In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery and Antislavery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Electronic Archives
  • Historical Context
  • Black Writers on Slavery
  • Industrial Labor and Urban Poverty
  • Sensation
  • Slavery Apologists and Critics of Abolition
  • Slavery on Stage
  • The White Slavery Panic

Victorian Literature Slavery and Antislavery
Katie McGettigan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0150


Queen Victoria’s ascent to the throne coincided with the abolition of slavery (in law, if not in practice) in the majority of the British Empire, which was completed in April 1838. But far from disappearing from the national consciousness, the legacies of both slavery and emancipation shaped British life, politics, and letters for the rest of the century, and beyond. Throughout the 19th century, Britain took pride in her place as an antislavery nation as the same time as systematically forgetting her role in the slave trade. After emancipation, British antislavery activists turned their attention to the United States, where slavery was legal in the South until the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, fashioning transatlantic alliances with American abolitionists, many of whom visited Britain. Yet at the same time, a number of prominent individuals used racial hierarchies to defend slavery as preferable to black self-governance, and support for the Confederacy was substantial in Britain during the American Civil War. Later in the century, popular focus shifted to slavery within Africa and the Arab Peninsula, which had previously been neglected in favor of ending interracial slavery in the supposedly civilized West, as antislavery rhetoric became entwined with imperial expansion. Moreover, the vocabulary of slavery and mastery emerged in contemporary debates that intersected with broader issues of citizenship and freedom. Slavery imagery appeared in speeches and writings on political and social reform, the position of women, and the new urban landscape. Victorian writers thus both confronted the problem of slavery directly and used slavery as a medium for exploring diverse aspects of 19th-century life. Works cited in this article address how Victorian writers employed discourses of slavery and antislavery to, for example, bolster British nationalism; interrogate gender, class, and racial hierarchies; consider the effects of expanding democracy; and examine broadly individual liberty and the progress of civilization. Victorian authors were in close dialogue with American writings on slavery, which circulated widely in Britain, and readers should consult this article in conjunction with Judie Newman’s excellent bibliography on “Slavery in British and American Literature” in Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History (see Newman 2013, cited under General Overviews). To reflect the cross-cultural appeal of slavery and antislavery discourses, this article balances attention to canonical writers and genres with studies of working-class and popular cultures. As such, it includes lesser-studied primary texts, often as examples of particular genres or perspectives on slavery, as well as critical studies of canonical and non-canonical writing.

General Overviews

The diversity of Victorian views on slavery and the changing targets of antislavery rhetoric and activism mean that no one monograph addresses slavery across all Victorian writing. Newman 2013 provides an excellent bibliography of slavery in British and American literature, with emphasis on slavery in the Americas. Most often, scholars address slavery in tandem with other concerns. Brantlinger 1988 explores the relationship between antislavery and imperial ideologies, largely in adventure fiction. Claybaugh 2007 views antislavery activism as a central component of a transatlantic culture and literature of reform in the mid-19th-century. Almeida 2011 explores how attitudes to slavery shaped British self-image through British literary engagements with Central and South America. Wood 2000 is the standard work on slavery in British visual culture, and it is useful for literary illustration. Taylor 2002 takes a philosophical, rather than historical, approach to the subject, exploring Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in Victorian writing. Gilroy 1993 and Said 1993 are useful for theorizing the place of slavery in Victorian writing and for suggesting methods of reading that uncover its presence in literary texts.

  • Almeida, Joselyn M. Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780–1890. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    Almeida explores how discourses of discovery, trade, empire, and slavery shaped British writing about Central and South America. Her innovative approach explores Victorian translations of Cuban poetry, traces enmeshed ideologies of free trade and abolition in Darwin’s Beagle writings, and examines tensions between Britain’s self-image as a liberator and its trade with slaveholding states in Carlyle’s essays and W. H. Hudson’s novel, The Purple Land.

  • Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

    Within this classic study of imperial ideology in Victorian writing, Brantlinger explores how maritime fiction, travel narratives, and adventure novels combined antislavery ideology with hierarchical theories of race to champion British imperial activity. Surveying writers from Captain Marryat to H. Ryder Haggard, Brantlinger observes that responsibility for the slave trade is deflected onto Africans to justify European mastery of Africa itself.

  • Claybaugh, Amanda. The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

    Claybaugh argues that the realist “novel of purpose” emerged from a culture of reform that was based in print and was transatlantic in nature, and in which antislavery activism played a central part. Her discussions of Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens are particularly useful on the relationship between antislavery and a Victorian tradition of realist and reforming writing.

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.

    Challenging the utility of the ethnocentric nationalism as a framework for understanding culture, Gilroy suggests that both British culture and black American and European cultures emerge from networks of Atlantic circulation that stretch back to the slave trade. Rather than being antithetical to modernity, Gilroy argues for slavery as a position from which to critique and interpret modernity, creating a transnational black aesthetics and metaphysics.

  • Newman, Judie. “Slavery in British and American Literatures.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    This bibliography covers slavery and antislavery in transatlantic literature beyond the Victorian period but is particularly strong on slavery in the Americas, and on 19th-century writing. A good source for editions of the African American slave narratives that circulated widely in Britain, and scholarship on these texts.

  • Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.

    Said’s classic study holds particular relevance, not only because both slavery and antislavery were deeply interwoven with 19th-century imperialism, but also because his method of reading Western literature “contrapuntally” (p. 59) has allowed scholars of Victorian writing to expose the ways in which slavery haunts texts that, like Said’s own example of Austen’s Mansfield Park, might initially seem to have little connection to slavery in their settings and subjects.

  • Taylor, Jonathan. Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    Argues that Victorian portrayals of hierarchical power relations “seem to both appropriate and complicate” Hegel’s theory that the master-slave dialectic brings forward self-consciousness (p. 7). Through discussions of Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Carlyle, Taylor suggests Victorian writers used master-servant hierarchies to address an emerging British form of democracy, supported by laissez-faire and free trade imperialism.

  • Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780–1865. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

    An excellent examination of how 19th-century visual culture memorialized abolition, while effacing slavery itself. Through analyzing Victorian painting, sculpture, and decorative arts, as well as British and American illustrations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and slave narratives, Wood argues that these visual representations deny black subjectivity as they perpetuate a white mythology.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.