The Foundations of Slavery and Antislavery

  • Seymour Drescher


For almost a century and a half the history of British antislavery was the story of its leaders. Abolitionist historiography remained serenely ensconced within the framework of Thomas Clarkson’s first narrative of the movement in 1808. Overcoming an entrenched economic interest, the abolitionist ‘Saints’ won a series of victories for humanity over brutal materialism and exploitation. Antislavery was the quintessential example of the Whig interpretation of history: a progressive political narrative more closely interwoven with religious than with economic or social development.


Eighteenth Century Slave System Slave Trade Slave Labour African Slave 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
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  30. Chapters 4 and 5. I compared editions of William Guthrie’s A New Geographical, Historical and Commercial Dictionary (London, 1771, 1779, 1787, 1790, 1795, 1806, 1808, 1819 and 1843). The coverage of Sierra Leone expanded dramatically in the 1795 edition but contracted again by the 1819 edition. Gustavus Vassa (Olau-dah Equiano) wote an early rejoinder to Lord Sydney’s use of Sierra Leone as an argument in favour of the African slave trade (Public Advertiser, 28 June 1788). In 1791 Clarkson was predicting an African trade through Sierra Leone with 50 000 000 consumers within five years. Salop Record Office, Plymly Diaries, 20 October 1791. Sierra Leone’s difficulties soon became a sore point for abolitionists. The Philanthropist, a vigorously abolitionist periodical, wrote of Sierra Leone in 1816 that ‘Africa had not been energized, and habituated to husbandry’ (VI, 297). See also Chapter 6, note 84, below.Google Scholar
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    See the ‘prefaces’ to the African section of Guthrie’s geographies from 1771 to 1819. Guthrie’s book was declared to be the most widely read geography of the 1780s. (John Lettsom, Some Account of the late John Fothergill, M.D., (London, 1783), xcii.) My own analysis of space devoted to Africa in British popular geographies between 1680 and 1830 shows very little variation around a low percentage of the total. In France, the African sections of geographical works from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries was also limited to between 6 and 8 per cent, and there was no upward trend whatever during the eighteenth century.Google Scholar
  32. William B. Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks 1530–1880 (Bloomington, 1980), 7, 262, 292, perceives a fundamental perceptual continuity about Africa in France. Peter J. Marshall and Gwynn Williams also note the lack of any fundamental change in attitudes towards indigenous Africans before 1800: The Great Map of Mankind: Perceptions of New Worlds in the Age of Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), 251.Google Scholar
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    Drescher, Econocide, 83–4; Ralph Davis, The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade (Leicester, 1979), 112–21. As late as 1835, 88 per cent of British raw cotton came from slave-labour areas of the Americas. I estimate the ‘slave’ share of British cotton by considering all imports of Eurasian and African origin as free. Some of this cotton, designated as from Northern Europe or Africa, might well have derived from slave labour.Google Scholar
  36. 21.
    S. Engerman, ‘Contract Labor, Sugar, and Technology in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Economic History, 43, 3 (September 1983), 635–59. Estimate derived from p. 642, Table I, on intercontinental flows of contract labour, 1838–1922.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 22.
    J. R. Ward, ‘The Profitability and Viability of British West Indian Plantation Slavery, 1807–1834’, unpublished paper given at the University of London, February 1979.Google Scholar
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    William H. McNeill, ‘Slavery as a Moral Ambiguity’, a review of Slavery and Human Progress, in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 5 November 1984, 34;Google Scholar
  39. E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England: A Reconstruction (Cambridge, 1982), 218–21, Table 7.1 and Figure 7.5. Nor can one shift from objective data to a ‘subjective’ Malthusianism in attempting to explain the great abolitionist watershed of 1760–90. Moreover,Google Scholar
  40. see Bernard Bailyn, ‘The Challenge of Modern Historiography’, American Historical Review, 87, 1 (February 1982), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. In the 1770s Scottish and Irish absentee landlords in high office in London were shaping imperial policy based on the fear that their domains would be depopulated ‘by the extension of settlement in America, threatening their own economic stability’ (ibid., 15).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 24.
