Literature & History: British Slavery and its Afterlives

ENG 730X: British Slavery and its Afterlives

Wednesdays / 3:15-5:45 

1700-1898 Requirement / LSE

Course Description:

This course introduces students to the cultural histories of British slavery and abolition, and examines their reverberations in 18th and 19th century British literature and beyond. We will discuss historical topics such as enslavement in the British colonies, especially as it relates to the rise of the novel, abolition and slave narratives, slave revolts, and the rise of British empire, with an eye toward how history informs the work we do as scholars. As such, the course will be comprised of not only 18th and 19th century literature of British slavery and abolition, but also literature “post” slavery, including 21st-century literature that looks back to histories of enslavement. Through reading widely, we will work to understand the history of British slavery, how the British represented this history after abolition, and how contemporary Black writers have re-imagined or filled in the gaps of a white-dominated archive. We will read a variety of primary texts –  abolitionist pamphlets and slave narratives, novels and poetry, travel narratives and scientific writing – to gain a broad sense of how different discourses constructed race and critiqued (or reinforced) the institutions of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy. Throughout the semester, we will connect slavery to the project of empire, thus we will pay particular attention to British relationships with the Caribbean and Africa. Through combining a variety of texts from the past and from today, this course centers Black voices and perspectives.

Our course will be guided by theoretical questions and concerns emerging from recent work in Black Studies, Posthumanism, and Feminist Theory, and issues relating to humanism and dehumanization; constructions of race and racializing assemblages; alternative (non-white/western/gendered) epistemological frameworks for abolition; critiques of western humanism and liberal thought; the limits of the archive and attempts to imagine what was left out, the relationship between slavery and the Anthropocene; the afterlife of slavery; and reading beyond oppression and subjection.

This course provides an important historical grounding for our contemporary moment, and will be useful for those with the following interests (but not limited to): the politics of race and its representation; histories of slavery and colonialism; post-colonialism; Black studies; 18th and 19th century literature and history, and international cultural studies.

We will be guided by the following questions:

  • What were the racializing assemblages of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how did writers challenge these assemblages? How did they intersect with formations of science, empire, liberalism, and gender?
  • How did the institution of slavery construct varying layers of the human? What did dehumanization look like? And how did enslaved people challenge such dehumanization? How are these forms of dehumanization still with us today, and how can they help us uncover the limitations of western humanism?
  • How was the institution of slavery connected to colonial mythologies, the industrial revolution, and the extraction of resources? What does it mean to read colonialism as grounded in the history of slavery? What does it mean to read slavery as the start of the Anthropocene?
  • What are the limitations of the archive, and how do we read for Black voices in a white-dominated archive?
  • How can non-Black scholars appropriately and ethically engage this history?
  • How have Black writers written back to this history? What do they show us that wasn’t shown previously, and how do they help us see the afterlife of slavery? What does this afterlife look like?

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Gain an understanding of a specific historical context (British slavery, abolition, and empire), through reading both primary and critical texts on the subject
  • Read and analyze a wide variety of primary texts from the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Become familiar with a contemporary theoretical framework and its debates (Black Studies), and practice applying this theoretical framework to primary texts
  • Practice demonstrating advanced critical analysis in both written and oral formats
  • Learn how to write well at an advanced level, especially with the use of multiple outside sources
  • Practice researching primary materials through online databases and gain an understanding of the goals and limits of recent digital humanities projects about slavery and empire
  • Be able to put other areas in conversation with your own specific research interests
  • Be able to place contemporary issues in a longer historical context; understand how history has influenced our contemporary moment
  • Understand how contemporary writers make use of the past


  • Digital archive analysis
  • Conference paper, to be delivered in class
  • Weekly reading responses with discussion questions (to be posted online the day before class)
  • Final project with multiple options geared toward your career; all options will be around 10-15 pages in length and will require outside research. Options may include a standard research paper, a proposal for a digital humanities project or archive, a course syllabus or detailed lesson plans.

Required Texts (available at UH bookstore):

  • Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688) – Penguin edition
  • Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative (1789) – Penguin edition
  • William Earle, Obi or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack (1800) – Broadview Press
  • Anonymous, The Woman of Color (1808) – Broadview Press
  • Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince (1831) – Penguin edition
  • Jane Austin, Mansfield Park (1814) – Penguin edition
  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847) – Penguin edition
  • Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)
  • M. NourbSe Philip, Zong! (2008)
  • Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017)
  • Other primary texts that include selections from 18th and 19th century travel narratives and scientific writings; anti-slavery writings, poetry, and short stories, by both Black and white writers.
  • Contemporary theoretical readings will include authors such as Christina Sharpe, Alexander Weheliye, Tiffany King, Zakiyyah Jackson, C. Riley Snorton, Marquis Bey, Saidiya Hartman, Sylvia Wynter, Kathryn Yusoff, Hortense Spillers, Eric Williams, and Vincent Brown.