From Slavery to Settler Colonialism: Atlantic Capital and the Colonisation of the Port Phillip District


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This project explores how British merchants involved in transatlantic slavery helped establish the settler colonial state of Victoria.

The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act signalled a momentous change for the enslaved and their former enslavers in Britain’s colonies in the West Indies, southern Africa and Mauritius, but its wider reverberations extended right across the British Empire in ways that are only now being scrutinised. Settler colonisers invaded south-eastern Australia’s Port Phillip District just after emancipation, precipitating a violent process of dispossession for the region’s Aboriginal peoples, while generating vast pastoral and mercantile fortunes for a rising colonial elite.

This project focuses on British merchant houses that re-oriented some of their activities from the Atlantic to Australia from the mid-1830s. It explores an important but little recognised connection between two dynamic and significant regional economies – the north-west of Britain and the Port Phillip District – to generate new models for understanding Britain’s imperial history and its Australian legacies.

The research questions driving this project are:

  • Who were the merchants and capitalists of north-west Britain who drew on experience, capital and personnel derived from the business of Atlantic slavery to invest in the Port Phillip District?
  • How, and why, did they do this?
  • What impact did their investment and involvement have on the development of the Port Phillip District, especially between 1835 and 1860?
  • How did these Australian ventures complement other business interests elsewhere in Britain’s Empire?
  • What legacies of Britain’s involvement in the business of slavery were transferred to the Port Phillip District?

The collaborative structure of the PhD programme offered by Melbourne and Manchester will allow the student to draw on the expertise and support of the academic community at each institution, and spend time in relevant archives in both Australia and the UK. The primary supervisor at Melbourne, Prof Zoë Laidlaw, specialises in colonial regimes and imperial networks, while the Manchester co-supervisor, Dr Edmond Smith, is expert in imperial and economic history. Together, they will provide the student with a supervisory and training agenda designed to ensure the best possible outputs from this PhD programme.

Like other work in this area (including that of both supervisors), the project will be informed by, and draw upon, the work of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership Project (LBS), which digitised records documenting the distribution of £20 million compensation to individual slave-owners for the loss of their enslaved property. It will also move well beyond this database to use archival records generated by colonial and imperial administrations, by businesses and families in the Port Phillip District, and mercantile enterprises based in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. These records will allow the student to address how merchants and capitalists in Britain's growing urban centres were connected to the Port Phillip District’s emerging settler colonial conurbations in Melbourne and Geelong and their service of western Victoria’s rapidly expanding pastoral economy. The project gives the student, in consultation with the supervisors, scope to shape the questions and case studies to be explored.

Supervision team

The University of Melbourne: Professor Zoë Laidlaw

The University of Manchester: Dr Edmond Smith.

*Click on the researcher's name above to learn more about their publication and grant successes.

Further details

The successful candidate will be based at University of Melbourne with a minimum twelve-month stay at the University of Manchester.

Applications for this project will close once a suitable candidate is identified.

To view the entry requirements please visit How to apply. Intending applicants should contact Professor Zoë Laidlaw and Dr Edmond Smith with a 1-2 page cover letter outlining your expression of interest, a recent writing sample, academic transcripts, and Curriculum Vitae.

First published on 3 December 2022.

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