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The Universal Attractions of Slavery

After assessing the profitability of the slave trade, which brought rewards of around 10 percent on investment, and the increasing value of the British West Indies, Drescher contended that the British slave system was expanding, not declining, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The 1807 abolition act came at a time when Britain not only led the world in plantation production but had the opportunity, thanks to naval power and the wartime conquests of Trinidad, Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo—Caribbean colonies—of nearly monopolizing the slave trade and gaining a preponderant share of the growing world market for sugar and coffee. Far from being “old” in some global sense—“old soil, old habits, old techniques,” as Drescher characterized Ragatz and Williams’s argument—Drescher affirmed that “the British slave system was young…[and] it seemed so to contemporaries.”3

While Econocide evoked decades of debate and some argument still continues, Drescher’s repudiation of the decline thesis also helped to undermine an older and more deeply entrenched thesis regarding the backwardness, inefficiency, and obsolescence of slavery itself, a thesis that had been dramatically attacked three years earlier by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Time on the Cross. Our culture still contains much mythological residue based on the assumption that an immoral and flagrantly unjust system of labor could not possibly be congruent with long-term economic and material progress.

This long-dominant mythology seemed to draw some confirmation from the fact that slavery was often associated with soil exhaustion, indebtedness, and low levels of literacy, urban growth, industry, and immigration. Drawing on Adam Smith’s arguments on the superiority of free labor, or on Marxist concepts of alleged irreversible material progress, or on racist views that American slavery, while an anachronism, helped civilize so-called African savages and would have soon died out on its own without a needless Civil War, countless historians, novelists, politicians, and others misrepresented an institution that served as the crucial basis for New World settlement and expansion for over three centuries. It was a system, moreover, that anticipated the efficiency and productivity of factory assembly lines while also leading the way to the first stage of a globalized economy.

In recent decades historians and economists have reached a broad consensus that while the profitability of single export crops like cotton could discourage a more diversified economy, slave labor could still be efficient, productive, and adaptable to a variety of trades and occupations ranging from mining and factory labor to the technologically modernized, steam-powered Cuban sugar mills. Drescher’s later work, combined with the research of Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, David Eltis, Rebecca Scott, Herbert Klein, and many others has proved that the economic importance of slavery increased in the nineteenth century along with the soaring global demand for such consumer goods as sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton textiles.

Some three million Africans, or about one quarter of the grand total exported, were shipped off to the Americas after 1807, despite the militant efforts of the British navy to suppress this mostly illegal commerce. I should add that in the American South, slaveholders effectively applied slave labor to the cultivation of corn, grain, and hemp (for making rope and twine), to both mining and lumbering, to building canals and railroads, and even to manufacturing textiles, iron, and other industrial products. As Drescher’s new book makes clear, in one New World system after another slavery demonstrated its flexibility and durability until abolished by superior military, civil, or political pressure from within or from without.

This fact, coupled with the usually minimal influence of slave revolts (and Drescher judiciously examines the diverse effects on British abolitionism of three major slave revolts between 1816 and 1831), highlights the supreme importance of both the antislavery ideology that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century and the antislavery movements that were largely confined, as Drescher emphasizes, to the Anglo-American world until the generation following the American Civil War, when they finally appeared in Spain, Cuba, and Brazil.

No theme in Drescher’s book is more striking than the extraordinary success of abolitionism in mobilizing public opinion in Britain and then in the northern United States (with a very different outcome), as well as the failure of such efforts on the Continent. Drescher carefully traces the tensions that arose as northwestern Europe increasingly defined itself as “free soil” while governing colonies increasingly dependent on slaves. Yet on the Continent this seeming commitment to freedom provided no precedent, like England’s Somerset decision of 1772, which concluded that slavery was unlawful in that country, though not elsewhere in the empire, for meaningful antislavery movements, despite Britain’s continuing efforts to encourage such developments in countries like France and Holland. This effective dominance of economic self-interest on the Continent makes it all the more difficult to explain the abolitionists’ continuing triumphs in Britain.

Although Drescher underestimates the central force of evangelical religion in motivating Anglo-American abolitionism, he convincingly underscores the importance of representative government and the tradition of public petitioning as well as the fact that newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, voluntary societies and associations, and a common-law tradition created in Anglo-American societies a degree of public participation unmatched in the rest of the world. He also briefly notes that by the 1780s, British culture had long been saturated with appalling descriptions of the cruelties of the African slave trade.

But since Drescher’s exclusion of any British economic self-interest in ending the slave trade points to the overwhelming importance of ideas, moral values, and culture, there is a certain irony in the fact that, as a social and economic historian, he downplays and is suspicious of the noneconomic aspects of “ideology.” Thus in his excellent book, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation,4 he devotes much attention to the “ideology of free labor” as a misleading belief in the economic superiority of free labor. Then and now he refuses to acknowledge the broader cultural and psychological importance of this ideology in elevating and honoring the idea of “free labor” in ways that sanctioned or diverted attention from the shocking, coercive conditions imposed on British industrial workers.

A review of Drescher’s new book is not the occasion for debate on these issues, but we still have important gaps that future historians will need to confront in explaining why for the initial half-century of industrialization millions of Britons became almost obsessed with colonial slavery (except in India), and why hardheaded politicians in the world’s first industrial nation, a nation that soon ruled the seas, would then commit “econocide” by destroying what soon could have become the world’s most valuable plantation empire.