    In the 1780s capitalists in the Austrian Netherlands attempted to retain their foothold in the slave trade created by the Anglo-French conflict over American Independence. There was also a flow of capital from the same region into the French slave system (Belgian National Archives, Brussels, Archives du Comité du Commerce, 180, no. 2150–3, report concerning the influence of the Peace of 1783 on the commerce of Ostend with the French slave islands and the African coast). The Ostend merchants wanted the Emperor to acquire Tobago, Curacao, or some foothold in Guiana, to be used as a slave entrepôt. See also the reports of Cte Charles de Proli, of Antwerp; the widow of Vanschoor and son, of Brussels; Heries, a merchant of Ostend; Sr Du Roissi’s report on the possibilities of entering the West Indian trade; and the report of the ‘Comité du 6 fevrier 1783’, on permission to ship slaves to the French Windward Islands until August 1786. Other European merchants were also interested in entering the Atlantic slave system. In 1786, a Tuscan company planned to trade with America and the West Indies from Leghorn, Italy. (General Advertiser 17 March 1786). At the end of the same year the King of Sweden chartered a new company of merchants trading to the West Indies via the island of St Bartholomew (Morning Chronicle, 2 January 1787) while a new company of Dutch merchants was formed at The Hague for trading with new areas of Africa (London Chronicle, 24–7 February 1787). Hanover became a growing centre for the exportation of clothes and lumber to the slave islands (see a letter dated Ostend, 2 July 1787, published in the London Chronicle, 11–13 July 1787, and General Advertiser, 15 July 1787). The Spanish showed renewed interest in entering the slave trade and the French trade considerably expanded. On the latter see Robert Louis Stein, The French Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century (Madison, 1979), 13–42. Not since the late seventeenth century did there seem to be so many interested newcomers. The British were also optimistic about enlarged opportunities in the slave system on the eve of the age of abolitionism (Drescher, Econocide, Chapters 3, 4). A new enterprise for enlarging the African slave trade was advertised (Morning Chronicle, 27 February 1786) the same day that the Public Advertiser reminded its readers that almost three million acres remained to be developed on Jamaica. About 48 per cent of the patented lands were still uncultivated in 1790 (Diary of 16 February 1790). The late eighteenth century also witnessed a rise in slaving in South-east Asia. It was related to the rising consumption of tea in Europe.Google Scholar
  43. See James Francis Warren, The Sulu Zone 1768–1898 (Singapore, 1981).Google Scholar
  44. 25.
    This point is made by K. G. Davies, The North Atlantic World in the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis, 1974), Chapter 2;Google Scholar
  45. Ralph Davis, The Rise of the Atlantic Economies (London, 1973), Chapter 8. For the continuity of old and New World slavery,Google Scholar
  46. see Charles Verlinden, The Beginnings of Modern Colonization: Eleven Essays with an Introduction, transl. Yvone Freccero (Ithaca, New York, 1970), 80–97;Google Scholar
  47. Sidney M. Greenfield, ‘Plantations, Sugar Cane and Slavery’, in Michael Craton (ed.), Roots and Branches: Current Directions in Slave Studies (Toronto, 1979), 85–119, and most recently, David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress Chapter 4.Google Scholar
  48. 26.
    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism (New York, 1983), 12–13. Eugene Genovese exaggerates the parallelism in the evolution of ‘seigneurial’ Europe and slave-holding America in The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (New York, 1969), Pt. I. It is the autonomy of American slaveries, despite the variety of European social systems to which they were attached, which is their striking structural feature. (See Davies, North Atlantic World, 109). The shift towards the flexibility of merchant capital in their more recent Fruits of Merchant Capital is more attuned to this feature. Their emphasis on the correlation of New World slavery with pre-bourgeois European social systems, however, leaves the British case as an outstanding paradox. Why did an already ‘bourgeois’ English society construct a new colonial slave-labour system after 1660 which was larger by 1760 than those of any seigneurial European power?Google Scholar
  49. 27.
    One aspect of this argument has been outlined in S. Drescher, ‘Capitalism and abolition: values and forces in Britain, 1783–1814’, in Anstey and Hair, Liverpool, The African Slave Trade, 167–95. For a discussion of the moral ‘tremors’ created by New World slavery, see also David Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, 1966), Chapter 4.Google Scholar
  50. On slavery in South-east Asia, see Anthony Reid (ed.), Slavery, Bondage and Dependency in Southeast Asia (St Lucia, Queensland, 1983), 18.Google Scholar
  51. 28.
    Shelby T. McCloy, The Negro in France (Lexington, Kentucky, 1961), Chapters 2 and 3. Slavery was certainly legally recognized in sixteenth-century Antwerp. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, ‘the Slaves which the Spaniards bring with them into Flanders are Free upon their arrival, as has been adjudged by the Grand Council of State at Mechlin’.Google Scholar
  52. (Anthony Hill, Afer Baptizatus: or, the Negro Turn’d Christian (London, 1702), 44.) This was the result of ‘particular Customs and Provincial Councils’.Google Scholar
  53. Every country has to be ‘left to the Liberty of its Constitution’, (ibid., 45).Google Scholar
  54. 29.
    Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, Chapter 4; Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York, 1985); Greenfield, ‘Plantations, Sugar Cane and Slavery’, 85–119;Google Scholar
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  56. Colin A. Palmer, Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570–1650 (Cambridge, Mass., 1976);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  63. A. C. DE C. M. Saunders, A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal 1441–1555 (Cambridge, 1982), Chapter 2. The Spaniards restricted the importation of slaves from North Africa, the Levant and Spain into America for reasons of social control.Google Scholar
  64. Joseph de Veitia, The Spanish Rule of Trade to the West Indies (London, 1702), 154–5. The Portuguese legislation of 1773, which provided for the emancipation of slaves imported into the metropolis, was an attempt to bring Portugal into alignment with the ‘modern states’ of Europe c. 1770. It belatedly affirmed the Northern European distinction between metropolitan and colonial labour systems. Jose Calvet de Magalhaes, Historia do Pensamento Economico em Portugal: De Idade-media ao mercantilismo (Coimbra, 1967), 376–85.Google Scholar
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    See Howell’s State Trials, 33 vols (London, 1814), 20, no. 548, The Case of James Somersett, 59 and note. In the 1660s the States-General ordered their admirals to sell all captured Mediterranean pirates into slavery. Cornelius van Bynkershoek, Quaestionum Juris Publici Libri Duo, 2 vols, transl. of the 1737 edition by Tenney Frank (Oxford, 1930), 2, 28. In his first work on slavery D. B. Davis referred to, but did not develop, a dichotomy between a Europe increasingly devoted to liberty and a mercantilist system based on Negro labor in America’ (Problem of Slavery, 108). Moreover, his most recent work even more emphatically favours the continuity rather than the dissimilarity between early modern Europe and America. Davis draws his dividing line in the history of slavery’ not so much between Old World and New as between the standards and expections of two eras… It is easy to miss the simple fact that Europeans behaved in the Caribbean much as they had behaved in the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. To the Caribbean and South America, they simply transferred customary patterns of piracy, banditry, plunder, cruelty and ruthless reprisals, along with slavery (Slavery and Human Progress, 69–70.) This sets aside a crucial discontinuity in the early modern period between North-western Europe on the one hand, and the circum-Mediterranean world on the other. Slavery and the slave trade simply did not follow the expansion of trade routes to Northern Europe in the fifteenth century.Google Scholar
  66. Davis notes that Madeira was an entrepôt where merchants of North-western Europe mingled freely with slave traders (ibid., 63). Yet there is no evidence that slaves moved northwards to England along this route during the late fifteenth century, at a time when England was still recovering from its earlier demographic losses. The Scottish reduction of their colliers and salters to virtual slavery during the seventeenth century forms an interesting contrast to the general trend in England, the Netherlands and France and shows similarities to the process of second enserfment in Eastern Europe. See ‘Slavery in Modern Scotland’, Edinburgh Review 387(1899), 119–148. Enslavement, however, was exceptional to the norm and Adam Smith considered that a Negro servant, coming to Scotland, was a freeman while there.Google Scholar
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  71. Cohen concludes that the comparative lack of similar legislation in England seems to reveal a less profound level of racial hostility than was the case in France (ibid). The extent to which one should credit the presence or absence of ‘slave’ legislation in England to racial hostility is debatable. It may simply have been easier for colonials to obtain such legislative action in an absolute monarchy.Google Scholar
  72. 34.
    Charles Leslie, A New History of Jamaica … In Thirteen letters, etc. (London, 1740), first letter. The shock of slave markets can be traced all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. See, for example, Lloyd’s Evening Post, 1–3 June 1767, 523;Google Scholar
  73. George Pinchard, Notes on the West Indies, 3 vols (London, 1806), 2, 216; Votes and Proceedings of the House of Commons, (1830–1831), petitions from Canterbury, Swindon, Accrington, Langarren, Oxford and Christchurch, etc. In the famous Somerset case, Counsel Mansfield conjured up the possibility of ‘slaves being sold in Britain in open market’, (The Craftsman, or Say’s Weekly Journal no. 720, 16 May 1772). There is one record of 11 blacks being offered for sale in Liverpool, in September 1766. This would seem to indicate that in England’s chief slaving port, that exceptional event took place without any local public outcry. Blacks were almost always sold singly or in pairs in Bristol or London.Google Scholar
  74. See Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Great Britain (London and Sydney, 1984), 58–64. For the radical Thomas Spence, the great divide between classical antiquity and contemporary Britain was also that in the earlier period great numbers ‘were bought and sold like cattle’. The Important Trial of Thomas Spence on May 27, 1801 (2nd ed., London, 1807), preface, 30. The shame of such sales was embedded in English children’s literature even before the second half of the eighteenth century.Google Scholar
