[Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams, 1944 UNC Press] Theory for folks who aren’t trying to read all those damn pages, by someone who has nothing better to do. Part 1 of a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Check out the introduction here.
Chapter 1 is a doozy, so this part is going to focus on it by itself.
Chapter 1: The Origin of Negro Slavery
“The reasons for slavery…are not moral but economical circumstances; they relate not to vice and virtue, but to production.” (6)
“The features of the man, his hair, color and dentifrice, his "subhuman" characteristics so widely pleaded, were only the later rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed labor and resorted to Negro labor because it was cheapest and best. This was not a theory, it was a conclusion deduced from the personal experience of the planter. He would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn was to come.” (20)
Williams, quoting economist and politician Gibbon Wakefield in that first quote from page 6, throws the gauntlet down. To be sure, to say that reasons for slavery don’t relate to “vice and virtue” is probably a bit of an overstatement. If you’re a capitalist farmer and can’t hit your potato production targets just by the labor you can coerce out of your wife and children, and then it you think, “hey what if I got a bunch of workers had to literally orient their whole lives around my getting the ‘Potato Farmer of the Month’ award at the next lodge meeting on pain of their death, torture and daily suffering” then I’d both say both that you’re probably some kind of asshole and that that’s definitely related to the ‘solution’ you came up with. But there have always been murderous and evil motherfuckers in history’s ruling classes (like all the other classes) – Williams thinks that what was new about the racialized slave trade and slave economies wasn’t that the ruling class reached some new level of moral rot, but a set of circumstances that made it profitable for them to be evil that way as opposed to some other way. Williams argues this based on a historical gloss he gives to the period from 1650-1850, concentrating on the Europe, what is now the US South, and the Caribbean.
So: what circumstances? Why chattel slavery? Let’s start off by thinking about the tradeoffs involved in the use of slave labor. While a political system built on wage labor disguises class war, one built on slavery keeps it real: slaves know exactly why they are doing the work that they’re doing, and there’s a dude with a whip to remind them should they forget their place. But since everyone is so clear about whose interests are being served, you don’t get the kind of innovation or versatility that you get in wage labor when people are (for example) hustling for that promotion. Compliance must be continually, painfully, and costfully extracted. (4-8)
This is only worth doing, economically speaking, in certain circumstances. You might think that widely available land and natural resources are a good thing, but they represented a huge problem for colonial capitalists. Williams retells a story often told in this period about an English capitalist, Mr. Peel, who went to Australia with 300 of his workers. But when they saw the available land and resources, they went to work for themselves by living off the land and making and selling shit, and poor Mr. Peel didn’t have anyone to so much as make his bed and fetch his water! (5)
But there are certain products that get cheaper (measuring per unit) to produce if your operation is big enough, like the kinds of crops you’d produce on a big plantation: tobacco, sugar, cotton. Making your operation big would itself be costly: you’d have to buy the land and access to other natural resources that it takes to have a plantation. But it wouldn’t be all that costly if, say, there was a shitload of land and territory that you just ran all the indigenous people off of. That’s right – the historical origin story of European colonial conquest, primitive accumulation, and the origins of racialized slavery and racial capitalism are at bottom the same story.
Speaking of the “racialized” part. Williams says: “Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro. A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.” (I like to think he added “Fight me” but that it was removed by a copy editor).
He goes on to explain that the first people enslaved in the Americas were Indigenous folks, which makes sense – why go to the exorbitant trouble and expense of sailing half way around the world to exploit Black people you don’t give a fuck about when there’s already coloreds you don’t give a fuck about right here? But a combination of poor diet and treatment and “white man’s diseases” made their population tank, and the declining population supplied that reason: there weren’t enough of them to exploit, but Africa had plenty of people and thus didn’t have that problem. Plus, Black folks were seen as a “race robust for labor” and better suited to the oppressive heat in than Indigenous folks who were perceived as weak (there’s probably a connection to disease here but idk), which was reflected in the relatively much higher prices demanded for Black slaves. This rationalization was clear bullshit – likely referring to white indentured laborers, Williams points out that “the white race faced the sun for well over a hundred years in Barbados”. Plus, only the southern tip of the US is actually tropical, even though the rationalization was taken to apply to Georgia, (what is now) Louisiana, Cuba, and the Carolinas, where the climate isn’t much harder to survive than that of Spain or South Italy and also where indentured white labor in agriculture was hella common (20). But this bullshit was probably believed to some extent, and this was reflected in the price of slaves.
