Fellow's Talk

The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Rhetoric of Climate

94 George Street

Providence, RI 02906

anti-abolitionist political cartoon depicting slaves dancing and playing music in front of an audience of planters

Katherine Johnston (Beloit College), NEH Fellow at the JCB, presents, "The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Rhetoric of Climate." At the end of the eighteenth century, British abolitionists spurred a Parliamentary investigation into the state of the Atlantic slave trade and the conditions of enslaved Africans living in the West Indies. Both slaveholders in favor of keeping the trade and abolitionists arguing to end it published pamphlets advocating for their cause. Curiously, activists on both sides of the debate used climatic rhetoric – particularly the supposed suitability of Africans for the West Indian environment – to bolster their case. This talk shows the ways two different groups of people used climatic rhetoric in the slave trade debate, and suggests that this rhetoric had lasting implications for theories of biological race.