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 £12 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.

As Eltis convincingly argues, “for the Americas as well as for Britain at the outset of industrialization, there was a profound incompatibility between economic self-interest and antislavery policy.” With considerable dismay the British learned that free laborers were unwilling to accept the harsh plantation discipline and working conditions that made sugar cultivation a highly profitable investment. European immigrants shunned the plantation regions of the New World and, in any event, it was not until the 1840s that the transatlantic flow of free immigrants exceeded the flow of African slaves, even though the importation of slaves was by then almost entirely confined to Cuba and Brazil. To save the plantations of Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guiana from complete ruin, Britain resorted to indentured African and Asian immigrants. But the hundreds of thousands of East Indian “coolies” who eventually arrived in Trinidad and Guiana could not reverse the effects of slave emancipation or restore the British colonies to their earlier competitive advantage.

Ironically, Britain’s industrial growth greatly reduced the cost of the manufactured goods that were used to purchase slaves on the African coast. At the very time when British officials were engaged in bribery, spying, and violations of international law to suppress the foreign slave trade, it was British capital, credit, insurance, and manufactured goods that made this illicit trade so profitable. Despite the policing actions of the British Navy, between 1811 and 1860 approximately 2.25 million African slaves were imported into the Americas for the most part illegally. Eltis estimates, after an analysis of demand and supply, that without British naval, diplomatic, and ideological pressure, approximately 290,000 more Africans would have been shipped across the Atlantic. He also estimates that an open British slave trade between 1811 and 1830 would have resulted in the transport to the Americas of at least 250,000 additional Africans. However one calculates the impact of British efforts at suppression, the shortterm results fell far short of the goals of the abolitionists. Unfortunately, Eltis seems more impressed by the costs and illegal tactics of British policy than by its long-term effects of clearing slave ships from the seas, encouraging foreign anti-slavery movements, and weakening slavery throughout the world.4

But as Eltis makes clear, the economic costs of abolitionism were high; they went well beyond the expense of enforcing anti-slave trade treaties and paying £20 million compensation to British slaveholders. During the first six decades of the nineteenth century there was an ample supply of slaves on the African coasts and the price remained relatively low and stable. Yet throughout the American plantation societies, slave prices continued to rise in response to labor shortages. If free market conditions had prevailed, labor costs would have been reduced on New World plantations, consumers would probably have paid considerably less for sugar, coffee, and cotton goods, and British merchants could have sold more manufactured goods in markets extending from Brazil and the West Indies to Africa. As Eltis remarks:

In national income terms a much more effective way of using the African squadron would have been to station it off the Texas coast to generate and protect an illicit slave trade from Cuba to the U.S. South—and later to recognize and protect the Confederacy in 1862.

One concludes from Eltis’s iconoclastic study that capitalist self-interest, as a source of human exploitation and suffering in the early industrial era, could have been even worse than it proved to be. If Britain had not outlawed the slave trade, emancipated nearly eight hundred thousand slaves, and promoted abolitionism throughout the world, economic growth might have increased at a faster rate. There is a subtle irony in the way that Eltis’s neoclassical economic analysis exposes the pathological consequences of a world view that subordinates all human relationships to free-market choices and the supreme goal of achieving the largest national product.

Why, then, did the British government adopt and pursue antislavery policies for such a prolonged period? Most abolitionists probably agreed with Granville Sharp “that no gains, however great, are to be put in competition with the essential rights of man, and that as a nation is exalted by righteousness, so it is equally debased and debilitated by the revenues of injustice.”5 But this was hardly a principle that could guide the leaders of the world’s most powerful and economically expansive nation.

Seymour Drescher’s Capitalism and Antislavery provides a fresh approach to the politics of abolitionism for anyone who seeks an answer to the conundrum Eltis exposes. Rejecting interpretations based either on economic interest or the moral vision of abolitionist “Saints,” Drescher emphasizes the distinctive political culture that led a significant proportion of the British population to oppose slavery. In December 1787, Drescher claims, “two-thirds of Manchester’s eligible men subscribed to the first petition for the abolition of the slave trade.”6 In the 1780s, 1790s, 1810s, and 1830s antislavery petitions outnumbered those on any other single issue, including parliamentary and religious reform. In 1833 almost 1.5 million people signed petitions demanding slave emancipation; one of these 5,252 petitions was a monstrous roll, nearly a half-mile long, bearing the signatures of 187,000 women.

Drescher has gone far beyond previous historians in examining provincial newspapers and reconstructing the broadbased, populist characteristics of British abolitionism. By making informed comparisons with other countries, especially France, he has also dramatized the remarkable distinctiveness of the active British opposition to slavery, which cut across lines of class, party, and religion. This support from the unenfranchised mass cannot be explained by economic interest, at least in any conventional sense of the term. As Drescher argues, it depended on widespread literacy and a tradition of political consciousness and activism. And the antislavery movement was itself a vehicle for political experiment and training—for preparing men and even women to form societies, gather petitions, and demand pledges from political candidates.

