The West India interest

The following is a simplified exerpt from chapter 4 of the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams.

Absentee landlordism was the curse of the Caribbean and is still one of its major problems today. The explanation lay in the fact that the British landlords preferred to live in the UK.

In 1698 the West Indies were sending back annually to England about three hundred children to be educated, the difference being that the fathers went out poor and the children came back rich. Returned to England, the planters’ fondest wish was to acquire an estate, blend with the aristocracy, and remove the marks of their origin. Their colossal wealth permitted lavish expenditures which smacked of vulgarity and excited the envy and disapproval of the less opulent English arisocracy. The wealth of the West Indians became proverbial.

The strength of the West Indian planters was increased, too, by the large number of West Indian merchants who drew vast profits from the West Indian trade. The two groups did not always see eye to eye, but they were united by their shared need to strengthen the dykes of monopoly against the gathering torrent of free trade.

The combination of these two forces, planters and merchants, coupled with colonial agents in England, constituted the powerful West India interest of the eighteenth century. In the classic age of parliamentary corruption and electoral venality, their money talked. They bought votes and rotten boroughts and so got into Parliament. Their competition forced up the price of seats. The Earl of Chesterfield was laughed to scorn in 1767 when he offered £2,500 for a seat for which a West Indian would offer double. No private hereditary English fortune could resist this torrent of colonial gold and corruption.

To make assurance doubly sure the West Indians, like the slave traders, were entrenched not only in the lower house but also in the House of Lords, to defend their plantations and the social structure on which they rested. Passage from one house to another was easy, peerages were readily conferred in return for political support. There were few, if any, noble houses in England without a West Indian strain.

It was not only the mother of parliaments that the slave-owners dominated. Like their allies, the sugar merchants and slave traders, they were in evidence everywhere, as aldermen, mayors and councellors.

Allied with the other great monopolists of the eighteenth century, the landed aristocracy, and the commercial bourgeoisie of the seaport towns, they exerted a huge influence in the unreformed Parliament. They put up a determined resistance to abolition, emancipation, and the abrogation of their monopoly. They were always on the warpath to oppose any increase in the duties on sugar. The West India interest was the enfant terrible of English politics until American Independence struck the first great blow at mercantilism and monopoly.

It was the heyday of the power of the West India sugar interest. But in the new century and in the Reformed Parliament there appeared another powerful interest. It was the Lancashire cotton interest, and its slogan was not monopoly but laissez faire.