Eric Williams: Capitalism and Slavery

Eric Williams on Capitalism and Slavery is, of course, a classic, and yet another one I wish I had read some time ago. It’s key points — racism emerged out of the economic relationships of slavery, not slavery from racism. That economics remained primary to the motivations of UK statesmen as they first instituted then abolished slavery, as they supported Colonialism, turned against it, then returned to the carving up of Africa. I am more used to the complexities of culture and hegemony and social formations in thinking about race and capitalism, they are still at play here but not explored as much as they are elsewhere. That doens’t stop this from being bad ass.

A quick overview of the narrative, that cuts much out for which I apologise.

Origin of Negro Slavery

Eric Williams notes how the practice of white indentured servitude prepared the way for slavery — and no, it wasn’t the same. But it established  a profitable pattern that could be improved upon.

The servant expected land at the end of his contract: the Negro, in a strange environment, conspicuous by his color and features, and ignorant of the white man’s language and ways, could be kept  permanently divorced from the land. Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery, to exact the mechanical obedience of a plough-ox or a cart-horse, to demand that resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjection which alone make slave labor possible. finally, and this was the decisive factor, the Negro slave was cheaper. The money which procured a white man’s service for ten years could buy a Negro for life. .. But the experience with white servitude had been invaluable…white servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial… (19)

The crux of it all really, but there is so much more here of course. A little on the rationalisations of the times. Climate is a familiar one — it was just too hot and unhealthy for Europeans. But really, all that indentured white servitude had already proved that wrong. As the economy came to be all about sugar in the Carribean, tobacco and cotton on the mainland, plantations grew and labour needs changed.

I can still be shocked by how quickly these changes took place, how fast small farms (and the hopes and dreams of white men often fleeing desperate poverty, even if founding their dreams on conquest) were swallowed up by big ones: Barbados in 1645 — 11,200 small white farmers, 18,300 whites fit to bear arms and 5,680 Negro slaves; 1667 — 745 large plantation owners, 8,300 whites fit to bear arms, and 82,023 slaves (23). I can’t actually imagine that shift in 27 years. This happened on island after island. Nevis, white men decreased by 3/5 between 1672 and 1708, Montserrat over 2/3 between 1672 and 1727 (24). We see a steady process of the dispossession of the dispossessors in a way that works contrary to all myths of meritocracy and promise, even if you are able to take at face value a civilization based on enslavement, rape and genocide.

The end of slavery did not mean the end of the plantation. But Black people got the hell out of there, whites were too high status for that work, so new labour sources had to be found — East Indians. Trinidad imported 145,000 East Indians, British Guiana 238,000 between 1833 and 1917. It boggles the mind. These things boggle my mind even now.

The Development of the Negro Slave Trade

Of course, slavery was a long time developing. The 1st English slave-trading expedition was led by Sir John Hawkins, 1562. It continued, though in a small way, until the establishment of the Caribbean colonies and the introduction of sugar. Eric Williams, like Rodney Walters, ties the development of England tight to the slave trade and its destruction of Africa and the New World, one country profiting from the exploitation of many others. I am going to depart from Williams here to separate out the different cities, trace their individual connections. But without forgetting how they are woven into the whole of this history — see post two for that. This initial step was under the banner of mercantilism.

The slave trade [as compared to East India or China] was ideal in that it was carried on by means of British manufactured goods and was, as far as the British colonies were concerned, inseparably connected with the plantation trade which rendered Britain independent of foreigners for her supply of tropical products. (37)

Under such a profitable system, the courts very quickly inscribed the lives and bodies of slaves as property, Judge Mansfield ruling in 1783 that ‘the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard‘ and awarding thirty pounds to the ship’s investors for each of the 132 slaves thrown overboard when the vessel grew short of water. No homicide charges were contemplated. (46)

British Commerce and the Triangular Trade

So Williams moves on to the rise of the triangle trade we learned about in school, returned to it all of the horror our textbooks stripped away along with a deeper understanding of its profitability: (1) Negroes purchased with British manufactures, (2) transported to plantations to produce tropical goods which created new industries in England, and (3) their maintenance and that of their owners provided another market for British industry, new England agriculture and Newfoundland fishing industries. This wealth did more:

The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution. (52)

This led to the growth of Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow first, that would go on to be invested in manufacture and machinery. Thus these cities of original wealth ‘occupied…the position in the age of trade that Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield occupied later in the age of industry‘ (60). I learned more about British manufacturing here than I ever knew before.

