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The Rise and Fall of New World Slavery


Robin Blackburn teaches at the New School in New York and the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. He is a member of the editorial committee of New Left Review and the author of many books, including The Making of New World Slavery: 1492-1800, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848, Age Shock: How Finance Is Failing Us, and Banking on Death. He has just published two new books, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights and An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, all published by Verso. He spoke to the ISR’s Anthony Arnove in May 2011.

HOW DOES The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights fit in relationship to a series of books you’re writing on the making and overthrow of slavery? 

WELL THIS latest book, The American Crucible is an overview of the entire rise and fall of the slave regimes of the Americas from the early sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. My previous two books on slavery in the New World covered a substantial part of that period but did not deal with the rise and fall of the nineteenth century slave systems in Cuba, the United States, and Brazil. The Crucible seeks to explain why slavery could continue to grow even after suffering defeat in the Caribbean and in the former Spanish colonies.

So quite a lot of the material in this new book is itself new. And where I’m reprising what I’ve already covered, I do so with new evidence and from the perspective of the whole extraordinary story. The Making of New World Slavery was about the original building of these colonial-era regimes, while The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery dealt with their destruction in the “Age of Revolution,” 1776–1848. Those are both substantial works, so what I do here is offer a broad synthesis tracing the contradictory impact of capitalist growth on the one hand and the surge of antislavery politics on the other, with the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 being the central event, breaching the slave systems but also clearing an opening for new producers in the U.S. South, Brazil and Cuba.

It is this contradictory development that I focus on in this new book. Slaveholders knew they faced the danger of revolution, but they were determined to exploit the ruin of what had been Europe’s main supplier of plantation products. As they moved to take advantage of high prices and eager consumers, they also moved to strengthen their own security, both by heightening repression and by reaching out to new allies.

Across the whole field there has been new research, so I’m able to update the argument on earlier developments as well as cover new ground. I try not to duplicate things I’ve already covered in those earlier books and hope that they work together to cover four hundred years or more of events of great significance. I still have a further book to go which will be on the U.S. South, Brazil, and Cuba in the nineteenth century.

COULD YOU discuss the degree to which slavery was vital to the economic growth and expansion of the United States?

WE HAVE to start with the colonial period. Already around 1770 the English colonies of North America were a vital part of Britain’s Atlantic system, which was itself the forcing house of British capitalism and its Industrial Revolution. British and North American merchants supplied American planters with slaves, equipment and provisions while, in their turn, the plantations produced a stream of vital commodities—especially cotton, sugar, tobacco, and coffee—all of them items which helped to reproduce wage laborers in a new way. In The Making of New World Slavery, I argued that this dynamic Atlantic nexus of trade and credit sustained a regime of “extended primitive accumulation,” a breakthrough to genuinely capitalist production in the metropolis but based on an expansion of slavery in the plantation zone. The American Revolution momentarily interrupted this so-called “triangular” trade linking Africa, Europe, and the Americas, but its medium and long-term impact was to break down barriers to free trade and to widen the markets available to U.S., Cuba and Brazilian planters.

When The Making of New World Slavery was published in 1997 many scholars denied that slavery had made an important contribution to British industrialization and capitalist growth. I argued against this then-prevailing view, and I’m glad to say that a lot of the more recent research is bringing further evidence of its importance.

In 2002 Kenneth Pomeranz published The Great Divergence, which furthered the argument by looking for the ways in which slavery, colonialism, and Britain’s “empire of free trade” allowed Europe to annex vast areas of land—what he calls “ghost acreage”—in the Americas, to overcome the severe space constraints in Britain and Europe. Thus British textile manufacturers were able to buy slave-produced cotton that could not have been produced in Europe. There are three or four other studies like Pomeranz’s, which all go to strengthen the view that American markets and raw materials made a really vital contribution to industrial advance. The planters, their brokers, and merchants were also crucial sources of credit helping to finance canals, railroads, and steam ships. So far discussion has focused on British industrialization, but in The American Crucible I look at the ambivalence of the role of slavery in U.S. industrialization, as a source of credit as well as cotton. But a credit system comprising many thousands of banks also proved a source of instability while the Southern market was inherently limited by slavery, because slave needs were met by their own efforts on the plantation.

In The Crucible, I try to weave together a story relating to the hybrid structures of Atlantic accumulation with attention to the wars and revolutions that were transforming this space in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I see the great plantation boom as sowing the seeds of conflict between colonial elites and the metropolis—and later between a new “picaresque proletariat” and the planters and their bourgeois hangers-on in New York and London.

The maritime strength of the early U.S. republic allowed its merchants and captains to play a large role in dismantling the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial systems in the years 1783–1825. The British also wanted to open up South America, but they found that the United States had the initiative so far as land-based expansion was concerned. In the book, I scrutinize the imperial conflicts that contributed to this, especially the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and Mexican War (1846–48). It is often not realized that the British and North Americans vied with one another for the spoils of “free trade” and continued to feed the growth of the dynamic slave systems of Cuba and Brazil long after the supposed banning of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808.

After 1808, U.S. and British West Indian planters were unable to import new slaves from Africa, and those in expanding areas had to rely on a “domestic” slave trade. But Cuban and Brazilian planters continued—legally or clandestinely—to buy huge numbers of captive Africans, amounting to as many as 40,000 annually in the 1840s. Spanish colonial institutions and the structures of the Brazilian Empire proved as well adapted to the expansion of plantation slavery as those of the North American republic.

