lWhy Everything Costs Money: Capitalism and Slavery Part 8 [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 8 of a new series based on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Check out the introduction here.
“WHEREAS BEFORE, in the eighteenth century, every important vested interest in England was lined up on the side of monopoly and the colonial system; after 1783, one by one, every one of those interests came out against monopoly and the West Indian slave system. British exports to the world were in manufactured goods which could be paid for only in raw materials - the cot- ton of the United States, the cotton, coffee and sugar of Brazil, the sugar of Cuba, the sugar and cotton of India. The expansion of British exports depended on the capacity of Britain to absorb the raw material as payment. The British West Indian monopoly, prohibiting the importation of non-British-plantation sugar for home consumption, stood in the way.”
Chapter 9: British Capitalism and the West Indies
By the early to mid 1800s, the writing was on the wall for the West Indian British planter elite. The Haitian Revolution had sent sugar prices skyrocketing, affecting the West Indian sugar interests’ political hold on the empire in ways it would never recover from. The slavery-fueled sugar economy in the West Indies was only economically viable through protectionist taxes that made gave West Indian sugar an artificial monopoly over British consumers.
To their south, they faced competition of Brazilian sugar plantations, which arguably made even more intense use of slave labor than the West Indian. To their east, British sugar plantations in “East India” also produced potentially much cheaper sugar – in that case, Parliament just seemed to be playing favorites (that is: the more politically entrenched and connected West Indian planter elite had been on their House of Cards shit and would not be moved).
In 1825, British abolitionists led boycotts on West Indian sugar and rum, encouraging everybody to use products made from East Indian raw materials instead. They were undoubtedly joined by people of conscience, but also, importantly, by titans of industry – since slavery survived through protectionism, anyone who would benefit from free trade had an economic interest in opposing slavery. John Bright representing capitalists of cotton gang, Samuel Garbett representing the Iron boys, Richard Cobden and William Wilberforce representing wool squad all lined up against slavery. Even Liverpool, whose world class port had been basically built by the slave trade, low-key turned on the slave trade, electing abolitionist William Roscoe to Parliament.
"When I think about how this slave trade endangers our preciously held principles of liberty...oh my stars!"
Throughout much of this century, Britain had been trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, Britain as a nation had a clear interest in ending the global slave trade: an end to the slave trade would hurt Britain’s competitors for world dominance (Spain, Portugal, France) more than it would hurt Britain. On the other hand, the opposite was true for many British capitalists: their businesses depended either on the slave trade itself (slave traders) or on the raw materials produced by slave labor (i.e. sugar refiners, textiles).
So, for much of this century, Britain actively played both sides of abolition. As a nation, it elected many abolitionists. Its warships, the most powerful in the world in this period, patrolled Africa’s western coast to prevent slave trading. West Indian planters – clearly player hating on the more effective Brazilian and Cuban slavers – came out in support of this use of British naval forces, opposing the same slave trade that was almost solely responsible for their economic position. In 1815, Britain bribed Spain with 400,000 pounds for a promise to end slavery. Spain took the money and, well, didn’t, even with Britain’s frantic parchment text messages.
"I thought we had an agreement!" "Uhh, new raven, who dis?"
On the other side, non-West Indian British capital and capitalists remained the lifeblood of the global slave trade. Seven out of ten physical goods used for enslaving (slaves’ clothes, their physical shackles, etc.) were of British manufacture, sent direct from cities like Liverpool to West Africa, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana. Half of the coffee, more than half of the cotton, and nearly half of the sugar produced in major Brazilian trading cities was handled by British companies.
While public opinion - and abolitionist organizing strategy - identified slavery strongly with West Indian sugar, British capitalists continued to use Brazilian and Cuban sugar and cotton. They even successfully passed a carveout through Parliament to allow the importation of Brazilian sugar for refining purposes during a ban on the importation of Brazilian sugar to actually put in your fucking tea (because that, apparently, would be pro-slavery). Not to mention the unfettered importation of slave produced tobacco and other products during this same period. The abolitionist pretensions of British protectionist tariffs were so ridiculous that Richard Cobden commissioned a satirical play about it, which was performed by, I’d have to assume, Jon Stewart’s great great great granddaddy (this point is covered in more detail in chapter 9, for those of you reading along).
The contradictions in this period are dizzying. But, Williams thinks, they aren’t just a set of weird coincidences. They’re what a member of Parliament called “lucrative humanity” – both opposing slavery and promoting it could be advantageous, depending on the particular context, and elite actors in the British Empire never failed to pursue whichever moral argument fit the economics of their situation.