Tag: Eric Williams

Images of black folks in England, 1600s and 1700s

This goes along with chapter 2 of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams (but is probably also interesting on its own).

Liverpool Town Hall

Before the Beatles, Liverpool was famous as an important port in Britain’s slave trade; it was the slave trade that built Liverpool up from an unimportant town to a thriving metropolis. A bust of a ‘blackamoor’, (a black person) symbolises the slave trade that brought Liverpool wealth and prominence.

A carving on the grey stone exterior of a buildingof a black man wearing an elaborate head dress, necklace and earrings

A business card of a gun maker in Bristol, England

It incorporates an image of a British gentleman (left), an enslaved black man (right) and the coat of arms of the British Empire (top center).

A (photo of a) rectangular card, clearly very old and drawn by hand, with the following text (in very fancy lettering): WM Heard Gunmaker No. 41 Redclift Street Briftol, makes Hunting, Coach and Double Barrel Guns, Blunderbufes, Pistols, etc. etc. on the most approv'd Construction. Merchants supply'd with Guns, & Stores, for the African, West India, & Newfoundland Trade as Cheap as any Warehouse in England.

Reward offered for the return of a runaway boy

A newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway ‘Negro Boy’. The text reads: A Negro Boy, his name Africa, by his growth feeming to be about 12 years old, he had a gray cloth Livery, the Lace mixed with black, white, and orange colors, fomewhat torn, a black large Cap, a Silver Ring in one of his ears, his hair newly clipped very clofe, fpeaks fome Englifh, Dutch, and Blacks. Run away from his Mafter the firft inftant Whofoever fhall fecure him, and give notice to Mr. Arnold (…illegible…) Barner in James Ftreet, Covent Garden, fhall have 20 s. Reward. The ad doesn’t make clear whether the boy is a slave or a free servant, but the fact that there is a reward for his return suggests he is viewed as property.



Britain’s Prime Minister considers abolishing the slave trade, 1783-1806

The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams, p145-148.

Saint Domingue [the French colony which would later become Haiti] was larger than any British colony, its soil was more fertile and less exhausted, hence its costs of [sugar] production were lower.

From the standpoint of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, this was the decisive factor. The age of the British sugar islands was over. The West Indian system [of producing sugar in plantations on island colonies in the Caribbean, using slave labour] was unprofitable, and the slave trade on which it rested, “instead of being advantageous to Great Britain… is the most destructive that can well be imagined to her interests.”

Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European [sugar] market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade which would ruin Saint Domingue. If not international abolition, then British abolition. The French were so dependent on British slave traders that even a unilateral abolition by England would seriously dislocate the economy of the French colonies.

Pitt’s plan failed, for two reasons:

1. The importation of sugar from India, on the scale planned, was impossible owing to the high duties [import taxes] imposed on all sugar not the produce of the British West Indies.

2. The French, Dutch and Spaniards refused to abolish the slave trade.

It was not difficult to see the political motives behind Pitt’s cloak of humanitarianism. Gaston-Martin, the well-known French historian of the slave trade and the Caribbean colonies, accuses Pitt of aiming by propaganda to free the slaves, “in the name no doubt of humanity, but also to ruin French commerce”. As Ramsay had admitted: “We may confidently conclude that the African [slave] trade is more confined in its utility than is generally imagined and that of late years it has contributed more to the aggrandisement of our rivals than of our national wealth.”

When war broke out with France in 1793, expedition after expedition was sent unsuccessfully to capture the precious colony of Saint Domingue, first from the French, then [after the slaves of Saint Domingue carried out a successful rebellion and drove out the French] from the Negroes. Britain lost thousands of men and spent thousands of pounds in the attempt to capture Saint Domingue. She failed, but the world’s sugar bowl was destroyed in the process and French colonial superiority smashed forever.

Pitt could not have had Saint Domingue and abolition as well. Without its 40,000 slave imports a year, Saint Domingue might as well have been at the bottom of the sea. [The treatment of slaves in the Caribbean was so brutal that they usually only survived a few years, and unlike slaves in the American South they did not have children; therefore in order to keep the sugar plantations running it was necessary to continually import new slaves from West Africa.] The very acceptance of the island meant logically the end of Pitt’s interest in abolition. Naturally he did not say so. He had already committed himself too far in the eyes of the public. He continued to speak in favour of abolition, even while giving every practical encouragement to the slave trade. Thereafter Pitt’s support of parliamentary motions for the abolition of the slave trade became nothing short of perfunctory. Under Pitt’s administration the British slave trade alone more than doubled, and Britain conquered two more sugar colonies [worked by slaves], Trinidad and British Guiana.

– excerpted from the book ‘Slavery and Capitalism’ by Eric Williams, p145-148.

A portrait of England in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution

The text of this post is exerpted from the book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams, p106.

In 1783 the shape of things to come was clearly visible. The steam engine’s potentialities were not an academic question. Sixty-six engines were in operation, two-thirds of these in mines and foundries. Improved methods of coal mining, combined with the influence of steam, resulted in a great expansion of the iron industry. Production increased four times between 1740 and 1788, and the number of furnaces rose by one-half. The iron bridge and the iron railroad had appeared; the Carron Works had been founded; and Wilkinson was already famous as “the father of the iron trade”.

