the price of freedom

20 March 2013

Interesting discussion : PhilG asks the question of “How long would slavery have lasted in the South if the confederate states had been able to leave the union?” - he argues that the abolition of slavery would eventually have happened without the terrible cost of the civil war, just like it did happen all over the world.

I would like to quote the following opinions here:

Quoting JamesJ:

.... I don’t think the war was necessary, the industrial revolution was eliminating the need for slaves , and was steamroller that would have eventually changed the South as it did everything else. The epic battle that Lincoln fought to save the Union gave the Federal Government the power over States’ rights we have never recovered from, and while he may have freed the slaves, he enslaved us to the Federal Government, which now is into almost every aspect of our lives, and puts down any dissent with quick brutal efficiency.

Quoting Brian Gulino:

I am struck by how appealing it is to have an underclass. Men in societies where women are oppressed resist progressive movements involving women’s rights. It’s nice to have half the population serve you. We in California enjoy the services of diligent and hardworking Latin Americans, working at reduced wages due to being illegal. We are loathe to give this up. And our tech company executives flock to Washington to insure a supply of intelligent Asians who can only remain in the U.S. at their behest. Then we come to slavery, the crack cocaine of human exploitation. How wonderful it must have been to own slaves. We never would have given it up.

Now come my 2 cents

by the way a little known fact is that most slaves ever … live now! ( some 30 millions, mostly in places like India, China, Africa and the former Soviet Union; here and here ; People can just get kidnapped and then spend the rest of their live as slaves; just like that.

Now back to history

Was it really the steam engine that delivered us from slavery? Lets look at a book that studies this subject. Welcome to Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams; the book studies the forces that brought about the abolition of slavery in Britain. As it turns out the really important factor here were shifting economic interests, not moral outrage of Quakers.

I guess a similar thing happened in the USA; demand of cotton soared during early 18th century due to the industrial revolution (see steam engine and Manchester) . so by the 1850ies the USA was at a crossroads: either continue to subsidize the cotton farms by maintaining slavery - all at a great cost to society. The South could have remained a raw material producer like South America, entirely dependent on one product - raw cotton. Further down the road they would have suffered when the economic focus of the home country changed; or when faced with competing producers.(BTW that’s what happened earlier with the British West Indies);

I guess the debate was also about what would have been the character of new states gained by westward expansion.

The other option was to turnaround and do other things, here slavery would have had to be abolished in order to break the vested interest of plantation owners. The choice for the USA was: join the industrial revolution or go bust eventually.

So the lesson here is that moral outrage is probably not enough to bring about change in vested interest, one has to search for the real causes. Also the steam engine did not change things directly, it brought about change by altering the environment.

The issue of slavery appears throughout human history, each time in a new disguise; In the 20th century there were the slaves of the Soviet Gulag and slaves of fascist concentration camps; never forget.

Synopsis of ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams:

Now comes a synopsis of the book, as much as I (mis)understood it. Read the book here

Adam Smith: the prosperity of a new colony depends upon one simple economic factor “plenty of good land.” Poor immigrants tended to run off on their small subsistent farms (earth-scratching); big farms had nobody to till the land. Here comes slavery.

“Adam Smith thereby treated as an abstract proposition what is a specific question of time, place, labor and soil. The economic superiority of free hired labor over slave is obvious even to the slave owner. Slave labor is given reluctantly, it is unskilful, it lacks versatility”

“The reasons for slavery, wrote Gibbon Wakefield, “are not moral, but economical circumstances; they relate not to vice and virtue, but to production.” 13 With the limited population of Europe in the sixteenth century, the free laborers necessary to cultivate the staple crops of sugar, tobacco and cotton in the New World could not have been supplied in quantities adequate to permit large-scale production”

New England had diversified agriculture; so no slaves as there were no big cotton fields. Sugar, tobacco and cotton need large farms and an army of cheap labor Also they argue once there are enough hands around there is no need for slaves (?)

Lack of skill leads to depletion of land, so it creates a need for territorial expansion.

