Most people have heard of the term “wage slave” as part of the Marxist critique of capitalism, but the term is generally understood as a metaphor to convey harsh working conditions inadequately compensated. In recent years, however, the relevance of slavery to capitalism, especially in its beginnings, has become ever more insistent. Thus we have a sentence like this in a recent essay by economists Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman:
America's "take-off" in the 19th century wasn't in spite of slavery; it was largely thanks to it. And recent research in economic history goes further: It highlights the role that commodified human beings played in the emergence of modern capitalism itself.
Their essay, “How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism,” posted on Bloomberg View on February 24, 2014, provides fascinating details about the roots of early American bankers and capitalists in either the slave trade, southern plantations, or both. New York banker James B. Brown of Brown Brothers & Co., for example, is reported to have had investments in the American South exceeding $1.5 million, “a quarter of which was directly bound up in the ownership of slave plantations.” Other bankers with links to southern slavery, according to Rockman and Beckert, were the Biddles, the Barings and the Rothschilds. But it was not just the United States version of capitalism that owed its origins to the immense profits from slavery and the slave trade. Eric Williams in 1944 wrote his seminal Capitalism and Slavery (U of No. Carolina Press; access at https://archive.org/details/capitalismandsla033027mbp, a book that goes into great detail to demonstrate how much British capitalism and the industrial revolution itself owed to the slave trade and plantation slavery in the West Indies. Calling slavery “an economic institution of the first importance,” Williams notes that “in modern times it [slavery] provided the sugar for the tea and the coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton to serve as a base for modern capitalism” (5). And, like the American bankers cited above, British bankers who were so crucial to the financing of British industry often inherited their money from forebears who had made it in the slave trade and/or plantation slavery. Thomas Leyland, for example, became, in 1802 “senior partner in the banking firm of Clarkes and Roscoe,” but he was “one of the most active slave traders in Liverpool and his profits were immense” (99). Even more renowned is the British banking name of Barclay. Williams points out that not only were “two members of this Quaker family, David and Alexander…engaged in the slave trade in 1756,” but David “actually owned a great plantation in Jamaica” (101). Moreover, Lloyd’s of London, whose name is synonymous with great insurance endeavors, began as a coffee house where runaway slaves could be returned. It then moved, like most other insurance companies of the time, into insuring slaves and slave ships, and one of its most “distinguished” chairmen was one Joseph Marryat, “a West Indian planter” (104), which is to say, an owner/exploiter of slaves.
Williams makes much of these West Indian sugar planters because they were not only the jewel in the crown of British trade, but the source of much of the wealth that fueled the subsequent industrial revolution in England. That wealth, of course, derived from African slaves, both from their unpaid labor on huge sugar plantations in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and other British-owned Caribbean islands, and from the profits made by slave traders who captured and transported them to those islands to sell as slaves. British cities owed their dramatic expansion to this slave trade: first Bristol, which “in the first nine years of free trade…shipped 160,950 Negroes to the sugar plantations,” and then Liverpool, “the greatest slave trading port in the Old World,” which between 1783 and 1793 alone shipped over 300,000 slaves valued at over 15 million pounds in 878 ships for an “average annual profit” of “over 30%” (36). And the most powerful institutions supported this trade: the British government itself, the Catholic Church (Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans were involved in sugar cultivation), and Quakers, as noted above in the case of Barclay’s bank. That was because, of course, slavery made immense sums of money. West Indies planters became some of the most conspicuously wealthy men in England, returning to their homeland to buy huge estates where they could and did entertain royalty. And the related industries involved in what is known as the “triangular trade” (England supplied the exports and the ships; Africa the human merchandise; the plantations the colonial raw materials) contributed even more profits. According to Williams, the lucrative triangular trade worked as follows:
The slave ship sailed from the home country with a cargo of manufactured goods. These were exchanged at a profit on the coast of Africa for Negroes, who were traded on the plantations, at another profit, in exchange for a cargo of colonial produce to be taken back to the home country (51).
Again, the profits from this trade were not only key to British wealth in the mercantilist 17th and 18th centuries, they also provided the financial base for the subsequent industrialization that England pioneered in the 19th. As Williams notes: “The profits [i.e. from the slave trade] obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution” (52). And that industrialization consisted in large part, early on, of cotton cloth and garment manufacture (Williams calls cotton the “queen of the Industrial Revolution”). In the process, the wealth and activity shifted from the trading port of Liverpool to the manufacturing center of Manchester, otherwise known as ‘Cottonopolis.’
Of course, cotton was the product par excellence of the American South, a fact which made British industry dependent on a steady source of cotton from those former colonies. This in turn meant that, despite the growing objections of British abolitionists to the continuing slavery upon which American cotton plantations depended, there was little chance that moral scruples would kill the golden goose of slavery. Consider the numbers it took for England to clothe the world:
The first steam loom factory was built in Manchester in 1806. In 1835 there were 116,800 power looms in all Great Britain, all but 6% in the cotton industry….The population employed by the industry rose from 350,000 in 1788 to 800,000 in 1806 (128).
So while England abolished its own slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself in 1833—essentially because by that time its West Indian sugar plantations had lost the sugar battle to cheaper sugar from French islands like Saint Domingue and, increasingly, sugar plantations in Asia—British manufacturers continued to depend on slavery in the newly independent United States for the raw cotton critical to British cotton and clothing industries. Nor did this hypocrisy go unnoticed. Williams cites an editorial in the London Times from 1857 that says it all:
We know that for all mercantile purposes England is one of the States, and that, in effect, we are partners with the Southern planter; we hold a bill of sale over his goods and chattels, his live and dead stock, and take a lion’s share in the profits of slavery…We fete Mrs. Stowe, cry over her book, and pray for an anti-slavery president…but all this time we are clothing not only ourselves, but all the world besides, with the very cotton picked and cleaned by ‘Uncle Tom’ and his fellow-sufferers. It is our trade. It is the great staple of British industry. We are Mr. Legree’s agents for the manufacture and sale of his cotton crops (176).
The Mrs. Stowe, of course, is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Mr. Legree the chief villain and torturer of slaves in that abolition-inciting novel.
In short, capitalism grew with slavery as its virtual progenitor, first in providing immense profits from the 17th and 18th century West Indian sugar plantations that depended on African slaves for their labor, and second in providing the capital derived from those sugar plantations to finance the industrial revolution, itself based in slave-grown U.S. cotton, that undergirded the entire British Empire in the 19th Century. Williams puts it thus: “The commercial capitalism of the 18th century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly.” More than that, plantation slavery not only required constant renewing of its labor force (hence the encouragement of slaves to reproduce), but also constant expansion of the cultivated land—for the simple reason that slave-worked land wore out astonishingly fast since slaves had no incentive to husband the soil they worked. That legacy remains today in the tendency of capitalism to ‘externalize’ its costs, to expropriate life itself, and thus to lay waste to the very resources upon which it and all economic activity depends.
This is something to think about when we consider the critical role of capital in our time. Capitalism, as Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century) has recently reminded us, eminently involves inherited wealth. The fortunes in profits made in the slave trade and the related slave plantations growing sugar, tobacco and cotton—fortunes possible only via the gross exploitation of humans considered expendable, commodifiable—not only provided that wealth initially, but literally constitute the history and background, indeed the prime ingredient of early capitalism in both England and the United States. As Balzac maintained, behind every great fortune, there is a great crime (his actual words, in Pere Goriot: “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a forgotten crime…”) And the corollary secret behind capitalism may well be said to be the buying and selling of living human beings known as slavery.