It’s Corruption All the Way Down – Dylan M. LeBlanc

Most of my historical subjects were corrupt. Slave-owning, slave-trading, and self-dealing government officials on the edges of Britain’s Atlantic empire, they look today like veritable icons of moral decay. Of course, today’s standards don’t matter. Historians aren’t judges of the dead. We can recognize the evils of slavery, the temptations of duplicity, and separate fact from fiction. We seek, however, to explain the driving force of our narratives without making value judgements. There are no heroes and no villains.

But what happens when all that remains to separate fact from fiction in a past life are political statements, and when facts themselves become political? In 2021, it’s a familiar question. The people I study might seem corrupt to me, but did all of their contemporaries agree? And was there truth in the allegations of those who did? As my subjects strayed farther from Britain, they made these questions trickier. They moved around the Atlantic world leaving thin paper trails, working in environments like the Caribbean and the Carolina lowcountry where humidity and hurricanes undermined archives from the start. The most enduring evidence of their corruption (and perhaps of all past corruption) survives in the residue of mudslinging, in polemics and rumors rather than in account books. In other words, the evidence of corruption is often corrupted itself.

Figure 1. My historical subjects were often discerning, well-dressed and highly educated, but utterly lacking in moral and political scruples. “Colonial Costumes,” in Edward Eggleston, The Household History of the United States and its People (London: Macmillan, 1889), 6. Public domain from the collections of the British Library, digitized 2013.

Royal African Company officials made some of the best whistleblowers. In the late seventeenth century, as they sought to serve their employer’s interests and protect its monopoly on the Atlantic slave trade, they regularly raised alarms about colonial officials who broke the law. In Virginia, they accused customs officers of smuggling dozens of enslaved people ashore and taking kickbacks for helping traders avoid paying duties. In Nevis, they tried to seize illicit cargoes of enslaved people, but in one case were “Prevented by Mr Philip Lee Speaker of the Assembly” and his friends “all standing with their Swords pointing to our Breasts & Some their Pistolls Swearing Bitterly that they would kill a man that did offer to seize a Negroe.” And in Barbados, they exposed William Sharpe, the colony’s chief justice, for investing in slave smuggling and then using his position on the bench to acquit his partners and punish his accusers.1

The problem is that most of these stories remain fragments, rumors, and second-, third-, and fourth-hand information. And to every account of colonial officials abusing their offices for private gain, I could add an accusation of Royal African Company employees who simultaneously held government posts and used them to serve their corporate employer. In Jamaica, one official supposedly counterfeited royal proclamations and forged the governor’s signature to defend the Company’s interests. Another official, in Barbados, apparently conned the colonial assembly into using public money to pay private debts owed to the Company.

Figure 2. This nineteenth-century engraving of a port in Brazil shows a slave trader registering his cargo with a customs official. Moments of contact between human trafficking and the state, such as this one, often made corruption convenient. Johann Mortiz Rugendas, “Debarquement,” in Voyage Pittoresque dans le Bresil. Traduit de l’Allemand (Paris, 1835; also published in same year in German). From Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora.

I don’t have “smoking guns” to pin specific smuggling ventures or corrupt schemes to specific officials. In reconstructing networks of slave trading and talk about corruption, I chose to trust that patterns of evidence reflected actual patterns of action. The British Atlantic slave trade exploded in the seventeenth century, not just through the work of the Royal African Company, but through intensive illicit schemes by merchants and planters. We know this because it was an open secret both in Britain and the colonies. Petitions and lawsuits appeared in London every year attesting to it.2 Undoubtedly, some total fabrications have blended into the pattern. But for me, corruption talk opens a window into two sides of the same world: one in which official involvement in smuggling helped expand the early slave trade, and the other in which political actors knew how to use corruption talk to serve their ends.

Figure 3. Williams’s cartoon is one of only a handful of images I was able to find in my research that evokes the blending of public and private interest (and intrigue) through the slave trade. By the early nineteenth century, when the abolition movement began to accelerate, the corruption associated with public-private schemes in the Atlantic slave trade seemed more apparent, but had been a source of corruption complaints for over a century already. Charles Williams, “A Negro Chieftain” (London, 1802). Trustees of the British Library, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Lately I’ve thought more about the imperfections of this method. In the United States today, a renaissance of political corruption and its urgent critiques is upon us. From where I sit, I find it easy to disentangle the real corruption stories from the fake news. Most reasonable and thoughtful people do. But will future historians? When it comes to corruption, the farther away from the early twenty-first century we go, empirical evidence of clandestine schemes will fade, the smoking guns will cool. What remains is often a collection of contested claims and political messaging. In this context, talk about corruption looks most like a symptom of either cynicism or distrust in government. Equivalences (false or not) and “both sides” narratives appear safest. Consensus emerges around either defeated fatalism, where everything was corrupt and still is, or naive progressivism, where corruption remains mostly a feature of under-developed or developing societies.3

Such is the fate of all political contexts and controversies, if given enough time. The internet makes recording and preserving information more efficient and accessible, yet it still relies on physical infrastructure, servers of metal and plastic that will decay and rot with age. As we move through our online lives, we have created echo-chambers and insulated worlds that will, if preserved unevenly, present to future historians the same asymmetries of power and narrative that cloud the histories of early America, medieval Europe, or imperial Japan.

As historians we work in a world of corrupted records, conscious of the fact that corrupting the record itself is a timeless tactic used to cover corrupt tracks. In our own personal and political lives, we will bequeath to future historians bits, bytes, and fragments that tell incomplete stories. The National Archives and the Twitter archives will survive in their own states of incompleteness. This will leave a new generation’s historians few options beyond focusing on the language and shared political strategies of the past, remaining agnostic as to the reality or cynicism behind claims of corruption, scandal, and the like. It’s the same way I treated the fragmented evidence of corruption that I’ve found in early America. Responsible historians resist the urge to write beyond their evidence, to sit in judgment of the dead. Our moment will have no heroes and no villains.

Dylan M. LeBlanc (he/him/his) is a historian of early America and the British Atlantic world, and a history teacher at La Lumiere School.  He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame in 2019 and is at work on a book project entitled The Two Husbands of Sarah Rhett: Trust and the Quest for Power in Early America. His research interests include the intersections between Atlantic political culture and individual lives, questions of microhistory, and the Atlantic slave trade.

Read Dylan LeBlanc’s article, “‘Places of Great Trust’: Government Men and Slave Trade Networks in the English Atlantic before 1698,” in the Winter 2022 issue of Early American Studies!

  1. For these reports and more, see my article “Places of Great Trust: Government Men and Slave Trade Networks in the English Atlantic before 1698,” Early American Studies, 20 (Winter 2022), 43-77.
  2. For work on the Royal African Company, see K.G. Davies, The Royal African Company (London: Longmans, 1957), William Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Chapel Hill: Univerity of North Carolina Press, 2013), and Simon Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
  3. For a discussion of the association between corruption and the “developing world,” through the neoliberalism of political science, see the Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption (New York: Routledge, 2018).