Why Everything Costs Money: Capitalism and Slavery Part 6 [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 6 of a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Check out the introduction here.
"God forbid," said Lord Wynford, "that there should be anything like a forcing of the master to abandon his property in the slave! Once adopt that principle and there was an end to all property." - Eric Williams, pg 133.
Chapter 7: The Development of British Capitalism 1783-1833
Williams throws the gauntlet down: “FAR FROM BEING A NATIONAL DISASTER, as it was generally regarded in England and the world at the time, American inde- pendence in reality marked the end of an outworn age and the emergence of a new. In this new age there was no room for the West Indian monopoly. We must now trace the expansion of the productive forces of England, stimulated and brought to the eve of maturity by the colonial system, and see how that colonial system in the new age acted as a brake which had to be removed.”
In 1783, as the American Revolution ended, Britain’s Prime Minister applauded the “humanity” of Quaker abolitionists but claimed that slavery was too important to the British economy to abolish. But some of the most important technological gains from empire were just beginning to materialize: that same year, James Watt finished a modification to steam power that made it usable for transportation and Henry Cort figured out a “puddling” process that eventually mechanized ironmaking, both of which would play important roles in the back half of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
Iron boomed: the production of “pig iron” (the intermediate form that is converted to usable iron) increased ten times over in the first half of this period. Iron smelting required coal, so that boomed too. Cotton, especially, boomed: the value of Britain’s cotton production increased thirty-one times over in the period Williams describes here. With these booms in industry came “economic development” in roughly the sense that we now think of for the Third World: Bolton, England, for example, went from a single paved street in 1753 to a population of 17,000 by the turn of that century.
now what you gon do with a crew that got money much longer than yours, and a military much stronger than yours?
Britain used this new economic muscle for – what else? World domination. On the world stage, the political tides were shifting. There were a gang of revolutions in Central and South American former colonies, many of which had declared and fought for independence by 1815. This meant that a whole continent of the world that had been beholden to Spanish economic control was now “free.” In the sense British capitalists cared about: free to borrow money to finance their government’s operations, and free to be anybody’s export market. Governments in the western hemisphere found willing lenders in Britain - especially Brazil’s giant slave economy and planter elites in the US South (still a slave economy until much later in this century). The West Indian planter elites were assed out: Britain was directing the capital it had used the West Indian sugar plantation to build up towards a new stage of economic development and global political control, and the West Indian plantations were left in the dust. Exports to Jamaica and Montserrat steadily declined, and the sugar islands never regained their economic or political importance to the British Empire.
"it's like they don't even remember the good times we shared"
And, finally – over this whole period of time, Britain was not a democracy in the sense we might think of today, as the vast majority of people could not vote. On the home front, as we’ve seen above the economic shifts meant a massive increase in the amount of people shoved into mines and godawful factories. It also meant cities like Bolton, which massively increased in size and population as the economy “developed”. Many of these cities were recognized as cities by a royal charter which gave them two seats in Parliament’s House of Commons – “representation”. But voting rights were so poorly extended in many of these areas that it was common for a member of Parliament to be “elected” by less than one hundred voters – essentially meaning that a seat in Parliament could be bought by any patron who could make money moves.
People clamored for reform of these “rotten boroughs” and the whole British parliamentary system. They demanded an end to bribery based representation in the House of Commons, and extensions of the right to vote. Some demanded an extension of the vote to women (notably some reform-minded philosophers: Anna Wheeler, William Thompson, and Jeremy Bentham). To win their demands, they engaged in time honored traditions of reasonable and rational British debate: burning jails and palaces to the ground, death threats directed at members of Parliament, threats of tax revolts and perhaps the most dangerous option of all – threatening bank runs (“to stop the Duke, go for Gold!” was the slogan). The members of Parliament were persuaded by their uses of reason and passed a series of Reform Acts for England and Wales, a separate Irish Reform Act, and a separate Scottish Reform Act – the Scottish version made 14 timesmore people elgible to vote. Shows you what you can accomplish if you believe in yourself (and also if you’re a little bit scary).