Meanwhile in Europe: some European countries were overpopulated relative to their ability to use labor. They had been managing this through hilariously evil laws against vagrancy and joblessness but saw an opportunity with colonialism. In the 17th century this surplus population left Germany, England for the American colonies in the tens of thousands, often as temporarily indentured servants. Since their status was similar to slaves, they were “convinced” to emigrate to this New World by some low level coercive tactics: kidnappers, funded by speculators, would entice kids on the streets of London and Bristol with sweets, liquor up adults, or straight up snatch people (11).
“Transportation” to the colonies became the response to problems and crimes as diverse as religious nonconformism, the whole hating on Irish and Scots thing the English loved, and an alternative to the long list of capital offenses in the British criminal justice system. Traffic in these workers in the English colonies was overseen by “the Colonial Board”, established in 1661. The private interests that built up around kidnapping wormed their way into influence and even holding offices in the highest levels of government, which is definitely not a thing to worry about in a carceral state.
Williams notes that, often, the people being liquored up and “convinced” were incarcerated women, and convicts in general supplied the American colonies with a steady supply of indentured white labor, and were the basis of the development of Australia in the 19th century, and increased white labor presence in the colonies in the West Indies. They would often be transported across the Atlantic packed in boats like sardines – Williams tells one story of 72 indentured servants locked below deck for 5 weeks with the horses. Another interesting connection: “One year after the emancipation of the Negro slaves, transportation [to the English colonies] was the penalty for trade union activity.” (12) White indentured servitude was considered crucial to the development of colonies.
In Jamaica these servants, which the planters called “white trash”, were categorized alongside Black folk as laborers, and in general both of these groups together were considered crucial for the development of the West Indian colonies. Since they both faced harsh and unrelenting working conditions and the social status of disgrace, these white laborers are often called slaves and their conditions referred to as slavery.
But, Williams is adamant: they were not slaves. Servants had rights guaranteed by law and had the standing to participate as an interested party in legally binding contracts. Being a servant was a temporary status, a circumstance one could escape in their own life time, and one that their children could escape. And both of those escapes were often built into that contract: after one’s tenure as an indentured servant, one was usually legally entitled to a predetermined amount of land (19) – that is, to their share of the spoils of colonial conquest. But slavery was hereditary – the slave status of the mother was the status of the child. Being a servant was a type of situation that a person could find themselves in, being a slave was to be a type of person – or maybe more accurately, not being a social person at all in the eyes of the ruling class. And, finally, what Williams calls the “decisive” factor: “the Negro slave was cheaper. The money which procured a white man's services for ten years could buy a Negro for life.” (19)
That is: Black slavery emerged as a best strategic response by the powers that be to a set of problems summed up by the second of the two quotes at the beginning of this part. That situation was created by legal and political arrangements that put a floor on the political inequality of the white underclass, combined with the accidents of history and geography that made Black labor a good option, which included the contribution of disease and genocide to the relative failure of mass enslavement of Indigenous peoples, and how close Africa was and easy to access given the state of naval navigation in Europe at the time). Then, when slavery was gradually abolished in the 19th century, there was a massive importation of indentured labor – but this time not white laborers as before, but Indians and Chinese folks (27-29).
Some aspects of racial ideology happened before the shift from indigenous to Black coerced labor, but much came afterwards, serving as ideological rationalizations for decisions that were actually made according to largely unrelated political and economic calculations. It wasn’t all about money, but it was all business. And business was good: plantation economies were enormously profitable for the narrow class of planters and their hangers-on. For example: sugar cultivation began in Barbados in 1650, and in less than two decades the small island was seventeen times as rich as it had been before.
Not so Fast: Commentary Section
It sometimes sounds like Williams thinks that these historical patterns have a purely economic rationale, but I don’t think so. There are some hard cases that he acknowledges and includes in his analysis, though he isn’t always so clear about how these complicate the big narrative he wants. One is Australia. Australia flirted with building a sugar economy based on enslaved Black labor, but decided that it was more important that Australia remain a white country, and revised immigration law to exclude non-whites. This destroyed Australia’s ability to compete in sugar production on the world market, since sugar produced by slave labor was much cheaper, and the industry only survived through the very visible hand of economic protectionism.
Another is Cuba: its economy had been based more heavily in tobacco than sugar, and tobacco could be profitably produced on small farms. That made slavery unnecessary on the island, and liberal politicians like José Antonio Saco advocated for immigration of free workers, so long as “they have a white face and can do honest labor.” His bid to “whiten” the Cuban social structure was foiled by the increasing prominence of sugar cultivation over the 19th century, which eventually was paired with indentured Chinese labor (27-28).
While these provides the clearest example of the bullshit nature of the “Black folks can work in the sun real good” explanation of racial slavery, since white workers worked in the same climate and environmental conditions until economic conditions shifted, these cases also complicates an explanation of the history of slavery that’s only talking about economic profit motives, and not also the other relevant political interests.