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Artillery Row Books

Blood money

If abolition was capitalist propaganda, what of corporate involvement in social justice?

Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

Sugar is now free. It’s given away in sachets and left on tables in pourers. Sugar is so abundant that its consumption has become a public health crisis, blamed for rocketing rates of diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. Increasingly, we signal our health consciousness by abstention from sugar. Out with the energy drinks, sweet snacks and sugary tea; in with the Coke Zero, keto diets and sugar-free ice cream.

“King Sugar” built the commercial wealth of Bristol and Liverpool

Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams (Penguin Classics, £9.99)

It’s jarring, then, in something of a post-sugar society, to return to a time when sugar was not just a luxury good but the staple commodity that underpinned the wealth of England, the development of the Americas and the immiseration of Africa. “King Sugar” built the commercial wealth of Bristol and Liverpool, created markets through the triangular trade for the manufactured products of Manchester, Birmingham and Burnley, and further magnified the financial power of the City of London. Sugar and slavery were part of the core business of firms like Lloyds, Barclays and Baring’s and were behind the grandeur of great estates like Harewood House, Rookery Hall and Blairquhan Castle. At the peak of Britain’s dependence on sugar in 1729, British possessions in the West Indies consumed half of Britain’s total exports whilst also accounting for a quarter of Britain’s export value. Making possible the splendour and dynamism of this sugar rush of sugar wealth, was the suffering of the 2.3 million black slaves sent to the British West Indies over the course of two centuries to labour in the cane fields. One contemporary wrote of Bristol that “there is not a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave”. This held true for many other British cities, as well.

Ever since the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston was hurled into the Avon in the summer of 2020, these facts of history have been discussed loudly and passionately in the public square. The publication of a new edition of Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery — originally published in 1944 — is a reminder that this debate has been going on for a lot longer than we sometimes appreciate. Williams’ book has been issued as a Penguin Modern Classic, a rare thing for a work of history, but it is an accurate reflection of Williams’ achievement. Even after eight decades his analysis is trim, lucid and relentlessly even-handed. The fact that he was able to pack such a vast and fraught history into two hundred generously-spaced pages is itself a marvel. Those looking for a crash course in British slavery need look no further. Williams tells the entire story from Columbus to Wilberforce with style and poise.

But despite appearances — and despite the zeitgeist it has been published into — this book will surprise its readers. For what is the relationship between capitalism and slavery? In the 21st century the answer seems pretty clear. According to the scholars of the “new history of American capitalism”, capitalism and slavery are joined at the root. They were simply vehicles through which the overarching ideologies of racism and white supremacy held down black Americans in the plantation era, in the Jim Crow era and in our own time. As Ibram Kendi writes: “the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism”. This argument is largely accepted as also applying to the British case.

Planters faced a labour shortage and they welcomed any solution to it

It also happens to be almost the exact opposite of the argument that Williams’ makes in Capitalism and Slavery. The most revelatory part of his book is the first chapter where he seeks to answer a very simple question: why slavery? Slavery in the New World, he argues, came about because of the peculiar problem that planters faced in the Americas. Whether in Cuba, Virginia, Barbados or Brazil, there was an abundance of land and a severe shortage of labour. Williams chronicles how almost everything was tried to solve this fundamental dilemma. Native Americans, English convicts, Irish rebels, London prostitutes, white indentured labourers, German redemptioners, Chinese coolies, Indian labourers: at one time or another, all were used as labour in the West Indies. Race, he argues, was not the determinative factor. Planters faced a labour shortage and they welcomed any solution to it. That they ultimately relied on black slaves was not, Williams concludes, intrinsic to the operation of capitalism itself. The capitalist “would have gone to the moon, if necessary for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon”.

Of course, once large-scale chattel slavery emerged in the West Indies, it took on a life of its own. This was because slaves became assets; indeed they became the main asset of their owners. Throughout the book Williams notes the amount that individual planters were compensated for their human property once the British state finally abolished slavery in 1833. William Gladstone’s father, for instance, was compensated £85,600 for the emancipation of his 2183 slaves — £10.2 million in today’s currency. Williams notes these sums to underscore the point that slaveowners may have started out as capitalists but ended up as rent-seekers. Their net worth was dependent not just on the continuation of slavery, but on the perpetuation of a specific regulatory environment. For that reason slaveowners promoted mercantilist policies, sought tax breaks and even desired the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, whose continuation would have flooded the market and depressed the prices of their human property.