Until the tremendous development of the cotton industry in the Industrial Revolution, wool was the spoiled child of English manufactures. It figured largely in all considerations affecting the slave trade in the century after 1680. The cargo of a slave ship was incomplete without some woolen manufactures–serges, says, perpetuanos, arrangoes and bays. (65)

Which led to some absurdities still with us as a manner of custom:

That woolen goods should figure so prominently in tropical markets is to be attributed to the deliberate policy of mercantilist England. … Woolen undergarments are still common in the islands today, though more among the older generation, and suits of blue serge are still a sign of the well-dressed man. (67)

The West Indian Interest

And so for a while, before this rise of the industrial revolution, the West Indian planter was the great wealth and power, and they much preferred England.

The West Indian planter was a familiar figure in English society in the eighteenth century. The explanation lies in the absentee landlordism which has always been the curse of the Caribbean and s still one of its major problems today. (85)

The curse of the absentee landlord seems ubiquitous. There is also this:

The wealth of the West Indians became proverbial. (91)

They held a monopoly of all seats but one in Bristol for a long time, and represented various other areas in parliament, which I can also still find bewildering. For example, John Gladstone represented Woodstock then Lancaster:

it was his pleasure to listen in May, 1833, to the maiden speech of his son, MP for Newark, in defense of slavery on the family states in Guiana. (93)

These families of slave-generated wealth also entrenched themselves in the House of Lords, and married into high families — ‘There are few, if any, noble houses in England…without a West Indian strain.’ (94)

British Industry and the Triangular Trade

Williams goes on to look at where this power was directed and wealth invested:

Banking: helped provide the large sums needed for cotton factories and building of canals connecting Manchester and Liverpool

Heavy Industry: West Indian trade capital financed James Watt and the steam engine. Antony Bacon early war profiteer — engaged in trade in both victualing troops and ‘supplying seasoned and able Negroes for government contracts in the West Indies‘. Set up iron works in Merthyr Tydfil, rapidly expanded to fulfill government contracts during the American war, set up another furnace at Cyfartha. (103) Just a few examples.

Insurance: Obvious this one.

The American Revolution

This played a big role in the politics of the new world, and not in the way that Americans are taught to understand our early history.  New England in particular had problematic relationship with England as it grew to become a competitor with British goods rather than a consumer — which in some ways was what the revolution  was actually all about. But initially it was well integrated into the triangle trade as another exporter to the West Indies (with British policy ensuring the West Indies did not produce for themselves, of course).

I just hadn’t realised how closely connected the islands were with the mainland. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis. Many owned plantations both in the islands and in the South.  American succession had a huge impact on them, and one thing I do wonder is why they weren’t incorporated in the new US… I suppose perhaps because they were already in decline. Instead, they were just left.

Fifteen thousand slaves died of famine in Jamaica alone between 1780 and 1787, and American independence was the first stage in the decline of the sugar colonies.  (121)

Jesus.

‘The Caribbean ceased to be a British lake… The center of gravity in the British Empire shifted from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from the West Indies to India. In 1783… prime Minister Pitt began to take an abnormally great interest in the British dominions to the East. In 1787 Wilberforce was encouraged by Pitt to sponsor the proposal for abolition of the slave trade. In the same year the East India Company turned its attention to the cultivation of sugar… (123)

Jesus. Profit falls and people starve.

The Development of British Capitalism 1783-1833

This becomes the period of the huge growth of cotton manufacturing (see Manchester), wool suddenly becomes an import, primarily from Australia whose whole economy shifts. Profit interests shift from West Indies to South America and India as UK becomes exporter of manufactured goods worldwide — thus exploding the need for earlier Mercantilism wisdom of monopoly. Manchester and others wished to trade with everyone, no barriers — and so, the rise of free trade movement. Well, it was coming soon.

Mercantilism had run its course. It was necessary only to give political expression to the new economic situation. (133)

It would be good for the West Indies.

The New Industrial Order

That’s because the West Indians stood for monopoly and mercantilism, and both were going down.

The attack on the West Indians was more than an attack on slavery. It was an attack on monopoly. Their opponents were not only the humanitarians but the capitalists. The reason for the attack was not only that the West Indian economic system was vicious but that it was also so unprofitable that for this reason alone its destruction was inevitable. (135)

The attack falls into three phases: the attack on the slave trade, the attack on slavery, the attack on the preferential sugar duties. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery in 1833, the sugar preference in 1846. The three events are inseparable. The very vested interests which had been built up by the slave system now turned and destroyed that system. (136)

It’s an extraordinary about face.

The growth of Anti-Imperialism

There’s this strange period that I never knew about, after the loss of the original colonies, when the West Indies no longer of any importance to anyone but its plantation owners, when prevailing attitudes were against Empire. It didn’t last that long, obviously. But it did exist for a while, while greater profits were to be found in free trade.

