Thursday, July 16, 2020

The economics of slavery in the West Indies (1988)

From the July 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Slavery has existed from the earliest records of human history. The ancient Egyptians used slave labour to build the pyramids from 4,750-3,000 BC; the Romans and ancient Greeks owned slaves and the geographical areas from which slaves were obtained had a history of owning slaves themselves. The West Africans had slaves and the Carib Indians of the West Indies raided Puerto Rica. Hispaniola and Jamaica for slaves. Slavery was such a basic feature of ancient societies that Plato, Plutarch and Aristophanes all retained slavery as part of their utopias, and even Thomas More, in his Utopia, as late as 1516, retained slavery as a punishment for crimes and adultery.

The slave trade of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed from earlier periods of slavery in that the number of people enslaved was much greater; the contradiction between the alleged Christian beliefs of the white slavers and the evils of the trade led to pseudo-scientific theories that their black captives were not really human, which, in turn, produced entrenched racist ideas which have persisted into the twentieth century.

The trade in African slaves to provide labour in the Southern states of the USA and the West Indies lasted for approximately 250 years and led to the transportation of an estimated forty million slaves. The Portuguese began trading in slaves at Lagos between 1440 and 1450 and by 1540 ten thousand slaves were being shipped to the West Indies from West Africa each year and. in addition, slaves were sold in South America and Mexico. Although slaves may have been brought to England as a result of the Iberian trade, the first group of African slaves to be brought to England by an English trader came from the Guinea Coast in 1555.

Britain's participation in the slave trade dates from 1564, when Sir John Hawkins made his second expedition to Africa in the flagship Jesus, with Queen Elizabeth's blessing, his first trip, two years before, having been highly successful. Manufactured goods such as textiles, iron, guns and spirits were shipped from Britain to the Guinea Coast and exchanged for other goods and slaves. These were exchanged for raw materials such as sugar and cotton in the New World which, in turn, were transported to England, completing the triangular trade. Jack Grates (The Great White Lie) states:
 Profits derived from the system found their way through reinvestment into other industries and agriculture, and it is not an exaggeration to say that they contributed substantially to the development of the Industrial Revolution on which Britain's nineteenth-century prosperity was based.
Liverpool was the main British port from which the slave ships sailed. In 1730, the port had 15 ships; in 1751, 53; 74 in 1760; in 1770, 96. and 132 by 1792 (Karl Marx. Capital).

The slave trade corrupted the African chiefs who bartered with the white slave traders. The insatiable demand for slaves led to an increase in tribal wars for captives who could be sold to the slavers. And by the middle of the eighteenth century the kidnapping of men and women of working age and in their most active reproductive years, the terrible loss of life resulting from the tribal wars and the spread of disease which accompanies foreign invaders, caused some areas of Africa to become underpopulated.

As the slavers pushed further into the interior of Africa the forced marches to the coast became more of an ordeal. Thirty per cent of the slaves died before they reached the coast to board the slave ships. And sometimes slaves who were rejected as unfit were killed by the black traders (Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, 1788). Conditions on the slave ships were barbaric in the extreme: a captain in the Royal Navy made a famous drawing of the slave ship Brookes in Liverpool docks in 1787, which showed how 450 slaves were packed into the ship, allowing six feet by sixteen inches for every man and five feet by sixteen inches for every woman. This "tight-packing", as it was called. led to considerable loss of life during transportation and in 1788 to the British Parliament regulating the conditions under which slaves could be shipped. Although this made the transportation of slaves more humane, by regulating the trade Parliament had officially sanctioned it. Greed had led to the "tight-packing" of slaves but the higher survival rate of transported slaves after regulation may have been commercially just as successful and, by its claim to be humane, may have set back the campaign to abolish the trade.

William Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade from the formation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, in London in May 1787 to the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on 16 March. 1807. A number of myths surround Wilberforce. He was an MP and a wealthy factory owner who exploited child labour in his Hull factories. Contrary to popular belief he was opposed to the emancipation of the slaves, claiming that they were not fit for freedom.

When Earl Percy wanted to bring in a Bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1807, Wilberforce stated: "I and those who think with me not only abstain from proposing such a Bill, are ready to reject such a proposition when made by others". Wilberforce had a patronising attitude towards the slaves and was intolerant of Mohammedanism and Hinduism, which he wished to replace with Christianity.

The Prime Minister, William Pitt, also claimed to be an abolitionist but trading actually increased during his administration. It is thought that his opposition arose as a result of the sale of slaves by British merchants to foreign colonies, especially France, which although profitable in the short term was damaging to Britain's long-term interests.

After the abolition of the slave trade a million slaves remained in bondage in the West Indies and as slavery continued until 1833 slaves, therefore, had to be replaced. But the illegality of trading pushed up the price of slaves. To prevent illegal trading the British government provided bounty money for the capture of slave ships. As a full ship could command a bounty of £2,500 the naval squadron patrolling the African coast preferred to catch slave vessels at sea because it was more profitable than prevention. To evade the risk of capture the slave captains would put the slaves into specially prepared hiding places, so small that the slaves often died of suffocation or else they would be thrown overboard to drown or be eaten by sharks. The illegal trade was so profitable that if only one in three of the slave ships delivered its human cargo, a profit could be made. The European slave owning countries co-operated with each other to stop the slave trade but the USA refused to take part for a time and it was possible for a ship to avoid capture by running up the American flag.

The abolition of the slave trade provides a classic example of the futility of a reform that leaves the system intact and can sometimes lead to a worsening of conditions rather than an improvement. By the nineteenth century the industrial revolution had superseded chattel-slavery and feudalism in Britain. A new class of labouring poor with nothing to sell except their labour power had emerged in the industrial towns and cities. Slavery was becoming an anachronism. Slave labour was not free: slaves had to be maintained and, unlike the wage-slaves of Britain, they were expensive to buy. In Jamaica, in 1817, male slaves aged 20-40 years were valued at £139 and female slaves at £124 (B.W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica 1807-1834, Cambridge University Press. 1976).

As the work performed by slaves was usually of poor quality incentives were provided within the slavery system. In the French West Indies slaves had some legal protection against arbitrary punishments being meted out by their owners and. it is claimed, those islands were more profitable. In Jamaica slaves who had learned trades were able to amass fairly large sums of money. The ending of the slave trade led to a higher proportion of unproductive slaves as the owners were forced to breed slaves for themselves.

Further pressure was put on the slave system by a fall in the price of sugar which, by emancipation, was worth only about half of its value at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Reform Bill of 1832 halved the planters' representation in the British Parliament which weakened them politically and the increasing number of slave rebellions culminated in the Jamaican rebellion on 27 December 1831 in which 20,000 slaves took part, killing 14 whites and destroying over £1 million worth of property.

In the face of growing economic and political problems the plantation owners opted for the compensation offered by the British government of 1833 which, in fact recognised the legal right of one person to own another. For the former slaves, emancipation changed their material lives very little; their former owners kept control of the courts and owned the land. As Tolstoy observed fifty years later:
 . . . the essence of all slavery consists in drawing the benefit of another's labour-force by compulsion, and it is quite immaterial whether the drawing of this benefit is founded upon property in the slave or upon property in money which is indispensable to the other man (What Shall We Do Then, 1885).
Chattel-slavery was a particularly vicious form of exploitation, although the condition of the working class under laissez-faire capitalism was also inhumane and squandered workers' lives. For workers all over the world the fight for emancipation against wage-slavery and its replacement with socialism still has to be won.
Carl Pinel

No business like . . . (1988)

From the July 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

How do you persuade millions of people that commerce and conscience are compatible after all? The ITV television companies certainly had a good try at this over the bank holiday at the end of May. For 27 hours, a procession of media has-beens such as Tony Blackburn, Lionel Blair, Rolf Harris and Frank Carson were given a new lease of life. Tipped out of their Rolls Royces on to our TV screens, these "entertainers" then proceeded to trot out their Bob Geldof impersonations, ordering the British public to redistribute their poverty.