First slaves were Indian; not good for labor intensive crops like sugar or cotton;

Then came the whites ‘slaves’ - as means to pay for the trip (indentured servants) or criminals (this kind of slavery was a temporary contract!). It has been estimated that more than a quarter of a million persons were of this class during the colonial period; In GB kidnappings where common and the authorities did not prosecute that. On the official side even minor crimes were punished with shipping off to colonies; so courts+authorities all worked togather here, all had a share of the spoils. Heat of the south? - no problem, whites can adjust as it turns out;

By start of 18th century economics theory shifted - previously mercantilism would aim to accumulate gold; later they would aim at promoting exports; and developing industry+employment. So they needed working hands in GB; previously the fear was of overpopulation, later that was passe. Previously England would try to get rid of excess population (Malthus) later economists regarded a numerous population as a source of wealth / the more the better.

So end of 17th century saw shift to black slaves. Blacks where slaves and worked the heavy stuff like sugar and cotton. Here slavery was property relation = not temporary contract. Children of white slaves where not slaves; unlike blacks; All of them perfected the machinery of slavery with whites as slave; with blacks they only reused the old mechanisms with more vigor. There were not enough white slaves available; and black slavers were cheaper for the job.

Could they have done without black slaves? Australia did! As a result labor costs are high, and they need protectionism and there is no industry.

The Slave Trade
  • end of 1660 - end of English civil war; England expands into the slave business; (+ colonies in the Caribbean created demand)
  • 1672 the Royal African company - a monopolist in the triangle trade: BritainAfrica, Britain>America, West indies: manufactured good; AfricaAmerica,West indies:slaves; America, West indies>Britain: raw materials
  • The whole business was high risk: planting colonial crops can fail; slaves can die on the ship; politics between the colonial powers;
  • Glorious revolution and the end of the Stuarts marks end of monopoly trading.
  • volume of slaves traded explodes with start of free trade 1680 - 1686: annually about 5000 slaves 1670 - 1679: annually about 18000 slaves
  • English traders supply Spanish and French colonies with slaves: this creates competition for ware
  • conflict of interest; slave trade has now its own interest. Spain did not trade in slaves, they stuck to the old papal division: Portugal - Africa; Spain - America; also they did not have the capital for that !
  • the business of slavery accumulated much wealth into Britain; Church was all for it; even opposed instruction of slaves to Christianity - they did not like a Sunday for slaves; also Quakers took part in the trade Opposition to slavery came from American Quakers (who did not profit from the scheme) All of Britain profited from the scheme: “The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the centuries of trade, as the nineteenth century was the century of production. For Britain that trade was primarily the triangular trade.”; and its stimulus to industry “The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution.”
  • Ship building: Britain’s sea might came from a build up of the trading fleet for the triangular trade; from 1705 to 1795 tonnage quadrupled; number of ships trebled;
  • Britain’s port towns: Bristol; Liverpool; Glasgow all grew, very much due to the slave trade + trade with colonies; Manchester grew due to increased demand, increased production. Navigation act of 1651 allowed only English ships to trade with England; colonies were allowed to ship to/import from England only.
  • The colonies were a great export market for woolen clothes (and later cotton) made in England.
  • with cotton clothes India had better wares that fared well in Africa; but England restricted their sale;
  • Sugar refining: in 1615 England prohibited sugar refining in colonies, sugar imports to Britain carried a heavy duty; (this gave rise to conflicts of interest between raw material producers and sugar refineries) it had to be done in England; Bristol and Glasgow were big into sugar refinery;
  • Surprise: rum was produced in the colonies and exported into Britain ; *this was allowed as not to ruin the colonies; Also was used to at recruiting slaves / deals with slave dealers (get them drunk)
  • Metals: need iron chains for the slaves; guns were exchanged for slaves (one gun for a slave) The expansion of heavy industry was directly financed by means of triangular trade; James Watt was financed by West India trade !
  • Plantation owners got rich and then moved to Britain; the plantation was run by caretakers. In Britain the plantation owners; merchants; suppliers all formed a powerful interest group that was against abolition of slavery. (weight of influence that this group yields becomes apparent during American Revolution)
  • Many banks were created out of the need to finance the triangular trade project; often there was a progression from trader to merchant, and then to banker; The triangular trade significantly stimulated overall development
  • (Wikipedia) Mercantilism: system in place from 16th to 18th century; the aim of the state was to accumulate as much gold (bullion) as possible; it had the following components: ** encourage exports (with subsidies); discourage imports by means of high tariffs; restrict domestic consumption ** encourage production & agriculture ** encourage large working population toiling at low wages; keep prices high as to maximize profit ** grab colonies and restrict them their trade and what they are allowed to produce; Views economics as zero sum game: my gain is your loss.
  • at and earlier stages Mercantilism made sense! (Adam Smith would not have liked to acknowledge that) It did: ** mobilized resources needed in conflict of England’s against Spain ** protected inefficient/growing industry (all industrial nations had initial long periods of protectionism (me)) ** money supply was limited (all gold); so more money enabled bigger operations; also trade with China and India meant that money was flowing out!
  • During early period the system was monopolistic: a few benefited from monopolies and trading concessions; this had its inefficiencies: monopolies breed rent seeking
  • Regulation by means of monopolies created bleak markets and smuggling (colonies who defied trading restrictions); brutal suppression of “lower classes”
  • Mercantilism ended with the industrial revolution: shift from trade to production happened;
  • trading is zero sum activity (limits how much one can take advantage of the other side); production: the more you can make and sell, the better (no ceiling to growth) Also Britain could not argue for other markets to open up to its industry while keeping protectionist measures;
  • Britain’s power shift: after the ‘glorious revolution’ power shifted to parliament; Monarch had an easy job granting concessions; in parliament this is more complicated.
  • Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations / the American Revolution : all factors that lead to scrapping of mercantilism
  • American revolution “it stimulated that growing feeling of disgust with the colonial system which Adam Smith was voicing”
  • Q: Which factor was more important? Hard to tell.
American Revolution:

New England and continental colonies made a fortune out of exporting stuff to West Indies (agricultural output - wheat, dried fish; horses): also now they had regional specialization: Carribean - sugar,tobacco ; continental colonies - food for West Indies; this created conflict: Britain’s agriculture could not export to West indies; but so the colonies got the money to pay for British manufactured goods, this was more important.

  • British plantation owners were against acquiring new Caribbean colonies: they were afraid that increased supply would drive down the prices; sugar prices were kept high - even though French colonies increased production. Also after seven year war, Britain returned Cuba and Guadeloupe to France,and got back Canada and Florida - all because of plantation owners interest !
  • Colonies demanded back payment in gold; now that the prices were no longer real, this was very bad for the plantation owners; Also the colonies would trade with the French realm; this put them into conflict with Britain (or rather the class of plantation owners that had the say)
  • 1733: Molasses act; 1764 Sugar (duties) act ; both prohibited/restricted French colonies from selling molasses (raw material for Rum) to the continental colonies; Now that was important, as Rum was a major way to pay Britain for its wares; now this backlash lead to the American Revolution
  • Q: Was the American revolution caused by Tom Pain or was it due to trade conflicts? Hard to tell.

The American Revolution lead to serious disruptions: West Indies went hungry; 15000 slaves died in Jamaica of hunger 1780-1787; USA was prohibited from trading with West Indies - because of navigation act; now they did anyway - this raised prices of US goods.

