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Issue 33, December 1998

Slavery and the rise of capitalism

The Making of New World Slavery: from the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800.
By Robin Blackburn, Verso, 1997 (Pbk, 1998).
Reviewed by Matt Wrack

    Racism and racial slavery
    Slavery and primitive accumulation

THE HORRORS OF the New World slave system cannot be expressed in figures alone but the shear scale of these is staggering. The slave population of the Americas reached 33,000 in 1700, nearly three million in 1800 and peaked at over six million in 1850. During this period a million and a half died during the passage to the New World, large numbers died beforehand and between a tenth and a fifth died within a year of landing.

This huge and businesslike system remains one of the great tragedies of history. In The Making of New World Slavery, now available in paperback, Robin Blackburn suggests that it points us towards the "dark side of progress" (p5) in that the inhumanity of the system developed side by side with huge steps forward in knowledge and technique, such as the exploration of the Atlantic and the development of new navigational techniques. At the heart of the system lay a huge contradiction. The people who colonised the New World were largely those who rejected most strongly the old order in Europe. Yet just as unfree labour was dying out in Europe it began to develop on a massive new scale in the Americas. This contradiction was only resolved by the complete racialisation of New World slavery so that skin colour and slavery became inextricably linked.

Apologists for the system argue that slavery had always existed. This may be true but history would become meaningless if reduced to such generalities. History must aim to uncover the historic specificity of social forms as well as their links with the past. The Atlantic slave system did indeed emerge from previous systems but in the process slavery was extended in scale and transformed in form.

Blackburn traces the emergence of the slave trade from existing patterns of slavery in Africa. The story follows the Portuguese discoveries and the origins of the Atlantic slave trade through to the emergence of Brazilian sugar from 1600. However, it was the English colonial system which really developed and eventually dominated the Atlantic trade and the system of slave plantations. The profits of slavery were central to the primitive accumulation which paved the way for English industrialisation.

  England's unique economic position both assisted and was assisted by the development of the colonies. The capitalist transformation of agriculture helped to create a landless proletariat which was available for emigration or for wage labour in England. The transformation of the English economy helped to create a market for the new goods of the colonies. Initially, it was wage labour which worked the new plantations in Barbados and elsewhere. British emigrants would be contracted to work as indentured servants for three, five or seven years for the plantation after which they would be free to pursue other employment. In 1638 Barbados had 2,000 indentured servants and only 200 African slaves. By 1653 there were 20,000 slaves and only 8,000 indentured servants.

White indentured servants faced enormous hardships on the estates. The work was extremely hard, conditions appalling and life expectancy was short. Escaped servants were made to serve double time for their master. A repeated escape could lead to branding. Like slaves, the servant was regarded as a piece of property and was valued according to the amount of tobacco or sugar which could be expected to be produced before the indenture expired.

The plantation owners faced two problems. As the demand for the plantation exports rose rapidly they needed more and more labour. As emigration from Britain was, by and large, voluntary it could not guarantee to meet the needs of the system. At the same time, stories drifted back of life in the colonies which tended to discourage volunteers for the indenture system. Thus it was the growing demand for secure supplies of labour which produced the shift towards African slavery. In this context, the mid-seventeenth century saw the rapid growth of the slave plantation in the English Caribbean.

This explanation of the rise of Caribbean slavery was pioneered by Eric Williams in his 1943 work, Capitalism and Slavery. Williams outlined the shifts from enslavement of the local Indian populations, to the use of white convict or indentured labour to black slavery. In Williams' words, the origin of black slavery lay with economic, not racial motives: "It had to do not with the colour of the labourer, but the cheapness of the labour". 1

  top     Racism and racial slavery

MAKING USE OF the latest research, Blackburn's work confirms the outline developed by Williams. Williams had argued that "slavery was not born of racism: rather racism was the consequence of slavery".2 Blackburn outlines the various ways in which the relationship between skin colour and slavery developed to produce racist social formations and ideologies.

The extremely hard conditions of the plantation colonies meant that the owners, and the colonial authorities, always faced the possibility of revolt. As long as black slaves and white servants worked alongside each other this included the possibility of joint action, however temporary. In 1676, for example, Bacon's rebellion in Virginia had involved servants, slaves and freemen.

Rare as such risings might have been, they terrified those in authority. Increasingly, laws were passed to enforce racial segregation. Such laws helped to create a form of racial solidarity among the white colonists. Increasingly whites, even poor whites, could identify themselves as a part of the privileged race. The privilege of their colour exempted them from slavery and granted them certain civil rights. The plantation owners' fear of resistance and rebellion evolved into a more general white fear of black rebellion. In these ways slavery was crucial to forming the new racial identities in the American colonies.