To account for the strength of this popular feeling, Drescher maintains that the conditions of everyday life in British capitalist towns led to a growing consciousness of the cultural and moral disparities between life in England and life in the colonies. Although Englishmen had long prided themselves on living in “an island of liberty in a world filled with slaves,” they had willingly accepted such a geographic division along with the wealth that poured in from benighted regions “beyond the line.” By the late eighteenth century, however, the British public not only refused to tolerate the intrusion into England of colonial institutions but began to insist that British standards of freedom be extended to the high seas and colonial plantations.

While a similar argument has been advanced by other historians, including this reviewer, Drescher’s account raises numerous questions that can be only briefly noted here. He ignores the deep intellectual and cultural transformation that provided the imagery, sensibility, and ideas for the antislavery movement. Drescher often refers to the large effects of capitalism but fails to explain the local political and economic conditions that united most of Manchester’s entrepreneurs and artisans, for example, in a common cause. From Drescher’s book we never learn why antislavery, among dozens of competing reforms, won such overwhelming support that abolitionists were virtually unopposed in most regions. By 1833 the ratio of signatures for immediate emancipation to those against was more than 250 to one.

Although Drescher refers vaguely to “molders of public opinion,” he is so hostile to any idea of influence “from above” that he tells us little about the local activists who organized meetings, disseminated tracts, and solicited petition signatures. At times, indeed, Drescher writes as if “mobilization” of opinion were a self-sufficient force; when discussing the initial mobilization in Manchester, for example, it is “Manchester” itself that launches the petition campaign, aims for a mass enrollment of its male inhabitants, and begins “its long search for a myth which ‘would elevate its citizens above the prosaic level of their daily working life.’ ” Similarly, Drescher tells us nothing specific about the way public opinion influenced legislation. The careless reader, overlooking Drescher’s point that Parliament spurned mass petitioning against Catholic emancipation, might conclude that Britain was governed in the early nineteenth century by plebiscite.

These shortcomings are greatly outweighed by Drescher’s insights and by the comparative perspective that enables him to demonstrate, for example, that “French antislavery was clearly distinguished by an inability to combine a stable élite leadership with a mass appeal.” But why was it England, a nation deeply affected by the world’s first industrialization and increasingly divided by class and religious struggles, that found a way of uniting a stable elite leadership with mass appeal—and in a cause that threatened specific property rights and social order, to say nothing of the economic benefits that David Eltis has so forcefully underscored? Eltis himself provides the clue that may help future historians round out Drescher’s account of popular mobilization and explain why important antislavery measures were proposed by otherwise conservative statesmen and approved with little organized dissent by the House of Lords.

Whereas Drescher tends to idealize British traditions of liberty, Eltis is fully aware of the continuing attempts in the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century to ensure the industriousness of British workers by low wages and Draconian vagrancy laws. Such notables as Bishop Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson, and Andrew Fletcher even advocated enslavement as the best means to discipline the beggars and idle rogues who roamed the country. Eltis connects this acceptance of coerced labor with a preindustrial preoccupation with competitive exports and low labor costs.

By the late eighteenth century, however, a growing home market was beginning to alert capitalists to the importance of “want creation” and to incentives such as higher wages as a means of increasing both worker productivity and the number of consumers. “For owners of capital,” Eltis points out, “a population responsive to market forces was a basic prerequisite [for optimum level of consumption], and if that population had no other means of supporting consumption than through wages, so much the better.” Significantly, it was products grown by slaves, such as sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton, that had stimulated so many new wants at every level of British society and that were “forerunners of the great mass of products in modern high-income societies that are purchased in the expectation that they will satisfy nonsubsistence or psychological needs.” The contradiction between the coerced labor used to produce plantation products and the consumer demand that was changing British attitudes to wage labor sheds a wholly new light on Drescher’s dichotomy between the metropolis in the British Isles and the colonial frontier in the Caribbean. It also brings us back to Eric Williams.

In a statement that he unfortunately fails to develop, Eltis observes that

the important aspects of the relationship between capitalism and abolition that Eric Williams was searching for were, first, that British employers had less need for coercion by the second half of the eighteenth century and that, second, both draconian vagrancy laws at home and predial [i.e. plantation] slavery in the colonies were examples of coercion. In the light of a system that relied on voluntary labor to satisfy individual wants going beyond subsistence needs, forced labor appeared not only inappropriate but counterproductive.

This reformulation of the question asserts the importance of ideology—specifically, an ideology of free labor that would be understood in increasingly conflicting ways by workers and employers but that could nevertheless unite many of them in condemning chattel slavery in distant colonies.

I doubt that Williams’s orthodox leftist followers would be satisfied by even a well-developed theory relating British antislavery to a free-labor ideology. Yet such a theory, based on empirical evidence, would confirm some of Williams’s most important insights: that the slave system contributed to structural transformations in British life that made abolitionism acceptable; that British leaders became committed to colonial labor reform only when they were convinced that free labor would be less dangerous than slavery and more beneficial for the imperial economy as a whole. In contrast to Williams’s cynicism, however, such a theory would not diminish the moral vision and accomplishments of the abolitionists. It would show that, given a fortunate convergence of economic, political, and ideological circumstances, the world’s first industrial nation could transcend narrow self-interest and achieve genuine reform.

This Issue

March 31, 1988