  • USA became transport carrier for Spain and France - Britain sacked navies of those countries ;-)
  • The West Indies were further bleeding - further decline sets in; also had to compete with French colonies where Sugar was cheaper;
  • Now the Caribbean was lost to Britain - so Imperial focus switched to India (later China) (poor Indians).
  • After 1787 Saint Dominique (French) started to produce lots of sugar; so Jamaica and Barbados (British) could not compete on price;
  • PM William Pitts plan: start sugar production in East India and abolish slavery, so as to ruin the French colonies - not feasible due to opposition of West Indies mafia.
  • After the French revolution Saint Dominique tried to join Britain (!) ; Britain agreed but the British army failed to take it. (actually this drove sugar prices up, at least temporarily)
  • If Saint Dominique would have become British, then Britain would have scrapped the plan to abolish slavery !
  • Napoleon’s continental blockade started; British West indies could not sell sugar to Europe; so West India operated at a loss;
  • Britain decided to limit its production of sugar; so 1807 saw the abolition of the slave trade (less slave -> less sugar production)
  • Abolition of the slave trade as a means to ‘downsize’ the losses of sugar islands;
  • (the book does not mention it: due to the continental blockade Europe started to make sugar out of Sugar beets)
  • Also Mauritius, Cuba, Brazil started to plant sugar cane; so British colonies lost further weight)
  • So by 1833 the abolition of slavery was the means to get to ‘downsize’ loosing sugar islands; and to dismantle the sugar monopoly granted to West Indian colonies;
  • The decline and loss of direct interest in West Indian colonies was the source for British abolition of slavery - not moral outrage of the Quakers;
  • Independence demolished the concessions/monopolies - the basis of mercantilism; so actually it did Britain a favor ;
  • Also the industrial revolution #1 started to take off; so the colonial system / triangular trade was no longer relevant. (“In the age of mercantilism Manchester was Liverpool’s hinterland, in the age of laissez faire Liverpool was Manchester’s suburb”)
  • 1807 - slave trade abolished; 1833 - slavery abolished; 1846 - preferential sugar duties abolished; The West Indies were nailed;
  • The corn laws (protecting British agriculture) were repealed because lower grain prices could help at keeping wages low; and that was now more important
  • by 182ies: centers of abolitionist movement: Birmingham (iron), Sheffield (steel) Yorkshire (wool); All of them out of a mix of mercantile and ethical opposition to slaver; Even Liverpool and Glasgow turned against West Indian monopolies - for free trade (apparently ignorant of who was gathering cotton and tobacco). Sugar refineries were opposed to West Indian monopolies - they were limiting production and driving up the prices; Shipping was for free trade (more to transport) but against repeal of Navigation laws.
  • “This was going too fast for a government still dominated, in 1832, by the landed aristocracy and therefore sympathetic to its colonial brethren. The government adopted a temporary compromise. In return for emancipation, the right of the West Indians to the monopoly of the home market was confirmed, whilst the unrestricted importation of foreign sugar was permitted but only for refining and export to Europe.”
  • Brazil could not do without slaves; so “The British capitalists, therefore, began a vigorous campaign against their government’s policy of forcible suppression of the slave trade by stationing warships on the African coast.” (but for free trade they were)
  • Abolitionists initially did not advocate emancipation; they were against the slave trade; Only from 1823 did they adopt the aim of emancipation - but they demanded ‘gradual transformation’; only by 1830 did they demand immediate abolition - again they selectively opposed American slavery, and did not push the issue of East Indian slaves, and not too consistent with respect to Brazilian/US/;Cuban slavery; abolitionists were social conservatives allied with Capitalists / serving the new owner class interests
Meanwhile: far away from Britain - in the colonies:

In 1823 Britain began a limited reform program in Trinidad and British Guinea: abolition of the whip; nine hour working day (!); freedom for slaves born after 1823; appointment of ombudsman for slaves; savings bank for slaves; evidence of slaves heard in court : Plantation owners were very much opposed to these ‘concessions’ - talks of secession started , but ‘colored’ people where now loyal to Britain.

The slaves thought that after the abolition of the slave trade that Britain has declared emancipation, but that this has been withheld by their local governor. Each change of governor was understood as sign of coming emancipation ; growing slave revolts after 1800 ; by 1833 there was the clear choice between revolution or emancipation from above.


“Men, pursuing their interests, are rarely aware of the ultimate results of their activity. The commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly. But in doing so it helped to create the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, which turned round and destroyed the power of commercial capitalism, slavery, and all its works”

Actors act on self interest, but do not see long term consequences; they did not foresee that free trade would be better than the colonial system !

Moral ideas of an age have to be understood in context with economic realities / interests. “…But historians, writing a hundred years after, have no excuse for continuing to wrap the real interests in confusion.”

The influence of the West Indian lobby in britain “can only be explained by the powerful services it had previously rendered and the entrenchment previously gained”

Prejudice usually serves the purpose of some interest; however prejudice remain - even when this interest is not longer relevant.