HOW USEFUL—or not—do you find the concept of “Atlantic history”?

I DON’T often use the term myself, but I do welcome the attempt to get beyond narrow national historiographies. That’s the important thing. Of course, beyond a certain point one would need to broaden out and see the link between the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific, and the systems of trade and commerce that flourished there. But when we are dealing with the New World slave systems, the Atlantic is really the decisive space. And of course there’s a lot of interaction between the different bits of the Americas, the different parts of Europe and between Europe, Africa, and the New World. The rubric of Atlantic history helps to bring out the transnational impulses of the ages of revolution, capital, and empire.

And if I have a regret it’s that I’ve not been able to follow up my brief account of the buying of captives on the African coast with a detailed account of its impact on the thousand or more African societies that were affected, to show the consequences of that trade over three or four centuries; but it’s something that I certainly intend to go into more deeply. Prior to about 1700, African exports of palm oil, gold, pepper, and other such items were more valuable than slave purchases, but the scale of the traffic grew to over a hundred thousand a year in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Europeans were fuelling African wars and favoring the more predatory social formations by selling guns and cutlasses to them. By the late eighteenth century, the British were selling as many as a quarter of a million guns every year, fostering a slave-raiding cycle.

The Atlantic perspective helps us to see the transnational, or multinational, character of the slave-related trades after 1815. The U.S. North was as much a part of this as the U.S. South. While there was only a trickle of illegal slave imports to the U.S. South, U.S. capital, U.S. ship builders, and merchants from New England, New York and from the Mid Atlantic states continued to be engaged in the Atlantic slave traffic. Over the period 1818–65, about two and a half million new slaves were brought across the Atlantic. Cuban and Brazilian merchants certainly played the major role, but they seem to have received extensive help from the North. U.S. merchants built ships for the slave trade, and they supplied trade goods for exchange on the African coast. So U.S.-built vessels, flying a variety of flags, bought textiles and metal goods. They dodged the British Navy’s anti-slave trade squadron, and the rather token U.S. squadron sent to suppress the illegal traffic, and finally carried tens of thousands of African captives to Brazil or to Cuba. Many of the slave goods were British-made and exported to Brazil by merchants who were good at catering to the tastes of the traders on the African coast.

The dimensions of this trade were very large, but at present we do not have an exact figure for U.S. participation. The U.S. consular authorities in Brazil estimated that about a half of the slaves brought in the Empire each year came aboard U.S.-built ships. The British Consul in Havana reported a smaller but still sizable traffic to Cuba. So this is an important area in which the scholarship is still advancing.

HOW WOULD you characterize the link between slavery and the overall U.S. and Atlantic economy in the early and mid-nineteenth century? 

PLANTATION SLAVERY was a form of “primitive accumulation,” as described by Marx in the first volume of Capital, being a form of exploitation based not on wage labor, but on the direct appropriation of the labor of the exploited. Some have understood Marx to be referring to a phase or epoch, which was to be surpassed by industrial capital. Instead what we see is an intermeshing of different types of labor extraction, some based on the wage form and others based on forced labor. Industrialization stimulated the demand for cotton, and the slaveholding planters proved adept at opening up new territory and boosting cotton output. They intensified two mechanisms for raising slave output, the slave gang and the task system. The overseers and slave drivers used the gang to set a fierce pace of work. They used stop watches to establish what could be produced in a given time—and the whip to ensure that it was. The drivers had a range of sanctions but history was to show that the whip was integral to the slave systems.

I call the intensified systems of slave exploitation a regime of “extended primitive accumulation,” feeding industrial growth. Wage labor and capital could not appear everywhere all at once, so early industrialization has to make do with transitional forms of appropriation and typically intensifies the labor process, using forced labor and sweated labor. The term “market revolution” is useful because it draws attention to the shadow cast by the process of commodification in sectors which are themselves still pre-industrial but are having to adjust to industrialization. For farmers and artisans this was a time of great stress as they got into debt or sought to cope with price shocks, expensive and high freight charges. Planters, though much richer, shared some of these problems, hence their occasional spasms of hostility to the banks.

The slave economy of the U.S. South was important because it was providing one of the prime inputs to the Industrial Revolution and helping to establish the beginnings of new popular consumption norms outside the plantation zone, based on sweetened beverages and cotton clothes. The Starbucks and jeans culture, if you like. The arguments that apply to Britain apply also to North America, with slave-grown cotton being of crucial importance. From the manufacturers’ point of view, cotton was greatly preferable to wool because it was easy to adapt to industrial processes. The U.S. planters adopted and improved the cotton “gin,” enabling them to spread cultivation to the inland area, especially the vast Mississippi basin acquired between 1804 and 1848.

Also, of course there was the decisive role of steam power. Steam was harnessed to grind sugar in Louisiana and Cuba, to bale cotton, or to carry the cotton and the sugar by steamboat or by railway to ports, and later to propel ships across the Atlantic. Slave toil was providing vital inputs to the most advanced sectors to the economy and diversifying consumption. These new methods made the slavery of this epoch rather profitable.

The planters, the slaveholders, needed credit to get the crop into production. On the other hand, they would keep their account balances and their profits with intermediary institutions, such as b

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