Some notes from chapter 6, ‘The American Revolution’ of the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams

In 1777 the Thirteen Colonies of North America declared their independence and formed the United States of America.

Flash back in time seven years to 1770, when the Thirteen Colonies were still part of the British Empire. They were ruled from Britain, with their laws decided by the English parliament.

At that time, the dominant political and economic belief system of the British ruling class was imperialism and mercantilism. Their goal was to take over the world, while making as much money through trade as possible. They didn’t consider this to be greedy or bullying, but on the contrary it was seen as a high and noble purpose. They believed that foreign lands would be better off as part of a British Empire which would bring wealth, civilization, and Christianity, even if the foreigners themselves were too backwards to realise it. They believed that profit, trade and wealth were of benefit to all of society, not just to the merchants who earned the profits and the government that collected the taxes. And Britain needed lots of wealth in order to militarily defeat its many enemies, to defend and expand its empire. Furthermore, they believed that God was on their side and that God wanted the British Empire to become as powerful and wealthy as possible in order to spread the light of Christianity around the world. As ridiculous as all that sounds, people really did believe it at the time.

According to this imperialist, mercantilist belief system, the purpose of British colonies was to enrich the mother country. The colonies were expected to remain loyal and subservient to Britain. International, profit-making trade was considered highly desirable, but trade should only happen within the empire, so that the benefits of trade would go to Britain and not to its enemies.

These ideas were put into practice through the British Navigation Laws. According to these laws, colonials were only allowed to sell or buy their products within the British Empire. Furthermore, colonials were not allowed to make and sell manufactured products; this was so that the colonies would act as markets for English manufactured goods, not as competitors.

(The Navigation Laws were called that because one of the benefits of trade within the British Empire was that it led British merchants to build a fleet of ships, and to train many sailors and ship-builders, all of which added greatly to Britain’s military strength, since in times of war the merchant ships could be temporarily added to the British navy. Thus trade, particularly over long distances, was directly linked to military might.)

The Thirteen Colonies of North America brought little money to the mother country. The cotton plantations that would later make the southern parts of the United States famously wealthy did not exist yet, because the cotton gin had not yet been invented. The northern colonies were full of farmers, merchants, fishermen, and seamen, but there were no big plantations with a single commodity crop grown for export. In other words, the northern colonies were full of people who were making a living, but not making a profit. The commodities that Britain’s North American colonies did export were mostly basic necessities of life: dried and pickled fish, oats, peas, beans, flour, butter and cheese, rice and onions; pine, oak, and cedar boards; staves and hoops; horses, sheep, hogs and poultry; soap and candles. Almost all of these were exported to the British colonies of the Caribbean, and thus the wealth, prosperity, and civilization of the North American colonies was largely derived from trade with the wealthy sugar colonies.

Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean were very different to the North American ones. The sugar island colonies of the Caribbean, such as Barbados and Jamaica, produced only sugar, molasses, and rum (which is made from molasses). Sugar was grown on huge plantations, owned by British landlords and worked by slaves from Africa. The sale of sugar was hugely profitable – so profitable that the plantation owners did not want to give over any of their precious farmland to any other crops. So the plantation owners bought all the necessities of life (and the luxuries as well) from the North American mainland colonies instead of producing what they needed locally. In return the North American colonies bought rum, molasses and sugar.

The Thirteen Colonies of North America brought little wealth to Britain. Even worse, with their exports of fish and agricultural products the North American colonies competed economically with England itself. By this competition England was losing, in sales and freights, two and a half million pounds sterling a year. For these reasons the sugar colonies were greatly valued by the British ruling classes, while the North American colonies were seen as coming a poor second. Some members of Britain’s ruling class questioned whether the North American colonies were worth having at all, and there were even some attempts to persuade all the British colonists in North America to leave – either to return to England, Scotland or Ireland, or to relocate to the sugar colonies of the Bahamas or Trinidad.

However, other members of the British ruling class held the view that it was best to allow the North American colonists to have the food trade with the sugar islands.

