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The Benefit of Slavery

Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective

by Seymour Drescher
Oxford University Press, 300 pp., $19.95

Last year a casual tourist flying by Air Jamaica to Montego Bay could learn in one sentence why the British freed their West Indian slaves. “When the sugar industry began to decline,” the airline’s journal Skywritings reported in “Jamaica A to Z,” “slavery was finally abolished.” Not a word about William Wilberforce and the other abolitionist heroes buried in Westminster Abbey. Even well-read Americans might not suspect that Skywritings‘ matter-of-fact statement is the product of a momentous historiographical debate which involves the third world’s understanding of capitalism and the capacity of parliamentary governments for meaningful social reform.

The debate itself has mostly been confined to scholarly journals and international professional meetings. But the sesquicentennial of British slave emancipation, in 1984, showed how deeply the theories of Eric Williams, the late prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, have become entrenched in official and popular ideology in the West Indies and in much of the former colonial world. At public commemorations from England to Guyana, William’s followers reiterated the arguments of William’s Capitalism and Slavery, originally published in 1944, and scorned any suggestion that Britain’s slaves had been freed for humanitarian rather than from economic motives.

Williams’s influence can be partly explained by his powerful prose and the seeming simplicity of his arguments. Capitalism and Slavery was also perfectly timed to nourish and reinforce the anti-imperialist ideology of young intellectuals, especially in the emerging third world, who sought a historical foundation for theories of economic dependency. As an Oxford-trained historian who eventually became the ruler of a former British colony, Williams spoke with even greater authority when he repeated and expanded his thesis in From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492 to 1969. The crucial point, however, is that Williams addressed two questions that have a profound bearing on relations between the West and the third world: Did the expansion of Western capitalism and the affluence of the first industrialized nations depend initially on the coerced labor of Africans, Asians, and Amerindians? Assuming that such ruthless violence prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution, did Britain’s leadership in the nineteenth-century crusade to suppress the Atlantic slave trade and abolish chattel slavery demonstrate that “the spread of moral convictions,” as John Stuart Mill put it, could sometimes take precedence over material interests?1

Although Williams’s thesis is subject to varied interpretations, its principal arguments support two broad conclusions. First, Williams maintained that European merchant capitalism created the immensely lucrative plantation system, fueled by the Atlantic slave trade, and that profits from this overseas system provided much of the capital in England that financed the Industrial Revolution.

Williams’s second conclusion derived from the assumption that the American War of Independence initiated a period of irreversible economic decline in the British Caribbean and also coincided with Britain’s decisive shift from mercantilism toward laissez-faire capitalism. By the early nineteenth century, according to Williams, the slave colonies had become an impediment to Britain’s economic progress. Blighted by inefficient labor, depleted soil, and indebtedness, these former cornucopias of wealth were sustained only by mercantilist subsidies that led to chronic overproduction for the protected British market. While Williams acknowledged that a “brilliant band” of abolitionists won fame by conducting one of the “greatest propaganda movements of all time,” he insisted that sentimental history should not be allowed to obscure the essential truth: “Overproduction in 1807 demanded abolition [of the slave trade]; overproduction in 1833 demanded emancipation.”

With respect to the first conclusion, no one can doubt that slave labor was indispensable for European settlement and development of the New World. It is no less certain that the expansion of the slave plantation system from fifteenth-century Sicily to nineteenth-century Cuba, Brazil, and North America contributed significantly to Europe’s economic growth. But economic historians have cast considerable doubt on the narrower proposition that the slave trade or even the plantation system as a whole created a major share of the capital that financed the Industrial Revolution.

It is Williams’s second conclusion, however, that David Eltis and Seymour Drescher challenge in the books under review. In 1977, in an aggressive treatise loaded with statistical tables and organized like a lawyer’s brief, Drescher sought to destroy the accepted belief that the British slave system had declined in value before Parliament outlawed the slave trade in 1807. Using statistics on British overseas trade, a criterion on which Williams had heavily relied, Drescher’s Econocide showed that the value of British West Indian exports to England and of imports from England increased sharply from the early 1780s to the end of the eighteenth century. He also demonstrated that the British West Indian share of total British overseas trade rose to high peaks in the early nineteenth century and did not begin a long-range decline until well after Parliament deprived the colonies of fresh supplies of African labor.

After assessing the profitability of the slave trade and the increasing value of the British West Indian colonies, Drescher contended that the British slave system was expanding, not declining at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The abolition act of 1807 came at a time when Britain not only led the world in plantation production but had the opportunity, thanks to naval power and wartime conquests, of nearly monopolizing the slave trade and gaining a preponderant share of the growing world market for sugar and coffee. Neither Drescher nor the scholars who endorse his arguments have explained why so many contemporary observers and later historians accepted the view that the West Indies were in decline as a result of obsolete and wasteful farming techniques, soil exhaustion, rising production costs, indebtedness, bankruptcies, and declining white populations. Further study might show that the experience of the older and smaller colonies, such as Barbados and the Leeward Islands, was more influential than the rich frontier regions in shaping popular imagery. It is also easy to confuse the symptoms of an imbalanced economy with economic decline. Drescher might have avoided some criticism if he had more clearly distinguished profitability from the structural defects and social impoverishment of the British slave colonies. Nevertheless, after a decade of debate it is clear that Econocide undercut a vital part of the Williams thesis.