  75. See John Newbery, Circle of the Sciences, 7 vols 1748, 6, 250. In Ireland, the first and most shocking image of colonial slaves was of ‘wretches’ whom ‘fate had doomed to be sold in the common market, like so many herd of black cattle’, Dublin Evening Post, 17 January 1788. The critical factor in all such reactions was the presumed variance of such practices from everyday metropolitan norms. Generations before the abolitionist propaganda campaigns of the late eighteenth century the wholesale marketing practices of the slave trade were apparently a yardstick of shocking behaviour. When English orphan parish apprentices were brought northwards to Lancashire in large numbers to feed the expanding cotton trade in the early 1770s, the check weavers reflexively compared their plight to that of blacks in the Americas.Google Scholar
  76. (A. P. Wadsworth and J. de L. Mann, The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire 1600–1780 (Manchester 1931, reprinted 1965), 407.) The slave merchants of Liverpool never developed a branch of their African trade to Lancashire in response to the labour shortages of that booming region.Google Scholar
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  80. The distaste for the buying and selling ‘of our own species as our wealth and possessions’ was reflected in Thomas Tryon’s Friendly Advice to the Gentlemen-Planters of the East and West Indies (1684), 82. One superficial analogue to slave trading which did not unduly bother most contemporaries was wife selling. On 27 November 1787 the York Courant indignantly denounced the implements of the ‘Negro trade’ displayed at Liverpool. In the following issue (4 December) the same newspaper amusedly described a wife sale in a local market. The great difference was, of course, the voluntary nature of the exchange: the wife ‘was happy to think that she was going to have another Husband, for she well knew who would be the Purchaser. When they came to the Place, Goward [the husband] embraced his wife, and wished her well, upon which she returned the compliment’.Google Scholar
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  86. Morgan Godwyn drew the same distinction in Trade preferr’d before Religion and Christ made to give place to Mammon, first preached at Westminster-Abbey, and afterwards in divers Churches (London, 1685). The slave trade in Java was resigned to those ‘remote parts where men may perhaps supposed to act as they please, without control’ (p. 3).Google Scholar
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    The one sixteenth-century attempt to restore slavery as a form of labour discipline could not be enforced. See C. S. L. Davies, ‘Slavery and Protector Somerset: The Vagrancy Act of 1547’, Economic History Review, 1–3 (1966), 533–49, esp. 545 ff. In The Commonwealth of England (London, 1601), 139, Thomas Smith wrote of scruples against bondage and bondmen: This persuasion ... of Christians, not to make nor keep his brother in Christ servile, bond, and underling for ever unto him, as a beast rather than as a man, [is]… engendered through Realmes (not neere to Turkes and Barbarians)’. Note the geographical distinction even within the zone of old world Christianity, described in note 34, above. Early advocates for Britain as a zone of freedom were fully aware of ‘local exceptions’ in the Scottish mines. See Sharp’s A Representation of the… Dangerous Tendency, 159–60, and his correspondence with Henry Douglas, 15, 21 December 1772, (in York Minster Library, Granville Sharp Letterbook).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  91. Jonathan Carver, The New Universal Traveller (London, 1779), 499. The claim was a commonplace in newspapers, letters, poems and sermons. Britons were attuned to casual comparisons like these in a sermon preached at the High Church in Hull in January 1779: ‘The wretched, the crouching Slavery of France, of Spain, of Prussia, Germany, Turkey and Morocco, of which an Englishmen cannot speak but with indignation and horror’, etc. The ‘equal liberty of England’ was lodged in each Englishman’s breast, and obedience was due first to God, then country, then the law, and finally the King. The Duty and Character of a National Soldier (London, 1779), 30, 34. The absence of liberty was the distinguishing characteristic of other societies and continents: ‘Nor is mention to be found in the whole annals of Asia, of a people that ever formed a resolution of asserting their rights to liberty’ (Carver, The New Universal Traveller, introduction to ‘Asia’). Slavery was not colour-coded in the British pre-abolitionist world. For a scathing description of Caucasian slave trading among Christian Georgians, see W. F. Martyn, Geographical Magazine, 1, 70. Even children ‘were exposed like beasts to the highest bidder to gratify avarice’.Google Scholar
  92. Caucasian women, like African, could be described as ‘libidinous’, ibid., 73).Google Scholar
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  97. ibid. (edn of 1789), 138; Geography for Youth (London, 1790), 82; Geography Epitomised, 23; Geography Made Easy for Children (London, 1793), 83;Google Scholar
  98. D. Fenning and J. Collyer (revised by Frederick Hervey), A New System of Geography, 2 vols (London, 1785), 2, 57–8;Google Scholar
  99. Evan Lloyd, A Plain System of Geography (Edinburgh, 1797), 87; Newbery, Circle of the Sciences, IV, 142; For the beginning of the century, in addition to Patrick Gordon, see Moll, A New System of Geography, 364;Google Scholar
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  101. ibid. (1700), 83; Thesaurus Geographicus, 349. For mid-century,Google Scholar
  102. see Bowen, A Complete System of Geography, 2 vols (London, 1747), 1, 979. Carver, The Beauties of Nature and Art 9, 57. ‘Abject slavery’ was equally characteristic of the Russians The Manchester Mercury, 18 February 1772 and The Public Advertiser, 4 May 1787. One could skip lightly from white to brown to black slavery in a few couplets of Geography Epitomised: Poland: ‘The Jews at two millions are rated and more Her Nobles are tyrants — their Slaves are the poor’. Tartary: ‘Her absolute Despots by Slaves are rever’d Whose voice like the voice of the Lion is feared.’ Guinea: ‘For war crimes, alas! have the Men here we find Been doomed to be Slaves for the rest of mankind!’Google Scholar
  103. 41.