An engraving showing the Newcomen steam engine, widely used in England in the 1700s to pump water out of coal mines. The engine is built into a small brick house or shed; a coal-fueled fire heats a boiler (a large metal tank filled with water); steam emerging under pressure from the top of the boiler drives a huge rocking beam. The beam’s motion in turn drives a water pump. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

Cotton, the queen of the Industrial Revolution, responded readily to the new inventions, unhampered as it was by the traditions and guild restrictions which impeded its older rival, wool. Laissez faire became a practice in the new industry long before it penetrated the text books as orthodox economic theory. The spinning jenny, the water frame, the mule, revolutionized the industry, which, as a result, showed a continuous upward trend. Between 1700 and 1780 imports of raw cotton increased more than three times, exports of cotton goods fifteen times. The population of Manchester increased by nearly one-half between 1757 and 1773, the numbers engaged in the cotton industry quadrupled between 1750 and 1785. Not only heavy industry, cotton, too – the two industries that were to dominate the period 1783-1850 – was gathering strength for the assault on the system of monopoly which had for so long been deemed essential to the existence and prosperity of both.

An early spinning jenny: a wooden frame with (in this example) 14 spindles of cotton along one end. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

The entire economy of England was stimulated by this beneficient breath of increased production. The output of the Staffordshire potteries increased fivefold in value between 1725 and 1777. The tonnage of shipping leaving English ports more than doubled between 1715 and 1781. English imports increased fourfold between 1715 and 1775, and exports trebled between 1700 and 1771.

A realistic painting of a metal birdge over a river. The bridge has arched supports so that although the top is level, the supports make a semi-circle, and this is reflected prettily in the water. There are some trees and three people in a rowboat passing under the bridge.
‘The Iron Bridge’ by artist William Williams. It was built in 1781 and was the first arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

Slavery’s role in Britain’s industrialization – some notes from chapter 5 of ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams.

Background notes on the Industrial Revolution

Britain’s Industrial Revolution took place in roughly the period 1750-1830. Historians still do not agree on exactly what the Industrial Revolution was and what caused it, but some generally agreed-upon features are:

  • An increase in the overall amount of stuff produced. (Everything from furniture to textiles to plates and cutlery to pins, nails and iron bars).
  • A shift away from crafters working from home or from a small workshop, towards working in larger workshops and factories.
  • A shift from self-employed workers owning their own tools and perhaps a workshop, to wage workers employed by a boss who owns the means of production (the workshop or factory, and the tools and/or machines).
  • Increasing use of machines.
  • Development of new technologies.
  • A great increase in the amount of start-up money (capital) required to start a business in production or manufacture.
  • The business owners / capitalists earned tremendous profits, and the GDP (gross domestic product) rose at an unprecedented rate.

The capital required for industrialization came directly from slavery/the triangular trade

Britain was accumulating great wealth from the triangular trade:

  • Owners of sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations, using slaves to do the work, made huge profits selling their produce, and plantation owners often returned to Britain, bringing their wealth with them.
  • The triangular trade: merchants and/or privateers from Britain bought slaves on the coast of Africa and sold them at a profit in North America and the Caribean, where they bought slave-produced goods (sugar, tobacco and cotton), then returned to Britain to sell these at another profit.
  • The new wealth pouring into Britain increased the demand for consumer items, and producers of all kinds of goods increased their rate of production to meet this new demand. Increasing production often required money up front (“capital” as the economists like to call it) for example to move to a bigger workshop, to hire more workers, or to buy more tools, machines, or materials. On a larger scale, wealthy investors paid for large projects such as constructing Manchester’s huge cotton factories, constructing a network of canals to make the transport of goods faster and cheaper, or funding the research and development of new technologies. The money for all of this came directly from the triangular trade, provided by plantation owners, slave traders, and exporters of slave-produced goods.

    Merchants and international trade, and other euphemisms

    When you read about England in the eighteenth century, you read a lot about merchants and international trade, but these innocuous-sounding terms mask a tremendous amount of violence. “Trade” meant the triangular trade, and the activities of merchants included:

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.

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.

Always on the high moral plane

Politics and morals in the abstract make no sense. We find the British statesmen and publicists defending slavery today, abusing slavery tomorrow, defending slavery the day after. Today they are imperialist, the next day anti-imperialist, and equally pro-imperialist a generation after. And always with the same vehemence. The defence or attack is always on the high moral or political plane. The thing defended or attacked is always something that you can touch and see, to be measured in pounds sterling or pounds avoirdupois, in dollars and cents, yards, feet and inches.

– Eric Williams, ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ p211

From the triangular trade to the Industrial Revolution

An excerpt from ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams, chapter 3 ‘Commerce and the triangular trade’:

In this triangular trade England – France and Colonial America equally – supplied the exports and the ships; Africa the human merchandise; the plantations the colonial raw materials. 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. As the volume of trade increased, the triangular trade was supplemented, but never supplanted, by a direct trade between the home country and the West Indies (the Caribbean), exchanging home manufactures directly for colonial produce.

The triangular trade thereby gave a triple stimulus to British industry. The Negroes were purchased with British manufactures; transported to the plantations, they produced sugar, cotton, indigo, molasses and other tropical products, the processing of which created new industries in England; while the maintenance of the Negroes and their owners on the plantations provided a new market for British industry, New England agriculture and the Newfoundland fisheries. By 1750 there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution.