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272 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 4 halftones, 4 figs., 4 tables, appends., notes, index

Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia

ISBN  978-1-4696-1181-5
Published: December 2013

Freedom's Debt

The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752

By William A. Pettigrew

Awards & Distinctions

2009 Jamestown Prize, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Shortlisted for the 2013 Whitfield Prize, Royal Historical Society

In the years following the Glorious Revolution, independent slave traders challenged the charter of the Royal African Company by asserting their natural rights as Britons to trade freely in enslaved Africans. In this comprehensive history of the rise and fall of the RAC, William A. Pettigrew grounds the transatlantic slave trade in politics, not economic forces, analyzing the ideological arguments of the RAC and its opponents in Parliament and in public debate. Ultimately, Pettigrew powerfully reasons that freedom became the rallying cry for those who wished to participate in the slave trade and therefore bolstered the expansion of the largest intercontinental forced migration in history.

Unlike previous histories of the RAC, Pettigrew's study pursues the Company's story beyond the trade’s complete deregulation in 1712 to its demise in 1752. Opening the trade led to its escalation, which provided a reliable supply of enslaved Africans to the mainland American colonies, thus playing a critical part in entrenching African slavery as the colonies' preferred solution to the American problem of labor supply.

About the Author

William A. Pettigrew is lecturer in history at the University of Kent.


“Accessible and very interesting. . . . An admirable account of how the [Royal African Company] and its rival British slave-trading enterprises shaped, and were shaped by, the politics of the wider society they inhabited.”
--Enterprise & Society

“Pettigrew’s work is a much needed examination of the political and economic underpinnings of the early years of the British slave trade.”
--History Today

“Well researched and coherently organized...convincing, compelling, and important...Freedom's Debt does for English history something like what Edmund S. Morgan did for American history in American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia
--William and Mary Quarterly

“[A] carefully researched book.”
--Journal of American History

“It will be a standard source for specialists for many years to come.”
--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"For the first time, the origins of the British slave trade receive the searching inquiry they long have deserved. With Freedom's Debt, Pettigrew tells a new story about the political foundations of the traffic as well as the ideological seeds of its dissolution."
--Christopher Leslie Brown, Columbia University

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