vast number of transatlantic texts, Gould defines and demonstrates a "commercial aesthetic" that inflects the language of race and sentiments with issues of economic and social change. Gould's next move is to argue with reference to what he calls "the commercial jeremiad" that the very ideological discourse of civilization and savagery is rooted in trade. The concept of race is largely produced by this oppositional discourse rather than founded on its prior existence.

    —Jay Fliegelman, author of Prodigals and Pilgrims and Declaring Independence

Author

  • Philip Gould is Professor of English at Brown University.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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