If the Northern colonies were squeezed out of the provisions trade, they would be unable to pay for British manufactures, the export of which was more valuable to England than the export of agricultural commodities and salted meat. What was much worse, the colonists might thereby be tempted to develop their own industries. Better then that they should have the food trade… the New England colonies became “the key to the Indies” without which the islands would have been unable to feed themselves except by a diversion of profitable sugar land to food crops, to the detriment not only of New England farmers but British shipping, British sugar refining, and the customs revenue, glory and grandeur of England.

British sugar exporters had a monopoly of the British market. Over time the price of British sugar came to be much higher than the price of French sugar in Europe. There were several reasons for this:

– The British sugar plantation owners had no desire to bring more land under cultivation, even though there was more land available, because if they produced more sugar the price of sugar would go down, leaving them no better off than before.

– – British sugar plantation owners vehemently opposed the idea of establishing new sugar colonies, since this would have led to lower sugar prices within the British Empire and thus less profit for them.

– – The British sugar plantations were often poorly managed because their owners lived far away in England.

– – Sugar cultivation in the newly colonised islands was not ecologically sustainable; with each growing season more nutrients were taken from the land than were put back through the addition of fertiliser, so over time sugar plantations became less productive. (This was known at the time as ‘soil exhaustion’). For this reason the newer French sugar plantations were much more productive than the longer-established English ones.

Since Britain and France were more or less continuously at war during this period, it would have been natural for the British to want to take over the more-productive French sugar colonies through military conquest, but this idea was opposed by the British plantation owners, who wanted the French colonies not to be captured and taken over, but to be destroyed.

The governor of Jamaica wrote in 1748 that unless French Saint Domingue was destroyed during the war, it would, on the return of peace, ruin the British sugar colonies by the quality and cheapness of its production.

The Seven Years War, 1756–1763, was a bloody and senseless conflict that spanned five continents and involved all the Great Powers of the time. During the war Britain had captured Cuba from Spain and Guadeloupe from France. However after the war was over Britain did something that did not seem to make any sense at all: it traded Cuba and Guadeloupe for Florida and Canada, respectively.

From the point of view of Britain’s self-professed belief in mercantilism and imperialism, this decision made absolutely no sense whatsoever, because Guadeloupe was an extremely productive and profitable sugar-producing colony, while Canada was mainly known for its fur trade, which was worth little by comparison.

The reason this decision was made is simply that the British West India interest pushed for it. The British owners of sugar plantations in the Caribbean didn’t want any new British sugar plantations competing with them to sell sugar to the British market. Adding the productive and profitable sugar-producing island of Guadeloupe to the British empire might have been good for Britain as a whole, but it would have been bad for the existing British owners of sugar plantations. These sugar barons were wealthy, powerful, and influential, and so they were able to get what they wanted.

However getting Guadeloupe ejected from the British Empire did not have the results that the British sugar barons had hoped for: the North American colonists increasingly took to buying cheaper French sugar on the black market. The Molasses Act of 1733 had imposed high taxes on foreign sugar and molasses, but it proved impossible to enforce; customs officials would accept bribes in return for failing to collect the tax.

This ongoing conflict over taxes led to a growing feeling among the North American colonists that they were a people in their own right, with their own interests, and separate from Britain.

The Sugar Duties Act of 1764 lowered the duties, but the British parliament insisted that the taxes must actually be collected. Then in 1765 the British passed the Stamp Act, which imposed additional taxes on the North American colonies. The purpose of the tax was to pay for the recently ended Seven Years’ war, and to maintain a large garrison of British troops in North America – troops that the colonists did not actually need or want. The Stamp Act was extremely unpopular in the North American colonies, and it led to the American Revolution. Thus the American Independence was caused not by political differences between the colonials and the mother country, but economic ones.

It was economic, not political, bands that were being broken. A new age had begun. The year 1776 marked the Declaration of Independence and the publication of the Wealth of Nations… American independence destroyed the mercantile system and discredited the old regime. Coinciding with the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, it stimulated that growing feeling of disgust for the colonial system which Adam Smith was voicing and which rose to a veritable crescendo of denunciation at the height of the free trade era.

Thereafter many of the British sugar planters, whose profits were already in decline, went bankrupt, and they abandoned their slaves to hunger and death. In Jamaica 15,000 slaves died of starvation between 1780 and 1787.