David Eltis’s new book boldly expands Drescher’s arguments against the putative economic decline of slavery, but as we shall later see, he can also be read as reformulating some of Williams’s central points. A work of prodigious and meticulous scholarship, Eltis’s book will be studied and debated well into the next century. No other scholar has so far rivaled Eltis in tracing the connections between industrialization in Europe and coerced labor in the Americas; in reconstructing the costs, profits, and techniques of the nineteenth-century Atlantic slave trade; in deciphering the covert activities of large multinational slaving firms; in mastering the details of slave ship tonnage, mortality, and voyage time; or in moving on a global scale from the plantations of Cuba and Brazil back to the sophisticated African slave-trading networks extending from Upper Guinea to Mozambique. Although clear and readable, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a technical work that suffers, especially in the important first two chapters, from too much condensation. But Eltis’s provocative arguments will require historians to reconsider the entire Anglo-American antislavery movement as well as the place of coerced labor in an emerging industrial and free market Atlantic world.

Historians have only begun to free themselves from the antislavery assumptions that permeated conceptions of political economy from the time of Benjamin Franklin and Adam Smith. We still find it difficult to believe that a flagrantly unjust system of labor could be compatible with long-term economic and material progress. But despite the many valid criticisms directed against Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), more recent research has confirmed their contention that slave labor could be efficient, productive, and adaptable to a variety of trades and occupations ranging from mining and factory work to the technologically modernized Cuban sugar mills. Indeed, in Cuba and Brazil as well as in the southern United States slavery continued to flourish until governments moved after 1860 to abolish it. In rejecting theories that slavery was doomed by its inherent limitations and by economic decline, Eltis rejects the tacit assumption that blacks were incapable of mastering advanced technology; yet at times he also echoes the precise reasoning slaveholders used against their abolitionist foes.

Eltis’s argument about the use of coerced labor in the Atlantic economy can be summarized as follows. Slave labor on the plantations of the New World and Indian Ocean colonies attained its maximum economic importance after Britain and the United States outlawed the overseas slave trade and during the half-century, between 1816 and 1865, when Britain spent some ÂŁ12 million (a staggering sum at that time) in an attempt to suppress the international slave traffic by patroling the African coasts, raiding African trading posts, bribing and coercing other nations to sign anti-slave trade treaties, seizing suspected slave ships, creating courts of mixed commission, and even sending cruisers to attack ships in Brazilian waters.

Slavery became more valuable to the Atlantic economy, according to Eltis, because economic growth created a soaring demand for such consumer goods as sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton textiles, all of which could be produced cheaply by slaves. In Britain alone, from 1785 to 1805 “sugar consumption rose 80 percent and cotton imports quadrupled despite prices that increased in real terms.” By 1850, after Britain had finally equalized sugar duties and begun importing cheap slave-grown Cuban and Brazilian products, sucrose constituted a larger part of the diet of the working class than of the upper class, and national sugar consumption soon rose to a billion pounds a year. 2 Meanwhile, Britain’s preeminent textile industry could not have survived without an expanding supply of cotton, almost all of which was produced by slaves until the end of the American Civil War.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Britain possessed rich, uncultivated lands in Jamaica and especially in the newly acquired colonies of Trinidad and Demerara, in Guiana. Jamaica alone was exporting five times as much coffee as Cuba and Rio de Janeiro combined, and the British colonies were producing over half the sugar consumed by the North Atlantic nations. Even with a wholly inadequate supply of slaves, Demerara was emerging as a promising source of cotton for the British market.

But in marked contrast to the United States, where the slave population achieved a high rate of natural growth and where in fifty years some nine hundred thousand bondsmen were transferred from the eastern seaboard to the old Southwest, Brazil and most of the Caribbean colonies depended on slave populations that were shrinking. This attrition could be overcome only by the import of fresh laborers from Africa. In the twenty-seven years between Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the emancipation of slaves in the colonies in 1834, the slave population declined by 25.3 percent in the new sugar colonies and by 10.8 percent in Jamaica.3 The British government succeeded not only in stopping the flow of labor from Africa to the British colonies but also in restricting the sale or movement of slaves from the older, more densely populated islands to the highly productive frontier zones. This antislavery policy raised production costs and prevented British planters from exploiting the expanding world market. It also gave an enormous stimulus to entrepreneurs in Cuba and Brazil, who continued to import African labor. Even so, the British colonies were able to export more sugar than Cuba and Brazil together until Parliament abolished slavery itself in 1834. The economic consequences of emancipation became fully apparent only after 1838, when Britain abolished an experimental system of slavelike apprenticeship.

  1. 1

    Anyone interested in the continuing debate over the Williams thesis should consult Barbara Solow and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams (Cambridge University Press, 1987); Stanley L. Engerman, “The Slave Trade and British Capital Formation in the Eighteenth Century: A Comment on the Williams Thesis,” Business History Review, 46 (Winter 1972), pp. 430–443; Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977); Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810 (Macmillan, 1975); Seymour Drescher, “Eric Williams: British Capitalism and British Slavery,” History and Theory, 26/2 (1987), pp. 180–196; Selwyn H.H. Carrington and Seymour Drescher, “Debate: Econocide and West Indian Decline, 1783–1806,” Boletin de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe, No. 36 (June 1984), pp. 13–67; Walter E. Minchinton, “Williams and Drescher: Abolition and Emancipation,” Slavery and Abolition, 4 (September 1983), pp. 81–105; Barbara L. Solow, “Caribbean Slavery and British Growth: The Eric Williams Hypothesis,” Journal of Development Economics, 17 (1985), pp. 99–115; Seymour Drescher, “The Decline Since Econocide,” Slavery and Abolition, 7 (May 1986), pp. 3–24; David Brion Davis, “Reflections on Abolitionism and Ideological Hegemony,” American Historical Review, 92 (October 1987), pp. 797–812.

  2. 2

    Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985), p. 143.

  3. 3

    B.W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 72. Higman provides a detailed and informative analysis of the extremely complex problem of slave population growth and decline.

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