The colonial system was the spinal cord of the commercial capitalism of the mercantile epoch. In the era of free trade the industrial capitalists wanted no colonies at all, least of all the West Indies.

The trend dated back, as we have seen, to the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Its development paralleled the development of the free trade movement. The whole world now became a British colony and the West Indies were doomed. The leader of the movement was Cobden. Cobden referred approvingly to Adam Smith’s chapters in his “immortal work” on the expense of colonies. (142)

And part of the global politicking? Destroying the immensely valuable French colony of Saint Domingue.

Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade, which would ruin St Domingue. (146)

He failed in both — West Indians managed to keep import duties high, and he couldn’t get the Dutch, Spanish and French to abolish slavery. After the French Revolution, England attempted to take the colony by force — as Williams notes, Pitt couldn’t then have had a successful sugar colony and the abolition of slavery.

But instead, they didn’t capture the colony, just helped destroy it. Abolition wasn’t so important, and Pitt stepped back from it. The slave trade doubled in fact, and Britain conquered Trinidad and British Guiana. It became clear that sugar was most profitable in new territories, with its slash and burn agriculture dependent on fresh soil. Old colonies were saturated, even with destruction of St Domingue the West Indies were still not profitable, instead Cuba and other islands succeeded in producing cheaper sugar.

Wilberforce rejoiced: West Indian distress could not be imputed to abolition. Actually, abolition was the direct result of that distress. (150)

West Indies unable to compete,with Brazil and Cuba. Williams writes:

Overproduction in 1807 demanded abolition; overproduction in 1833 demanded emancipation. (152)

British Capitalism and the West Indies

And so a remarkable change:

Whereas before, in the eighteenth century, every important vested interest in England was lined up on the side of monopoly and the colonial system; after 1783, one by one, every one of those interests came out against monopoly and the West Indian slave system. (154)

“The Commercial Part of the Nation” and slavery

News flash. Capitalists only occasional abolitionists.

The “Saints” and Slavery

So we can’t completely forget the actual abolitionists, Williams admitted it was ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time‘ (178).  Of course it wasn’t sentimentality but economics that were the main driving force, but it’s nice to believe it was ‘justice, humanity and sound policy‘ as the bill said it was.

There is an indictment of Wilberforce in here, not that he’s hard to go after…I loved it though, having read quite a bit about the awfulness of the Clapham Sect.

There is a certain smugness about the man, his life, his religion. As a leader, he was inept, addicted to moderation, compromise and delay. He deprecated extreme measures and feared popular agitation. He relied for success upon aristocratic patronage, parliamentary diplomacy and private influence with men in office. He was a lobbyist, and it was a common saying that his vote could safely be predicted, for it was certain to be opposed to his speech. (181)

Their campaign was only directed at abolishing slavery in the West Indies, and only of Blacks. The Clapham Sect had various interest in East India and they didn’t want those troubled.

The Slaves and Slavery

Can’t leave out the agency of slaves themselves, of struggle, of uprising. And of course Eric Williams doesn’t. This is because:

Contrary to popular and even learned belief, however, as the political crisis deepened in Britain, the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave himself. This aspect of the West Indian problem has been studiously ignored. (201)

This despite the power and inspiration of the Maroons of Jamaica, Bush Negroes of British Guiana, the revolt of St Domingue. And endless revolt. In 1808: a slave revolt in British Guiana. 1816, Barbados. 1823, British Guiana again — fifty plantations, 12,000 people. Continued unrest. 1831, Antigua then Jamaica over Christmas that spread. 1833, emancipation.

Conclusion

So a few ideas and principles in the form Eric Williams gives them:

  1. The decisive forces in the period of history we have discussed are the developing economic forces

  2. The various contending groups of dominant merchants, industrialists and politicians, while keenly aware of immediate interest, are for that very reason generally blind to the long-range consequences of their various actions, proposals, policies.  (210)

  3. The political and moral ideas of the age are to examined in the very closest relation to the economic development.

  4. An outworn interest, whose bankruptcy smells to heaven in historical perspective, can exercise an obstructionist and disruptive effect which can only be explained by the powerful services it had previously rendered and the entrenchment previously gained.

  5. The ideas built on those interests continue long after the interests have been destroyed and work their old mischief, which is all the more mischievous because the interests to which they correspond no longer exist. (211)

Next post, a bit more on how city by city the UK was linked and remains linked to slavery in the New World. All of these the kind of insights that stay with you.

[Williams, Eric (1989 [1944]) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]

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