Who opposed this nakedly self-serving system? The new free-market capitalists of the industrial era, who espoused what Williams refers to as the “gospel of Manchester”: low regulation, free trade and wage labour. This wasn’t a one off, either. In the United States the same dynamic played out. In his award-winning study of the global cotton industry, Harvard historian Sven Beckert argued that it was a rising industrial elite invested in railways, textiles and steel and represented by Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party that mobilised to break the power of the cotton-growing, slave-owning south. Like the British sugar barons, the cotton planters of the south did all they could to preserve the capital value of their slaves. They sought preferential economic treatment, they welcomed the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, they sought to limit white migration (which might have depressed the aggregate cost of labour) and they did all the could to delay the onset of industrialisation. In both Britain and America, it was the slaveowners who resisted market forces and the new capitalists of the industrial era that fought for and achieved abolition.

According to the blurb on the back of the book, Williams’ argument does the work of “exploding the myth of emancipation as a mark of Britain’s moral progress”. Yet, this is not quite the rhetorical kill shot that it aims to be. For surely it is to liberal capitalism’s credit that one by-product of its ascent was the abolition of slavery. The same cannot be said of ideologies that arose in explicit opposition to liberal capitalism which, in Germany, Russia, China, North Korea and Cambodia, reintroduced slavery on a massive scale. Likewise, just because it was the support of free-trade industrialists that ultimately tipped the scales in favour of abolition, this does not negate the incredible moral power of the abolition movement. One would have to be irredeemably cynical to believe that every member of the Peckham Ladies African and Anti-Slavery Association who opposed slavery was simply a stooge of capital. Indeed, such is the ongoing power of the abolition movement that modern activists claim the mantle of “abolitionists” in their campaign for criminal justice reform.

Corporations are now vehicles through which progressive ideas are disseminated

This is not even Williams’ argument. He praises the anti-slavery movement as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time” and grants that “humanitarian agitation in British churches” as well as abolitionist activity in parliament helped usher in emancipation. But he makes no excuses for the fact that the role of abolitionism is “deliberately subordinated” in Capitalism and Slavery. Williams was writing in the Marxist tradition and believed that everything could be understood by reference to material relations, and that moral and political claims “in the abstract make no sense”. His suspicion is that the abolitionist movement was sustained by industrialists who directed moral scrutiny towards Barbados so that it would not linger on Burnley. Williams singles out Wilberforce who, he writes, “was familiar with all that went on in the hold of a slave ship but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft”, and, in fact, actively conspired against the nascent British labour movement. All the same, he is generous enough to understand that individuals in the moment have no way of understanding the material forces that undergird their worldview. But historians, “writing a hundred years after, have no excuses for continuing to wrap the real interests in confusion”.

It is interesting to speculate what Williams would make of the relationship of capitalism to the social justice movements in our time. Corporations are now vehicles through which progressive ideas are disseminated. Silicon Valley gave millions of dollars in donations to Ibram Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research. Nikole Hannah-Jones, editor of the New York Times’ 1619 project, gave a lecture series sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell. Meanwhile, some of their leading critics have come from the old left. The World Socialist Web Site ran a series of articles by historians critiquing the 1619 Project. Veteran activist Cornell West has attacked Ta-Nehisi Coates as representing the “neoliberal wing” of the “black freedom struggle”. Williams is not around to offer his opinion — though I doubt if he was that Royal Dutch Shell would allow him anywhere near their offices — but he offers us a toolkit to let us look past the kabuki of “the discourse” to access something closer to reality. “The thing defended or attacked,” he writes in his conclusion, “is always something that you can touch and see, to be measured in pounds sterling or pounds avoirdupois, in dollars and cents, yards, feet and inches.” What is that thing today?

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