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QUEENS' COLLEGE AND THE 'PROVINCE OF FREEDOM'

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CHEERED ON BY THE President of Queens’, Isaac Milner, numerous Queens’-related figures were part of the network of politicians, clerics and merchants who devised a landmark in British imperialism and its association with slavery: the plan to establish a state for freed slaves in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Impetus for this project followed defeat in the American War of Independence (1775-83) which many evangelicals attributed to divine retribution occasioned by Britain’s trade in enslaved people.

Following an earlier failed attempt, the Sierra Leone Company was established in 1792 with the aim of resettling former slaves in Sierra Leone. With William Wilberforce as one of the directors, its offer of ‘free’ farming land to former slaves represented just one component in a wider plan to Christianise and ‘civilise’ the entire continent. After this venture also struggled Sierra Leone became a crown colony (1808), pursuing the same abolitionist mission as before but under the influence of a new Wilberforce-led organisation, the African Institution. Its aspiration to promote ‘civilisation and happiness’ as a means to ‘repair’ ‘those enormous wrongs which the natives of Africa’ had suffered was supported by many Queens’ members. Subscription fees to the African Institution were paid by many Fellows appointed under Milner, including Thomas Harrison, its Honorary Secretary. The African Institution was instrumental in installing a young Queens’ graduate and former Fellow, Thomas Perronet Thompson, as Sierra Leone’s first crown governor. As a protégé of Milner and Wilberforce, his dismay at the real state of the colony when he arrived, coupled with suspicion about the profit-seeking of African Institution members, led to his swift recall. Milner’s view of the project as a ‘rational’ attempt by ‘religious people to spread Christianity, and to civilise barbarians’ reflects both the reforming ambitions of abolitionists but also their sense of cultural superiority: a combination which serves to underline how antislavery could itself drive imperial expansion.

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