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The British & the Slave Trade

In response to:

Battling with Du Bois from the December 22, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen [NYR, October 27, 2011], David Brion Davis refers to “the repudiation” of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery. However, recent scholarly research, using modern economic analysis, wider archival resources, and better databases, has in fact established the validity of Williams’s work.

Capitalism and Slavery presented two hypotheses: first, that the institution of slavery and the trade flows it engendered were the catalyst of the Industrial Revolution in England; second, that the British abolished the slave trade not solely for philanthropic reasons but because the slave colonies of the British West Indies had become less profitable. Some of Williams’s critics have argued that the slave complex made an insignificant contribution to English industrialization; others argued that slavery was so important to the British economy that abolition of the trade was an act of “econocide.” Both cannot be right.

Davis’s repudiation of Williams addresses the second of these hypotheses, but it is worth noting that recent economic research makes the case that the massive Atlantic trade, based on slavery, played a critical role in English industrialization. This trade drove urbanization, commercialization, and industrialization in Europe; and England was placed politically to take full advantage of it. There is much agreement that the timing and pattern of English industrialization were significantly affected by the slave-driven Atlantic trade.

Regarding abolition, Davis does not mention the strong support given to Williams by the important work of David Beck Ryden in his West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807. Ryden’s meticulous research shows that the West Indies interests were by then in a crisis of overproduction. London warehouses were full of unsalable sugar. This sugar could not be sold on the world market because the West Indians were high-cost producers. Their economy was protected by the mercantilist commercial policy of the old colonial system, which had ceased to function as it had in the past.

High prices and large sugar crops reflected not economic success but a misallocation of economic resources as a result of protectionism. As a result, as Ryden shows, the West Indian interests were coming, cap in hand, to Parliament, begging for legislative relief, bounties, and subsidies, asking for help as thanks for their past contribution to the economy. This fact does not deny the importance of the abolitionists or the arguments of Appiah’s important book, but puts the success of the moral revolution in the context of West Indian decline.

English historians like G. Kitson Clark have long argued that the rank and file of the supporters of abolition came from the classes arising in the nascent industrial society. These people wanted to demonstrate their potential political power. Deprived of the franchise, they could only do so from an extra- parliamentary base of monster meetings, petitions, and boycott. But they needed a slogan to affix to their banner, and abolition was a good fit: it attacked West Indian plutocrats and the protesters could not be portrayed as revolutionary Jacobins. Abolition was a convenient slogan for the political aspirations of this class. That the slave trade was ended at the hands of those whom slavery had elevated is not an example of Hegelian dialectics but one of history’s little ironies.

The insights Eric Williams displayed in Capitalism and Slavery are alive and well.

Barbara L. Solow
Lexington, Massachusetts

David Brion Davis replies:

Professor Solow correctly notes that I am not questioning what she terms Williams’s first hypothesis, which has no bearing on this discussion. My reference to “the repudiation” of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery applies only to a repudiation of his hypothesis that the British slave system entered a period of irreversible economic decline following the American Revolution and that, as I summarized Williams’s argument, “the British abolished the slave trade and slavery for purely economic reasons.” Indeed, contrary to what Solow says, this decline thesis is anything but “alive and well.” It has been undermined by a vast mountain of empirical evidence and has been repudiated by the world’s leading authorities on New World slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, and the British abolition movement.

The agreement by these historians and economists that the British and other New World slave systems were not declining has been strongly linked to the discovery that slave labor, far from being an outmoded and uneconomic anachronism, could be efficient, productive, and adaptable to a variety of trades and occupations ranging from mining and factory work to the technologically modernized, steam-powered Cuban sugar mills. There is now impressive evidence 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.

This would have been almost inconceivable in 1944, when Eric Williams’s book was published, given the dominance of free-labor ideology and the widespread conviction that an immoral and flagrantly unjust institution could not be compatible with long- term economic progress. The latter point is directly addressed by Robert William Fogel’s multi-volume Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, which totally undermines Williams’s economic assumptions and which in effect won Fogel the Nobel Prize in economics.

If Fogel and his frequent coauthor Stanley L. Engerman represent the most authoritative challenge by economists to Williams’s decline thesis, Seymour Drescher now stands as the world’s leading authority on the British abolition movement and the author of the only book that traces the history of slavery and antislavery from the sixteenth century to the “reversion” in the twentieth century to massive systems of coerced labor, a work I reviewed in these pages.1 Moreover, in Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition,2 Drescher has provided the most detailed and extensive refutation of Williams’s thesis regarding the abolition of the British slave trade, a refutation accepted and enriched by the work of David Eltis and David Richardson, the world’s leading experts on the transatlantic slave trade (founders of the invaluable Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and authors of the recent prize-winning Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade).

To this list of eminent historians who have rejected the economic decline thesis one may add Barry Higman, John J. McCusker, J.R. Ward, and even the Marxist Robin Blackburn, including his The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, published only a few months ago.

Solow curiously devotes a paragraph to British abolitionists, who were dismissed by Williams as insignificant in the ending of the slave trade and slavery. Her only example of economic evidence in support of the decline thesis is a recent book by David Beck Ryden, who actually disagrees with Williams on many critical points—he rejects the belief that slavery was an inefficient system of labor and management and also limits his theory of economic decline to only a brief period from the late 1790s to 1807. He argues that beginning in 1799, overproduction supposedly led to an economic decline that ensured the need to end the slave trade by 1807.

But Seymour Drescher exposes the precise errors of this argument in a somewhat complimentary review in the distinguished British journal Slavery & Abolition.3 Drescher shows, for example, that when Ryden emphasizes the surplus of slave-grown sugar and coffee in Britain’s domestic markets, he often ignores the effects on exports of Britain’s war with Napoleonic France. Yet by the critical years of 1806–1807, Britain was delivering a greater share of sugar and coffee to the Atlantic market than ever before in British history. That share of the sugar market was never again equaled by any other imperial or national economy.

Drescher convincingly concludes that while Ryden “forcefully reintroduces important considerations into the long debate on the economic decline theory of abolition,” his book in the end “reinforces the broad historiographical consensus that British slavery was increasing its output and its value as an imperial trading partner right up to 1807,” the year the slave trade was abolished. Thus while Williams deserves much credit for launching sixty-seven years of study and debate concerning capitalism and slavery, his argument that economic decline determined the ending of the slave trade and slavery can no longer be sustained.

  1. 1

    The Universal Attraction of Slavery,” The New York Review, December 17, 2009 (review of Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery ). 

  2. 2

    Second edition, University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 

  3. 3

    Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Societies, Vol. 31, No. 2 (June 2010). 

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