[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 4 of a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Check out the introduction here.
“…we are told that free trade would create an international division of labor, and thereby give to each country the production which is most in harmony with its natural advantage. You believe, perhaps, gentlemen, that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies. Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugar-cane nor coffee trees there.” – Karl Marx, “On the Question of Free Trade”, 1848
Chapter 4: The West India Interest
Williams dives a bit more in-depth here into the Caribbean economy. The sugar plantations were often run by absentee landlords, legal owners of the plantations who either themselves lived in England or sent their children to be educated there. This set up a cultural exchange between the planter elite of the so-called West Indies and the largely landed aristocracy back in the mother country.
The planters were new money, folks who had largely lucked into the ground floor of colonial plunder. They lacked the social graces and codes of etiquette that the English aristocracy had built up over generations. They didn’t lack money though – they lived lavish lifestyles off the colossally profitable sugar hustle, and haters gonna hate. On the islands, the most elite families like the Beckfords, Longs and the Hibberts built lavish estates with names like “Foxhill Mansion” and “Fonthill Abbey”.
“Flipping this ‘cane is easy as hell. Stop hating, Lord Codrington, just get like me.”
On the islands, absenteeism was a problem. It left overseers and lawyers to manage plantations. It was another problem back in England, where West Indian planter elites and their children created communities. They threw salt in the Parliament corruption game – bribing your way into office used to cost a cool 2,500 pounds, but apparently in 1767 a West Indian could offer double that. West Indian planters would spend tens of thousands of pounds on their own campaigns to get themselves elected.
And we’re not just talking the House of Commons, the lower of the two houses of British Parliament. Williams claims that by the early to mid 1800s, “few, if any” noble houses in Britain were without ties to the West Indian colonial economy, which gave slave profiteers opportunities to make inroads into the higher House of Lords (94). They took those opportunities. The Earl of Liverpool, aldermen, mayors, members of Parliament, councilors – the planter elite installed themselves in each of these influential positions, and the merchants and traders of colonially produced goods weren’t far behind.
In 1764, an insider reported that there was a 50-60 member West Indian voting bloc in Parliament that could swing matters in any direction they wanted, and that direction was for the artificial monopolies they enjoyed in the region and against taxes on sugar. But as the century turned, a challenger that had been dominated so far would suddenly transform into a real threat to their dominance: a cotton bloc, championing free trade.