Animals and Critiques of Capitalism in Early Antislavery Writings

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:50 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Joshua A. Kercsmar, Unity College
This paper investigates the ways that early antislavery writers like James Grainger (1723 – 1776), William Cowper (1731 – 1800), Elizabeth Heyrick (1789 – 1831), and others drew parallels between slavery and the exploitation of animals as part of their larger attacks on speculative capitalism. It argues that these writers’ prose and poetry reveals seldom-explored links between transatlantic slavery, improved livestock husbandry, and the commodification of both. Throughout the eighteenth century, livestock and African slaves often shared similar statuses in the British colonies. Planters traded their two- and four-legged chattels, measured them as replaceable units of work, used them as credit, and helped drive markets that dictated their value. By the end of the century, humanitarian writers began to lambaste this commerce in bodies, fitting biblical arguments about God’s care for all creatures – human and nonhuman alike – into an emerging “secular” discourse of enlightenment sensibility. The resulting critiques were far from identical. They often held in common, however, the warning that to profit at another’s expense was to become a beast-like “savage” oneself – a specter that might apply to individuals or entire societies. This study is drawn from my book manuscript, Animal Domestication and the Origins of American Slavery, which answers David Brion Davis’s call to locate master-slave relations within a deeper history of animal domestication. Antislavery writers from the 1770s through 1830s are critical to this larger story. For by decrying a system that privileged profit over moral responsibility, they found themselves advocating on behalf of slaves and animals alike.