lWhy Everything Costs Money: Capitalism and Slavery Part 7 [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 7 of a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Check out the introduction here.
“Queen Victoria once sent a famous message to two African chiefs: "England has become great and happy by the knowl- edge of the true God and Jesus Christ." To the Manchester capitalist, "Jesus Christ was Free Trade, and Free Trade was Jesus Christ."
“The rise and fall of mercantilism was the rise and fall of slavery.”
Chapter 8: The New Industrial Order
Through the 1700s, the French were whipping everybody’s ass at sugar production. One reason: Saint Domingue (Haiti) – it was larger, and its soil was less exhausted than the British colonial holdings in the West Indies. As a result, France dominated the European sugar market. For a while, British Prime Minister William Pitt tried to hate the player: he turned east to India, where sugar cultivation was done using Indian indentured labor. But, as we saw in the previous parts, the British West Indian planter elite depended on slavery. That meant not just an economic system, but a legal system. And that legal system was protectionist: high taxes had been put on the importation of any sugar that didn’t come from the British West Indies. That included the British East Indies. They couldn’t import enough of it to dislodge the French stranglehold on sugar, and the taxes were protected by the powerful West Indian lobby slavery had paid for.
Since hating the player wouldn’t work, William Pitt decided to hate the game. While France’s sugar production was unchallengeable, the size of the usable land and the health of the soil in Saint Domingue could only be converted to dominance of the sugar market based on slave labor. But the French depended on British slave traders for their constant supply of unfree labor. Now, in this game of thrones, was a good time to think about freedom and equality and all that good shit: William Pitt spoke out publicly, condemning slavery in the strongest terms, attempted to organize international resistance to the slave trade. French abolitionists found themselves mysteriously well funded.
"Nice economy you got there. It would be a shame if something were to...happen to it."
But then, suddenly: the French and Haitian Revolutions. In 1791, reading the writing on the wall, French planters tried to sell Saint Domingue to Pitt and Britain. But Black folk on the island had different plans: first driving them off, then driving off the British in the historic Haitian Revolution. Pitt lost Saint Domingue, but got a good consolation prize: France didn’t have it any more either. Pitt continued his public speeches against slavery but lost his reason to actually oppose it in concrete terms: under his administration the British slave trade doubled.
But these temporary holdoffs couldn’t stop the larger underlying economic shifts. The stage was set: as the British empire’s economic power industrialized more and more in the early-to-mid 1800s, the West Indians’ gradually lost their grip on slavery and the power built on it. The planter elite had already lost the economic advantage they had had over other aspects of the economy like manufacturing. Anti slavery had some big players. There was the British public, largely anti-slavery after the considerable efforts of the abolitionist movement – and also, importantly, anti-Parliament, whose legal support of West Indian slavery through preferential tax policy on sugar was key to West.
In the early to mid 1800s, the British Empire at once had two forms of economy, based on two different principles of legal arrangement and two different sets of social political arrangements. In the mother country, an increasingly mechanized economy which did better without protectionist legal policy, organized around the social system of wage labor, meaning a global labor force free to sell their own labor to whichever capitalist is around. In the West Indies, a human labor-intensive economy that stayed in business by legislating away competitors, organized around a system of slavery, meaning a system of stratified unfree and free labor with borders enforced by a global colonial system of torture and terrorism. There was something to resolve, and that something had to be resolved on a world scale – the British formal colonial system stretched across not only the West Indies but Australia, and South Africa and elsewhere on the African continent. Whatever principle would govern how Britain legally structured its economic affairs would bring up questions about how it managed its colonies – first up, whether managing them was worth the expense. Parliament was tense. The stalemate was broken by an unlikely source: opposition to the “Corn Law” in the interests of equality - that is, equality between planter elite old money and industrial new money.
Pictured above: a reenactment of British Parliament discussing the Corn Laws
Why? Well, remember that protectionist legal policy I just mentioned? The treasurer of the Anti-Corn Law League said that the league was based on “the same righteous principle as the Anti-Slavery Society”: the “free right for the Negroes to possess their own flesh and blood”, which meant “to exchange their labor for as much food as could be got for it”. Meanwhile, on the Indian subcontinent, the British East India Company was able to compete on the world market with indentured Indian labor. Protectionism and the land owning aristocracies of corn and sugar were heading for a showdown with the better positioned and resourced team of free trade and industrial capital.
And the rest, as they say, is history: “The slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery in 1833, the sugar preference in 1846.”