Why Everything Costs Money: Capitalism and Slavery Part 5 [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 5 of a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Check out the introduction here.
“The Caribbean ceased to be a British lake when the American colonies won their independence.” – Eric Williams, page 123
Chapter 5: British Industry and the Triangular Trade
Capitalism is big business, and in the 17th century - thanks in important part to slavery - business was good. This chapter discusses a few more ways slavery fueled the rise of global capitalism.
Two of the kinds discussed in this chapter had to do with banking and finance. Williams points out a number of major banks were owned by people or families that made their fortunes either directly in the slave trade or in industries dominated by it. These banks included the Heywood Bank, eventually acquired by the Bank of Liverpool, and the Quaker Barclays family’s Barclays . Their financial services also were often directed at managing the fortunes of West Indian planters. One particular service, insurance, also grew with slavery – tropical disease and deaths from beating and malnourishment could sure be hell for profit margins, so West Indian planters took out insurance policies on the enslaved Africans they’d bought.
The third kind was labeled “Heavy Industry”, but you should think “industrial technology”. From part 3 of our discussion of capital, we know that capitalism is a way of organizing society around a kind of production where it’s assumed that tomorrow will always be more productive than today was (C-M-C’). On the worker’s side of things, that means that someone needs to do “reproductive” labor – make it possible for the worker to rest, relax, eat meals, manage their social life, all the stuff it takes to make the worker psychologically and physically ready to do productive work again by their next shift. Typically, women and children bore the brunt of this labor in capitalist societies (see the commentary at the bottom of part 4).
On capital’s side of things, this means that, at a minimum, someone’s gotta fix the machines and tools workers use as they break down. But if someone could make a even better, capital-sier machine or factory, that would be even better. The steam engine invention was secured with capital from banks associated with West Indian capital, and at least one leading “ironmonger” fulfilled artillery contracts for the British empire and established a “kingdom” of iron ore and other critical minerals using West Indian Capital.
Chapter 6: The American Revolution
The American colonies, especially the North were economically dependent on the West Indies – high percentages of the things they produced were sold to the West Indies. But the West Indies were the important colonial holding – the “sugar bowl of Europe”, especially Jamaica and Barbados, created the lion’s share of colonial wealth for the British Empire before 1776.
But, weirdly enough, this very fact became a source of importance for the colonies. The West Indies ran the sugar game by focusing all their attention – and, more importantly, arable land – on producing sugar (and a handful of other commodities). As much as the planter elite were balling off that sugar wealth, it wasn’t the stuff of sustaining life – the very focus that gave them power meant that they had to rely on importing the food they needed to live. That meant that the northern colonies of New England became a key part of the imperial economy as suppliers of food to the wealth producing parts of the empire: in the 1600s Barbados, but also Virginia (in what became the US South). Even after the American Revolution, this relationship between the North and the South was maintained, up until these regions decided to do something about that beef.
This was “deliberate policy” on the mainland’s part – failing to encourage food production on the sugar islands kept their eyes on the wealth prize and kept them dependent on outside help. That gave New England a role in the imperial scheme – it was damn near economically irrelevant otherwise – and it also gave an additional market to English producers of corn, flour, and other food items. The 1698 Parliament even rejected a ban on export of foods to the West Indies (which might have made food more affordable for working class British folk) because it might have encouraged West Indians to plant their own food and reduce their dependence on the mainland!
The house of cards built on these artificial, imposed dependencies was bound to fall eventually. One of the first steps was the Seven Years’ War – a world war spanning five continents over how the spoils of colonization would be split between the European powers. During the war, Britain had taken control of Cuba (from Spain) and Guadaloupe from France. In the 1763, these colonies were returned to the imperial mafias that originally ran them, and Britain took control of Canada and Florida. This didn’t make sense – Cuba’s economy wasn’t well developed at the time but it was obvious from Jamaica and Barbados that Cuba could be yet another sugar island (which is what happened under Spanish rule), and economically speaking Canada was a pile of snow. Why did the British mainland want to make this trade, giving up two potentially powerful economies for a pile of snow and a fucking swamp?
Archival research indicates that this was Plan B.
Williams says: they didn’t. The influential and politically connected British West Indian planter elites, however, did. You see, they were world renowned haters. As much loot as the British planters were making in the Caribbean, the French balled harder. A 1717 representative to the British Board of Trade estimated that planters on Barbados would need five times as many slaves and many more cattle to work the same amount of land on French “Saint Domingue” – which you may know as Haiti. They worried that the French could make Canada serve Saint Domingue the way the northern colonies served the British colonies – a source of food that would let them concentrate even harder on the sugar trade, in which the Brits were already getting their ass beat, kept in business despite much cheaper French sugar by the protectionist trade policies that the politically well connected West Indian planters maneuevered the mainland into maintaining.
"Next nigga to put French sugar in they tea is gettin shot. God save the Queen."
These protectionist policies included the Molasses Act of 1733, which heavily taxed imports of non-British sugar and molasses (a major product made from sugar at the time). It also prohibited American exports to non-British islands in the Caribbean, the French and Spanish “West Indies”. Americans responded in principled fashion by respecting the brave officers that defend the rule of law and acquiescing to of their rightful political sovereign because blue lives and all lives matter. Haha, just playing - they responded by smuggling goods in and out on a massive scale and bribing or intimidating customs officials into silence or complicity. The British crown responded by ramping up its policing efforts to enforce the Act. The resultant struggle was a powerful ingredient in the beef between the colonists and the crown that culminated in the 1776 War of Independence.
The imperial symbiotic relationship between the American colonies and the British colonies in the Caribbean was broken, and shit got grimy real quick. A famine in Jamaica in 1780 claimed the lives of 50,000 enslaved Africans. Their free lunch gone, the British sugar islands got muscled out of the sugar game by Saint Domingue and the French sugar economy. The British “sugar colonies” never recovered.
Boo-hoo, so the planter elite lost their chips. Fuck em, right? Right – but something else important happened as a result. After the American Revolution, British sugar islands couldn’t compete anymore, and the British slave colonies in the US South were no longer British. Economically speaking, the British were running out of reasons to have slavery as a system. This, they figured, was a good time to check in with Jesus about that whole “morality” thing folks talk about sometimes…