    [Arthur Young] Political Essays Concerning the Present State of the British Empirè (London, 1772), 20–1.Google Scholar
  104. Adam Smith, Lectures on Juris-pondence, R. L. Meek et al. (eds) (Oxford, 1978), 186–7. The same ratio was accepted in the newspapers at the onset of political abolitionism.Google Scholar
  105. See also William Knox, Three Tracts Respecting Conversion (London, 1767, 1780), 19–20. In the famous Somerset case, counsel for the master opened his argument with the observation that slavery was widely accepted in three-quarters of the world and sanctioned even in Europe.Google Scholar
  106. 42.
    The early distinction seems clear in Charles Molloy, De Jure Maritimo et Navali; or, a Treatise of Affairs Maritime and of Commerce, 3rd edn enlarged (London, 1682), 335–6: Though Slavery and Bondage are now become discontinued in most parts of Christendom, and to that degree, that for the person of a man be he More or other Indian, a Trover is not maintainable by the laws of England’, yet there may be a servitude which may amount to a labour or suffering equal to that of Captives’, etc. To this was appended an explanatory note: The English Merchants and others at the Canaries do here support this unnatural Custom. So likewise at Virginia and other Plantations.’ Note the geographical delineation and the adjective implying its ‘unnatural’ status.Google Scholar
  107. The sea was clearly in Molloy’s mind when he spoke of ‘our floating and circumstantiated [human] laws’ in contrast to the uniformity of laws of natural phenomena (ibid., 428). Alongside an account of the revolt of African slaves in Jamaica, newspaper readers would find an item on 200 European slaves redeemed from North Africa (see The Public Advertiser, 25 June 1760). For a report on the enslavement and sale of a Liverpudlian on the Barbary Coast, see the Gazetteer, 14 April 1772. On the eve of political abolitionism there were regular accounts of prices demanded for European slaves in North Africa and of the public sale of hundreds of Europeans at a place as near as Belgrade. London Chronicle 27–9 July, 29 July-1 August, 1786; Morning Chronicle, 1 August 1786). Algerian pirates were cruising as far afield as the West Indies for Americans (Morning Herald, 9 August 1786; Morning Chronicle, 15 August 1786; Public Advertiser, 24 June 1786) and seizing the subjects of the Pope and of the princes of Europe in the Mediterranean (Morning Herald, 1 June 1787). Algerian raiders, captured by an English-led force at Madiera, were likewise routinely sold as slaves on that island in 1787 (Morning Chronicle, 4 May 1787). A British captain might still be taken into an African town and flogged (Journal of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations from January 1776-May 1782 (London, 1938), 133). As late as 1830 Russian ships were plying the Caucasian slave trade to Constantinople (Sheffield Iris, 19 October 1830).Google Scholar
  108. 43.
    Halley’s Atlas Maritimus and Commercialis (London, 1728), was a handsomely bound volume with a list of 500 subscribers. Among the sponsors were Sir Robert Walpole, William Pitt, James Oglethorpe, 50 peers and dozens of honorables and esquires, with merchants, booksellers and watchmakers filling out the rank and file. Its tone was generally calm and judicious but the description of Africa began with “tis the worst peopled of any part of the World great or small’. It ended with the famous line: They barter baubles for the Souls of Men’ (237). Bartering was the major stress point from the beginning. In 1685 Morgan Godwyn wrote: ‘And here, to omit all enquiry into the Equity and Right of the first purchase, where Parents do sell their Children, Husbands their Wives, Brothers their Sisters ... I shall not stand to enquire how agreeable to Christianity… nor how suitable the pretence of Trade and Commerce is to that undergoing of the Cross and of self-denial.’ See Godwyn, Trade Preferr’d, 17, 19. There was a frequent recognition that the slave trade was an ‘uncommon’ market: ‘This trade seems inhuman to those who do not know that these poor people are idolators or Mohammedans’, etc. See Jacques Savary, Le parfait Negociant ou instruction générale pour ce qui regarde le Commerce de toute sorte de Marchandises (Geneva, 1676), Part 2, Chapter 54, 254–6. See also note 65 below.Google Scholar
  109. 44.