But such questions should not distract attention from the British abolitionists’ extraordinary success in mobilizing public opinion and influencing government policies. In 1787, when reformers in London founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a separate society emerged in the industrial center of Manchester with 68 women among its 302 subscribers. From the very start women had a prominent part in the British movement as writers, public speakers, leaders of campaigns to boycott slave-grown sugar, and by the 1820s as signers of petitions and influential advocates of “immediate,” as opposed to gradual, slave emancipation. In 1788 some two thirds of Manchester’s eligible males, including some factory workers, signed anti-slave-trade petitions, as did at least 60,000 other Britons. By 1792, when the House of Commons passed a gradual slave-trade abolition bill that was blocked by the House of Lords, the number had reached nearly 400,000 names. By 1833, when public demands succeeded in achieving the emancipation of 800,000 slaves, the number of petition signers had risen to 1.3 million, about 30 percent of whom were women. As a sign of unprecedented public support, the ratio of signatures for immediate emancipation, compared to opponents, was more than 250 to 1.

After 1792, the radicalism of the French Revolution and a long global war delayed major agitation until 1806–1807, although the British government took significant action in restraining slave importation into conquered undeveloped colonies like Trinidad, Guiana, and South Africa. As already noted, the passage of the slave-trade-abolition bill in 1807 initiated a long and seemingly irreversible decline of the slave population of the British colonies and thus in the plantation economy itself, and also provided strong motivation to prevent slave traders of other nations from simply purchasing and transporting the African slaves that the British would otherwise have taken.

In 1787 the first British abolitionists made the wise tactical decision, contrary to Granville Sharp’s wishes, to focus entirely upon the slave trade and postpone attention to slavery itself. Many assumed then and later that the prohibition of slave imports would convince planters to take various ameliorative measures that would lead, as in the United States, to a positive growth rate and a natural increase in the slave population. Drescher says too little about this and about the significance and reasons for the continuing great disparity in slave demography between the US and most of the rest of the New World. Yet he vividly shows how the decline in the slave population weakened the British colonies and made emancipation easier, and how the negative slave growth in Brazil, Cuba, and elsewhere enormously increased the significance and outcome of the British diplomatic and naval campaign to suppress all parts of the Atlantic slave trade—culminating, in many ways, in Lord Palmerston’s “crowning achievement” of using force as well as diplomacy to end Brazilian slave imports in 1850.5

From the vast and at times overwhelming detail of Drescher’s book, what are the most important conclusions one can draw? First, abolitionists were encouraged by the prevailing conviction regarding the economic superiority of free labor and the belief, shared even by many New World slaveholders, that slavery, like medieval serfdom, was destined by history to be extinguished. Yet they were forced to deal with the repeated limitations and failures of free-labor ideology, for example the discovery that freed plantation workers were not as productive as slaves, even after periods of “educational” coerced apprenticeship. By 1850, following the abolition of British, French, and Danish Caribbean slavery, slave-importing Cuba and Brazil were prosperously feeding the world’s ever-growing demand for sugar and coffee. The precipitous decline in plantation production following slave emancipation led to the importation of hundreds of thousands of East Asian “coolies,” or indentured servants, a form of compulsory labor the abolitionists failed to prevent. Beginning with the coerced labor that replaced slavery even during the Haitian Revolution, the transition to “freedom” was never clear or easy. By the 1850s some significant British political figures and newspapers had concluded that the “Mighty Experiment” of 1833 had been an appalling failure.

It was the previously inconceivable and sudden emancipation of over four million slaves in the American Civil War that changed everything and put the preceding emancipations in what many saw as a linear progression leading to hemispheric abolition. American abolitionists had been inspired by the British model and in the 1830s succeeded in mobilizing public activities with astonishing speed. Yet Drescher emphasizes the crucial American barriers of race and racism—the widespread public consensus even in the North that the two races could never live together as equals and that emancipation was impossible without some form of black colonization. In striking contrast to Britain, American abolitionists faced hostile mobs, federal censorship, and the blocking of mail sent to the South; for eight years Congress refused to accept antislavery petitions.

Nevertheless, one can conclude that the abolitionists scored their greatest “success” in helping to drive Southerners to secede from the Union and in preparing the Radical Republicans and then Lincoln to respond to the wartime desertion of hundreds of thousands of “contraband” slaves with an Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment. Without the achievements of the British and American abolitionists, there would have been no American Civil War and immediate emancipation, and certainly no hemispheric abolition in the nineteenth century.

By carrying the story of “the perennial institution” from the late Middle Ages to the millions of slave laborers in the Russian Gulag and Nazi concentration and labor camps, Drescher’s monumental work has shown that while opposition to slavery in its various forms can serve as a model for abolishing evil, slavery also seems to be irrevocable, with an amazing capacity to endure or suddenly become resurrected, even in an apparently progressive and civilized nation like twentieth-century Germany. If Drescher’s profound history of human nature gives some cause for hope with regard to moral progress, it should also end complacency and put us on continual alert.

  1. 3

    Econocide, pp. 162–163.

  2. 4

    Oxford University Press, 2002.

  3. 5

    Apart from the negative slave population growth in Latin America, Drescher shows that high manumission rates also gave an added incentive to import more slaves from Africa.

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