Slavery and Justice researcher’s new book chronicles 19th century slavery and empire

“Trouble of the World,” by visiting faculty member Zach Sell of Brown University, demonstrates that American slavery transformed labor and production practices around the world, even in places where slavery was abolished.

Trouble of the World by Zach Sell

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — What did the rise of American slavery have to do with the British Empire’s expansion in the mid-19th century? And what does either history have to do with today’s global crises and upheavals? According to Zach Sell, they are all interconnected.

Sell, a visiting assistant professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, spent the last several years researching the period between 1833, when slavery was first abolished across the British Empire, and 1865, when slavery was abolished in the United States with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Most Americans know that during these decades, slavery surged in the South and transformed the U.S. into a major crop exporter and slaveholding power. What many don’t know, Sell said, is that the country became a model for colonial projects across the globe — even among imperial powers that had abolished slavery.

Sell’s new book, “Trouble of the World,” shows how slavery not only molded the U.S. economy but also inspired models of production and colonialism overseas — and how slavery’s legacies have cast a long shadow into the present.

Following its recent release, Sell answered questions about the book.

Q: What led you to write “Trouble of the World”?

I was thinking a lot about how we consider the history of slavery in the United States in discussions about the formation of American capitalism, but we don’t do that as much in discussions about the broader global history of capitalism. While much of my work relates to slavery in the Americas, I have also always been interested in imperial history, particularly the history of the British Empire, and I began to see a lot of overlaps between those two research interests.

My book demonstrates that the example of U.S. slavery deeply shaped colonial projects across the British Empire. But one of the huge things I learned while researching for the book is that that’s true the other way around, too: The institution of slavery in the U.S. was deeply shaped by the context in which it existed, which was dominated by the British. C.L.R. James, a Trinidadian historian, once called the world a “tangled skein.” That’s something that really stood out to me as I did this research. You can’t completely isolate histories from the broader world they’re embedded within.

Q: Children learn about slavery in school, but they don’t often learn about how U.S. slavery influenced the British Empire. Why isn’t this common knowledge?

I think it can be difficult to untangle that skein — to make sense of all the interconnectedness in the world and observe the ways our histories converge. This isn’t something generally understood. But I do think there’s a growing body of scholarship about how U.S. slavery had a broader global influence than what is commonly understood. 

Colonialism is capitalism. Slavery is capitalism. Through these histories, you can see how these worlds are not separated from one another.

Zach Sell Visiting Assistant Professor of Slavery and Justice
Zach Sell headshot

What’s particularly difficult about this history — and lots of history, actually — is that it contradicts itself often. The years 1833 to 1838 are generally considered a time of emancipation from slavery in Britain. But at the same time, in the following few decades, Britain was just as reliant on slave labor as ever. Commodities produced by U.S. slavery, such as cotton, were pouring into metropolitan Britain at this time. More than 80% of the cotton arriving in factories in Lancashire and Manchester was coming from the American South. Slavery was propelling the country’s explosive manufacturing growth and allowing its economy to dominate.

This cuts against a heroic story of this period as an era of British emancipation. If this is a time when slavery in most of the British Empire was abolished,  it was also a time when manufacturers and colonial officials were seeing how slavery was giving the U.S. this unmatched economic dynamism and wondering how to surpass that dynamism through colonial projects. That is what scholars are beginning to grapple with.

Q: What are some examples of the influence American slavery had on the British Empire?

Much of my book examines how U.S. slavery influenced British colonial projects, especially across the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific.

U.S. slavery had a particularly deep impact upon British colonial projects in India. At this time in India, there was a huge aspiration among British manufacturers to transform agrarian relations. They looked toward the legacy of global transformations in indigo production.  In this time, production of indigo — the plant that produces blue dye — had grown massively in India following a decline in production in the U.S. Manufacturers and colonial officials believed that cotton could follow a similar trajectory and that India could take the place of the U.S. as Britain’s cotton field. They shipped seeds and plantation implements from the United States to India en masse. Plantation overseers and colonial officials travelled between Britain, India and the U.S. to manage such a transformation. However, despite these efforts, these projects were constantly disrupted.  

Such interconnected histories of slavery and colonialism are part of the broader world of global capitalism. Colonialism is capitalism. Slavery is capitalism. Through these histories, you can see how these worlds are not separated from one another.

Q: What stories in your book might surprise people?

My research on British Honduras shares a side of American Civil War history people may not know. After slavery was abolished in British Honduras, their economy stagnated, and landholding companies were looking for ways to revitalize it. In the midst of the American Civil War, the area’s largest landholding company expressed an interest in relocating formerly enslaved people in the U.S. to British Honduras. This idea actually had mainstream support in the U.S., including from President Lincoln. Company representatives met with Lincoln and had a whole series of conversations about how to make this work. It ultimately fell apart, partly because formerly enslaved people refused to relocate to British Honduras. However, after this project fell apart, landholding interests turned toward bringing indentured labor from China to perform plantation labor and also depended upon the arrival of former U.S. slaveholders to manage plantations. This history had a particularly violent legacy and is another point where you can see ideas of colonialism being very influenced by how slavery and emancipation in the U.S. are unfolding.

If there’s any lesson we can take away, it’s that people seize history and change its meaning in dramatic ways. That’s always a possibility.

Zach Sell Visiting Assistant Professor of Slavery and Justice

Q: Why was the British Empire drawing lessons from U.S. slavery when it had just ended slavery across its empire?

When I first started doing research, I took time to just listen and read and reconstruct the language and understand the discourse in the records I found. But at some point I had to stop listening and start understanding why all of this change was happening. 

This was an era of colonial uprisings and also ultimately when enslaved people in the U.S. ended their enslavement. This was an era when colonial subjects across the British Empire really challenged the conditions of British rule. These uprisings, unfortunately, were also producing these terrible ideas among people in power — people W.E.B. Du Bois called the “white masters of the world” — of how to extend capitalism’s lease on life through slavery and empire, even in the age of putative emancipation. 

British manufacturers and colonial bureaucrats were looking for ways to produce commodities at a higher volume, and more cheaply, as was being done through U.S. slavery. In the process of looking toward slavery, they fastened new obligations onto colonial society, often through perverse imaginations, and this had a really devastating effect on colonial subjects across the British empire. It didn’t need to be this way.

Q: Why are these domestic and international histories still relevant today?

Sometimes, drawing parallels between the past and the present is a risky business. But the events I describe in this book are unfolding at a time of huge upheaval — emancipation, uprisings, famine in India, white British workers relocated to Australia in huge numbers. In 1858, the idea that slavery would soon come to an end would have sounded unbelievable. Seven years later, the largest slaveholding society in the modern world collapsed. 

Right now, we’re in this period of tremendous crisis, characterized in the U.S. by anti-Black racism and police brutality, characterized in India by blocked paths to citizenship and new mass dispossessions due to the pandemic, and characterized by global reckonings with racist and colonialist legacies. Just like that period in the 1800s, it’s this era of massive upheaval where there are new questions being raised and new challenges emerging. For some, this crisis was unimaginable even a few months ago. Looking toward the past reveals ways that unexpected possibilities can also arise in moments of upheaval. Then, as now, people are resisting structures with an eyes-wide-open, realpolitik approach.

I would be reticent to offer prescriptions based upon my book — the present crisis involves unique new circumstances that can’t be solved by reading a history book about the 19th century. But I do think that what happened in that era is that people — from those who were enslaved to colonial subjects — dreamed impossible things. Those visions really subverted or undercut these hallucinatory colonial prescriptions. If there’s any lesson we can take away, it’s that people seize history and change its meaning in dramatic ways. That’s always a possibility.