    See Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford, 1976), 206;Google Scholar
  110. Josiah Child, A New Discourse of Trade (London, 1698), 183;Google Scholar
  111. J. Oldmixon, The British Empire in America (London, 1708);Google Scholar
  112. Patrick Browne, The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica (London, 1756), 23; Public Advertiser, 12 September 1786. In 1680 Morgan Godwyn referred to the planters as ‘degenerated English’ in possessions formed, ‘as it were, in the dark’, freed of scruples and prompted by an avarice equalled only by Holland ‘whose religion is also governed by their trade’.Google Scholar
  113. Godwyn The Negro’s and Indians Advocate (London, 1780), 2–3. West Indians refusing to baptize slaves in England were a ‘leprosy’, ‘crossing the seas to Europe’ (Godwyn, Trade Preferr’d, 3). ‘And tho such Practices may seem strange to People in England, yet the same Persons going thither are suddenly changed, so that they make nothing of it.’ (Godwyn, The Negro’s, 13.) Samuel Johnson was especially scathing towards those living beyond the line. After the death of a Jamaican acquaintance he was reported as observing that the man ‘would not suffer much by the change, for he was gone to a place where he would find very little difference between either the climate or the inhabitants’ (Public Advertiser, 12 September 1786).Google Scholar
  114. 45.
    Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1982), 101, citing Josiah Tucker. See also Some Observations which may contribute to afford a just idea of the Nature, Importance and Settlement of Our New West-Indian Colonies (London, 1764), Sec. II, 10–13, describing the English poor as dreading ‘adventure’ into the West Indies. ‘These islands are not the promised land of milk and honey.’Google Scholar
  115. 49.
    William Playfair, The Commercial and Political Atlas (London, 1786), section on Africa, and 31, 65–8, 92.Google Scholar
  116. John Hamilton Moore’s New and Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels, 2 vols (London, 1780), 2, 729–30, described the slave trade as ‘a triumph of avarice over the laws of humanity’. The British West Indies were ‘almost necessary for the existence of our commerce’.Google Scholar
  117. For Carver, The New Universal Traveller, 143, the African slave trade was also the ‘disgrace of humanity’,Google Scholar
  118. but Georgia’s attempt to exclude slavery was an ‘error’ corrected by overseas experience (ibid., 607). Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary. (London, 1774), art. Africa, speculated on the possibility of substituting civilization for slavery but finally reflected, ‘We must, however, at present take the state of the trade as it stands.’ As it stood, it was as good as any in Postlethwayt’s Dictionary. See also his National and Private Advantages of the African Trade Considered, 2nd edn (London, 1772), 4–5.Google Scholar
  119. 51.
    For Godwyn, the African slave market itself was proof of the humanity and intelligence of Africans: ‘How should they otherwise be capable of Trades and no less Manly employments?’ (The Negro’s, 13). See also Lewis Roberts, The Merchant’s Map of Commerce (London, 1677), 77.Google Scholar
  120. A Century Later, William Frederick Martyn’s The Geographical Magazine, 2 vols (London, 1785), 664, described the growing African use of credit systems in the slave trade. The inhabitants of Whydah were compared to the Chinese in industry, ingenuity and desire for wealth. Given their illiteracy, they showed a genius for figures beyond that of Europeans.Google Scholar
  121. Negroland’s Sherbros were generous, friendly, assiduous, and neat (ibid., 659, 680). On the basis of their market behaviour many groups of Africans were accorded admiring recognition. On trading as evidence of African intellectual capacity,Google Scholar
  122. see also Richard Morgan Kain, ‘Primitivism, The Theory of Equality, and the Idea of Progress in English Anti-Slavery Literature, 1772–1808’, PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1934, 31. Liverpudlians were equally ready to testify in this respect. See PRO BT 6/9, Privy Council Hearings on the Slave Trade, f. 266, Examination of James Penny, Liverpool delegate, 6 March 1788; Leeds Mercury, 30 October 1830.Google Scholar
  123. 52.
    See Philip D. Curtin, Economic Change in Pre-colonial Africa: Sene-gambia in the Era of the Slave Trade 2 vols (Madison, 1975), 1, Chapter 3.Google Scholar
  124. 56.
    Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, 4 vols (Washington, 1930–5), I, 88. (my emphasis).Google Scholar
  125. 57.
