[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 2 of a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Check out the introduction here.
“THE NEGRO SLAVES were "the strength and sinews of this western world." (30)
Chapter 2: The Development of the Negro Slave Trade
The introductory quote was written to the then “Keeper of the Privy Purse” of Britain (essentially the director of the treasury). But don’t let that throw you off – Britain managed its slave trade, and its burgeoning colonial interests in the West Indies and the African continent, not by sending official emissaries of the Crown but by empowering corporations. After an eventful Civil War and the beheading of Charles I, Britain granted a monopoly to the British economy in Africa first to the “Company of Royal Adventurers”, then to the “Royal African Company”. These companies had monopolistic control over the ships involved in the slave trade, which also meant control over the purchase of British manufactures for sale on the African coast, sale of Africans to the plantations out west, and importation of that which was produced for export in the colonies.
British merchants and colonial planters objected to this arrangement over the slave trade. Things changed after the “Glorious Revolution” that expelled the previous Stuart royal family and installed William of Orange, a reform minded king who supported their glorious Bill of Rights, which allowed Parliament to restrained the power of the royal family. In 1698, in such an environment, inhabited and influenced by such champions of freedom as philosopher John Locke, the “Father of Liberalism”, a major victory for freedom was won: for freedom of trade, silly - not Africans’ freedom (what, are you new here?). More perverse than that, even. Williams summarizes it like this: “the right of a free trade in slaves was recognized as a fundamental and natural right of Englishmen.” (32)
The kidnapped Africans were a diverse mixture of peoples, which at this point in history was understood and appreciated by those who profited off of their capture: there were different stereotypes and market pressures for different ethnicities and something-like-nationalities of Africans (Williams lists ones for Ibos, Ashantis, and Angolans). Williams also points out something that may surprise some: “…in general the British planters opposed Christianity for their slaves. It made them more perverse and intractable and therefore less valuable. It meant also instruction in the English language, which allowed diverse tribes to get together and plot sedition.” (42) Religious factions, whose political influence depended in part on its number of adherents, likely disagreed.
This, combined with the growing output of the colonial plantations, made the slave trade explode. Between 1680 and 1686, the Royal African company kidnapped around 5,000 slaves a year, making Britain a bit player in a European colonial project on the continent dominated by Portugal. After the first nine years of “freedom” in the slave trade, Bristol alone abducted over 160,000 Africans. The Royal African Company couldn’t keep up anymore and settled for holding down the ivory and “gold dust” game. But Britain as a whole, with an army of private slave traders at its disposal, was no bit player anymore – in the century between 1680 and 1786, Britain had kidnapped over 2 million Africans and sent them to work in the British colonies. Liverpool became the busiest slave trading port in the world, accounting by itself for nearly half of Europe’s slave traffic by the 1790s, and British slave traders would supply even French and Spanish colonists with kidnapped Africans, since the Pope had made them pinky swear to leave Africa to Portugal. Economists at the time estimated the annual profit for slave trading companies at 30% - much less than the incredible profits that the Dutch East India Company had been able to make via the spice trade (33-34).
The true upside for the British empire was cultivated on colonial plantations. They had to fight off the haters: first via corporate proxy war between the (British) Royal African Company and the Dutch West India Company, then the French via ongoing colonial and commercial conflict. Williams says: “Anglo-French warfare, colonial and commercial, is the dominant theme in the history of the eighteenth century. It was a conflict of rival mercantilisms. The struggle was fought out in the Caribbean, Africa, India, Canada and on the banks of the Mississippi, for the privilege of looting India and for the control of certain vital and strategic commodities Negroes; sugar and tobacco; fish; furs and naval stores. Of these areas the most important were the Caribbean and Africa; of these commodities the most important were Negroes and sugar.” (40) Finally, they had to fight off their own colonists, who tried to raise taxes on importations of slaves every now and then (understandably nervous at the growing population of Black folks wielding sharp agricultural equipment that they had to live with, while the Crown slept easy on the other side of the Atlantic).
if only chains were this easy to shake off
There wasn’t a whole lot of resistance to slavery, as you might expect, from the churches literally invested in the slave trade, like those in slave-trade capitals Bristol and Liverpool. Then there were the parts of the Church the sugar industry, like the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscan orders (42). The Baptists wouldn’t allow missionaries to so much as speak negatively of the slave trade. How about non-conformists, like the Quakers? Slave trading was one of their most lucrative investments in both the English and US Quaker communities (though, importantly: the rural North of what became the US, where there were few slaves or freed Blacks when there were any, became a strong hub of abolitionist sentiment and eventual activism.) Slave traders and other profiteers included dukes, earls, knights, lords, members of Parliament, charity school and hospital founders...