These new identities and structures tended to undermine white opposition to slavery. Slavery came to be identified with black Africans. In turn, black people were identified as slaves or potential slaves. These racial divisions were sharpest in the English-speaking colonies in the Caribbean and North America. In the Spanish, Portuguese and French territories there developed a far bigger free black population. Here blacks could begin to demand some of the rights of the white citizen. In the English colonies such a blurring of the racial boundaries was not allowed to emerge and the number of free blacks remained small.

  top     Slavery and primitive accumulation

CENTRAL TO ERIC Williams' work was the hypothesis that the profits of the 'triangular trade' between Europe, Africa and the New World had "made an enormous contribution to Britain's industrial development".3

However, this view has been controversial among historians, including Marxists. Firstly, slavery has tended to be seen as a backward and unproductive system which could not therefore have produced sufficient profits to assist capitalist accumulation. Secondly, the debate on the transition to capitalism has tended to focus on the internal economic and social changes which were necessary for capitalist development. This debate has tended to ignore or minimise the role of external factors.

Blackburn draws on many recent studies of the economics of New World slavery. Using a variety of quantitative techniques, economic historians have been able to show that the slave plantation could be a profitable enterprise which could compete well with other possible investments (Chapter IX). This was the case despite a variety of factors which did tend to make the plantation system resistant to innovation.

The second issue, of slavery and the transition to capitalism, relates to a question raised by Marx. Marx pointed out the various ways in which capitalism reproduced the conditions for its existence. However, there remained a problem: "The accumulation of capital pre-supposes surplus-value; surplus-value pre-supposes capitalistic production; capitalistic production pre-supposes the pre-existence of considerable masses of capital and of labour-power... The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation... an accumulation not the result of the capitalist mode of production, but its starting point".4

The development of capitalism required a number of transformations such as the creation of wage-labour. Once capitalism was established it became a continuous process of reproducing and expanding investment. What Marx asks here, however, is what was the source of the original funds for capitalist investment?

  Marx himself was well aware that the history of capitalism provided a number of possible sources. "The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation".5

Again Blackburn argues that the most recent research tends to support the 'Williams thesis'. For example, a number of historians have revised down the growth rate of the British economy during the industrial revolution. Blackburn suggests that this would strengthen the role of colonial trade in funding industrialisation. Working on figures for 1770, Blackburn argues that triangular trade profits may have provided anything between 20.9% and 55% of Britain's gross fixed capital formation.

Plantation profits may have assisted economic development in a number of ways. By increasing the general prosperity of the economy they may have boosted the industrialisation process. They may also have eased the credit difficulties of the new industrialists. The early industrial processes involved a lengthy turnover time. In other words a capitalist might have to wait a long time to realise the profits from an investment. In such circumstances credit was vital. The profits of slavery helped to lubricate this process. Financial bills, drawn on plantation products such as sugar or tobacco, began to circulate as a form of money. In the absence of sufficient institutional sources of credit, plantation funds helped to fill the gap.

Blackburn has drawn together the best of recent scholarship to provide an excellent account of the rise and the significance of slavery in the America's. Nevertheless, I found two weaknesses in the book. The first relates to what is perhaps missing. This is a fuller treatment of resistance and opposition to slavery. It is clear from Blackburn's account that rebellion and resistance took place. Slavery was never fully accepted by all parties, most obviously by the slaves themselves. Blackburn does indeed provide accounts both of a number of rebellions and forms of resistance and of European thinkers who questioned the institution and the new racism which began to emerge. I was left wanting to read more about this side of the history of slavery; about the African states which fought back and refused to participate in the slave trade; about the many forms of resistance adopted by slaves in the colonies. Just as the history of capitalism is also the history of opposition to it, so surely the history of slavery is also the history of resistance.

  My second reservation is, perhaps, related. It concerns the style of the book, which at times seems too scholarly and too detached. It is indeed necessary to provide the facts and analysis as Blackburn does. Marx also was not bad at analysis. Nevertheless, at times I was left longing for some of Marx's biting sarcasm and open hatred for the hypocrisy of the system which preached freedom yet kept millions as chattel slaves. On balance, however, these reservations are minor and this book will become required reading for anyone interested in the history of capitalism or of racism.

1 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 1964(1944), London, Andre Deutsch, p.19.
2 Williams, ibid., p.7.
3 Williams, ibid., p.105
4 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, 1954, London, Lawrence and Wishart, Ch.XXVI, p.667
5 Marx, ibid., Ch.XXXI, p.703.

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