    House of Lords Record Office, 6 May 1806, petition of merchants, ship owners and manufacturers of Liverpool in the slave trade, cited in Drescher, Econocide, 137–8. For direct linkages of the African trade with the free trade ideology see, inter alia, [William Wood] A Survey of Trade, in Four Parts (London, 1718), 180–1, 191, 260;Google Scholar
  126. John Carey, An Essay on the State of England in relation to its Trade (Bristol, 1695), 71, andGoogle Scholar
  127. The West India Merchant (London, 1778), 98. See also a copy of Earl Westmoreland’s speech against the abolition of the foreign slave trade in May 1806: The only positive effect… [will be] the prevention, not of the supply of those colonies with Negroes, but of a number of British subjects from employing their capital in a particular way… Experience has shown that legislative attempts to circumscribe capital, are generally fruitless. Capital is not of a nature to be hedged in.’ (PRO T 70/1585, Westmoreland’s speech, 8.) A Scottish poem of 1697 summed up the early marriage of free trade, free labour and free slave trading as well as any: Trade needs no fertile acres for support, Wherever Freedom lives it makes its Court, And only craves a safe and open Port. Free Trade will give, and teach us how to use, Instruct us what to take and what refuse, To that [new land] the weary labourer may go, and gain an easie Wealth in doing so, Small use of tiresome labour will be there, That Clyme richly rewards a little Care, There every Man may choose a pleasant Seat, Which poor Men will make rich and rich Men Great. Black Slaves like bussie Bees will plant them Canes, Have juice more sweet than Honey in their Veins. By Manufactures here the Poor will live, So they that go and they that stay will thrive (From a Poem upon the Undertaking of the Royal Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, Edinburgh, 1697).Google Scholar
  128. 59.
    Ibid., 233–54. For the most closely reasoned analysis of this hypothesis see Thomas L. Haskell, ‘Capitalism and the Origins’, 339–61. Haskell argues for a ‘threshold’ effect of capitalism on ‘exceptionally scrupulous individuals’ in ‘the particular circumstances’ of late eighteenth-century Anglo-America. However, since the market was rewarding capitalist-cum-slavery causal perceptions in the tropics throughout the century before 1790 and the half-century thereafter, it remains unclear to what extent the argument from the market to antislavery explains the less exceptional political and social support of abolition. For a description of Liverpool’s three-year revolving credit and discounting system, see James Wallace, A General and Descriptive History of … the Town of Liverpool … together with … its extensive African Trade (Liverpool, 1794), 232–3. For ordinary people the market presumably cut both ways in the particular circumstances of late eighteenth-century Anglo-America. In Jonas Hanway’s circle, ‘many merchants’ held the slave in contempt (Distribution, Justice and Mercy, London, 1781, 133). On the other hand John Newton had no scruples about beginning his slave trading career: Letters (Edinburgh, 1781), 74, 95.Google Scholar
  129. 60.
    R. Anstey, ‘The Volume and Profitability of the British Slave Trade, 1761–1807’, in Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies, Stanley Engerman and Eugene D. Genovese (eds), (Princeton, 1974), 3–31; R. Anstey, ‘The Profitability of the Slave Trade in the 1840’s’, in Rubin and Tuden, Comparative Perspectives, 84–93; and essays by W. E. Minchinton, David Richardson and Barry Drake in Anstey and Hair, Liverpool, The African Slave Trade.Google Scholar
  130. 61.
    For Dalby Thomas, the only liberty in question for the West Indies was the traders’ and planters’ ‘full liberty to buy Blacks at the best market they can’, saving the Navigation Act restrictions. An Historical Account of the Rise and Growth of the West India Colonies (London, 1690), 39, 51. On the suggested extension of slave plantations to Africa see [Daniel Defoe], A Plan of English Commerce (London, 1728), 328–37. Planners for the expansion of trade with Africa saw no difficulty in linking it with an increase in the slave trade. [M. Postlethwayt] The African Trade, The Great Pillar and Support of the Plantation Trade in General (London, 1745), 40–1.Google Scholar
  131. 64.
    Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vasa, written by himself, 2 vols (London, 1789); even its victims were not knowledgeable about all aspects of Africa or the slave trade. Vassa maintained that credit was not to be found in Africa. (See the letter of “Gustavus Vassa” in the Public Advertiser, 31 March 1788.) Vassa offered this in the belief that cash and barter would be more attractive to British manufacturers in the African trade.Google Scholar
  132. 65.
    Clarkson, History, I, 293. As early as the 1660s Richard Baxter unequivocally condemned the slave trade. To go as pirates and catch up poor Negros, or people of another land, that never forfeited life or liberty, and to make them slaves and sell them, is one of the worst kinds of theft in the world, and such persons are to be taken as the common enemies of mankind; and they that buy them and use them as beasts for their mere commodity, and betray or destroy, or neglect their souls, are fitter to be called incarnate Devils, than Christians. (Chapters from a Christian Directory, or a Summ of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience, J. Tawney (ed.) (London, 1925), reprint of an edition of 1673) Baxter’s words cut so clearly at the root of plantation slavery that his passage was quoted verbatim in abolitionist propaganda more than a century later. Yet even Baxter, whose position approached a total rejection of the ideological foundation of the capitalist slave trade, followed seventeenth-century form in bowing to the accomplished fact of slavery. A century later The Present State of the West Indies, including all Possessions (London, 1778), 11, similarly concluded: ‘This [slave] trade, to the disgrace of the age, has so deeply taken root, it is become as necessary to the present state of affairs, and our wants have justified it in a manner so absolute, that it is now almost a ridiculous common-place to cry out against the barbarity and cruelty of it.’ In 1780 Edmund Burke considered introducing a measure to mitigate and gradually abolish the slave trade. He abondoned the idea because of his sense of the strength of the slave interest.Google Scholar
  133. Robin Furneaux, William Wilberforce (London, 1974), 71.Google Scholar
  134. 66.
