Padraic Xavier Scanlan
Fields of Study: History of the British Empire, Atlantic History
Advisor: Linda Colley
I am an historian of Britain and its empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My dissertation, MacCarthy's Skull: The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Sierra Leone, 1790-1823, examines the military and economic consequences of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire, and explores the effects of abolition on the evolution of British imperialism and colonialism. Using archival sources from Sierra Leone, the UK, Canada and the United States, I reconstruct and interpret how the ideals and plans of abolitionists in London were hollowed out in Sierra Leone, and transformed into a set of quotidian practices for colonial rule.
Some of the iconography & ephemera of the legislative abolition of the British slave trade, in 1807, is famous and familiar: porcelain plates with cameos of genuflecting slaves, petitions, preachers, “Amazing Grace.” But the more intimate, excruciating drama of the end of the British slave trade played out far from London, in Sierra Leone. Founded by British abolitionists and settled by self-emancipated former slaves as a beacon of anti-slavery on the West African coast, the colony was transformed by the abolition of the trade from a commercial concern into a Crown Colony, the judicial and military hub of slave-trade interdiction. And yet, abolition did not uproot the supply chains and systems of value and exchange built by generations of European and African slave-traders. Freedom for people aboard slave ships did not abolish the logic of debt redemption associated with slavery. The new judicial and military instruments for emancipation gave impetus to colonial officials to think through what slaves ‘owed’ to their liberators.
Many historians have debated whether the abolition of the slave trade by Britain in 1807 was a sacrifice of a valuable means of production to human rights and dignity, or a cynical wager on the decreasing value of slave labour after industrialisation. And yet, regardless of the motives of abolitionists in Parliament, the practical business of interdicting slave ships was driven by money. Slave ships were valuable prizes, and bounties were paid by the Treasury to British captains and military officers for each slave on board a ship at the time of capture. The slaves aboard a slave ship were no longer property when the ship was captured; freedom made their monetary value incoherent. But colonial governors expected labour and loyalty in exchange for escape from the Middle Passage. The tension between British 'liberty' and the control of labour suffuses the history of the British empire, but it is at its rawest in Sierra Leone in the years after abolition. In Sierra Leone, ‘freedom’ foundered on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade , and the militaristic and acquisitive logic of British policy.
I earned a B.A., with First-Class Honours in History from McGill University in 2008. In 2010, I earned an M.A. in History from Princeton. I work for the Princeton Writing Program as a Writing Center Fellow, and I have been a teaching assistant in the Politics and English Departments. I was a Laurance S. Rockefeller Graduate Prize Fellow at the University Center for Human Values in 2011-2012.
My wider research interests include the historical interpretation of ecological exchange; the history of tropical medicine and the impact of infectious disease on human institutions; the relationship between maritime labour and imperial expansion, and the history of exile, forced migration and convict transportation.
Scanlan, Padraic X. “‘A bloody war or a sickly season’: The remains of a middling British imperialist in early colonial Sierra Leone.” Essays in History 45 (2011).
"‘Let that heart be English’:The Vice-Admiralty Court at Sierra Leone, 1808-1819." Presented at Sierra Leone Past and Present, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 23-27 April, 2012.
“‘The Seeds of Reformation’: Colonialism in Sierra Leone after the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1808-1815.” Presented at Northeast Conference on British Studies, College of the Holy Cross/American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA, 28-29 October, 2011.
- Co-recipient of the 2011 David Underdown Prize for the best paper by a graduate student read at the conference.
“‘A morbid state of mind’: Missionaries, soldiers and sailors in early Sierra Leone, 1787-1820.” Presented at Empire State of Mind: Articulations of British Culture in the Empire, 1707-1997, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, 25-27 May, 2011.