    David Davis and Robert Fogel have both recently asserted the existence of a general belief, before 1750, that slavery furthered ‘progress’. (Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, xvi, 5; Fogel, ‘Without Consent’, Chapter 7.) The belief is inferred from the fact that major civilizations from antiquity to the overseas empires of the eighteenth century tolerated or promoted slavery. One might perhaps draw a historical distinction between modern conceptions of human progress on the one hand and pre-enlightenment pragmatic assumptions about requisites of wealth or power for an empire or a religion on the other. Even in the narrower sense of material progress, British prosperity was never dependent upon British slavery or the slave trade. It’ would have been easier to eliminate British slavery in 1685 than in 1785’ (Drescher, Econocide, 183). No ‘vital national interest’, it is true, was endangered by abolition (Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, 335, note 121). But some historical paradoxes remain. ‘No single trade was crucial to the nations prosperity’. R. P. Thomas and D. N. McClosky, ‘Overseas trade and empire 1700–1860’, in Roderick Floud and Donald McClosky, The Economic History of Britain since 1700, 2 vols (Cambridge, 1981), 1, 87–102, esp. 100. This still brings us no closer to accounting for Britain’s beginning the destruction process at the end of the eighteenth rather than the end of the seventeenth century. Nor does it prompt one to ask why Britain completed the process before other states whose systems were far less vital to metropolitan prosperity and even less costly to dismantle.Google Scholar
  135. 67.
    The slave trade offered little ammunition for the ideologists of trade against the aristocratic-warrior ethic. Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph (Princeton, 1977), does not deal with this potentially intriguing example of eighteenth-century capitalism. This is probably because most exponents did not treat the African branch within their general observations on the nature of trade. Even for its most vigorous proponents, like Defoe and Postlethwayt, the slave trade was justified as a means to an approved end and not, as with commerce in general, as a self-evidently good activity. Or it required, as with Savary, a set of rationalizing arguments sui generis. Even in its heyday, it was an ‘uncommon market’. When the major political attack on the slave trade got under way, British slavery continued to be located within the orbit of commerce and capitalism, not of agrarian seigneurialism, or ‘feudalism’: if self-interest be the leading motive, as well as the ultimate end of all commercial systems, yet an appearance at least of reciprocal advantage, if not always the reality, is proposed by the contracting parties. In this point, however, as in most others, the Slave Trade has this demerit, by presenting no one benefit to the natives of Africa, in return for all the voilence and miseries it occasions (‘Africanus’ to the General Evening Post, 25–7 October 1787) See also letters III and IV of ‘Africanus’ to the Norwich Mercury (15, 25, August 1787). Writers rarely evoked ‘feudal’ rather than ‘mercantile’ images even of slave-owners. The West Indians were portrayed as entrepreneurs by friends and as speculators and ‘slave-driving capitalists’ by foes.Google Scholar
  136. See William Wilberforce, A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (London, 1807), 41, 177, 191, 288, and Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 4 January 1808, clipping in Friends House Library, Box H.Google Scholar
  137. 68.
    Nicholas Rogers, ‘London politics from Walpole to Pitt: patriotism and independency in an era of commercial imperialism, 1738–63’, PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 1974, 508–9,Google Scholar
  138. quoted by Robert W. Malcolmson, Life and Labour in England 1700–1780 (Hutchinson, 1981), 132, andGoogle Scholar
  139. Peter Fryer, Staying Power, 206.Google Scholar
  140. 69.
    On the ius gentium, see Hargrave’s speech, Howell’s State Trials, 20, no. 25. Locke is often cited in evidence of a modern philosophical defence of slavery as late as the end of the seventeenth century. Locke’s characterization of enslavement as private war perpetuated is set alongside his provision for slavery in the Constitution of Carolina and his participation in the African trade. Locke also clearly accepted both the fact and the legitimacy of English West Indian slavery. What is not clear is how such facts could be integrated into his political theory. Englishmen had no way of knowing whether their purchased Africans had, by their own fault, forfeited life by ‘some Act that deserves Death’ (Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett (ed.), Cambridge, 1970, 2, Sec. 23). Planter authority was neither contractual nor patriarchal.Google Scholar
  141. It was proprietary, as with their horses (ibid., 1, Sec. 130). The tension between slavery as a condition of war continued and as a condition of sale concluded was never addressed. At the Somerset trial Locke was cited only by Somerset’s counsel, in favour of liberty.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seymour Drescher
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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