The event was helped along by various other budding cheerleaders, such as that opportunist and careerist starlet of the "alternative" media establishment, Emma Freud, together with racist comedian Jim Davidson, and Derek Hatton who, having tired of making Liverpudlian workers' lives miserable in the name of "socialism", was now seen judging a beauty contest at a London nightclub while swigging bottles of champagne (for charity, of course). We were even treated to a performance from David Steel and Alan Beith, who showed that their musical ability was as flimsy as the political lies out of which they have built careers.

This charity bonanza had creaked into action on the Sunday evening, when Prince Charles gave us a message from his home at Highgrove in Gloucestershire, urging everyone to "keep up the good work", just like the local headmaster or vicar at the village fete. By the time it was all over, and Cilia Black sang "Tomorrow is a Lovely Day", many viewers must have been saying that it had better be. for the day that had passed was a tawdry shambles of crass commercialism dressed up as a caring conscience. As the picture faded, the audience could be heard chanting "Here we go. here we go. here we go . . ." and again, there was a feeling that this was yet another case of the journey being more important than the arrival.

Unlike previous such events, this was an openly commercial television charity show. With a sickening narrow-minded nationalism, the advance publicity had stressed that this time the money would go to "our own", British charities (not to mere Ethiopians, or others who might be starving). What an admission this is, that Britain also is plagued with poverty and suffering, despite the pretence of civilisation and prosperity. In fact, in Britain today there are over 100,000 registered charities, all seeking to mop up after the devastation caused by the priorities of the profit system.

The chief presenter, Michael Aspel, entered into the competitive spirit of the day by boasting at the end that "we" had beaten "the Americans" in their recent efforts to raise money along similar lines. In fact, the total raised was a pittance compared with the needs it was seeking to meet: a mere £22 million. At the time, the audience gasped and screamed with excitement that such a lot had been raised. This is only because it is more than working-class families will see in their lives. But it was only about 40p per person in this country. When divided between the several thousand charities involved in the share-out, it will hardly solve the problems they are trying to deal with. In capitalist terms, the amount collected represents the money received by General Motors last year from their car sales every 3-4 hours on average. (Their total sales last year were over 100 billion dollars.) The total spent by British companies on advertising themselves in 1987 was £5.8 billion: nearly 30 times the telethon total.

Looked at from another point of view, the total of £22 million could have been easily provided by just one man, if Robert Maxwell had donated one-third of his personal unearned income for 1987. Or if Sir John Sainsbury had added just one-fiftieth (or two per cent) of his own private accumulated wealth to the ITV begging bowl, it would have more than doubled the total collected immediately. It was certainly, then, a case of the poor throwing a few pennies at the poor and becoming hysterical in the process.

Undoubtedly the most hypocritical aspect of the May Telethon, however, was the nature of some of the donations themselves. Nicholas Scott, the government Social Security minister, came on to present a cheque for £ 1 million, made up from pensions which had been underpaid as a result of a computer error. One wondered whether this error would have been announced very loudly by the government if it had not been parading its generosity on TV. by handing back to the poor and needy those benefits which were originally supposed to have been paid to. . . the poor and needy. Then, to add insult to injury, it was revealed some weeks later that this government "cheque" had in fact been a blank piece of paper held up for effect, as the government would be donating this money only indirectly, through concessions.

The main feature of the programme, though, was a series of smiling businessmen, lining up to present cheques to the good cause, and stressing visually, verbally and in any other way they could think of. the identify of the company involved. It was not very long before the adverts shown every 20 minutes throughout the 27 hours were becoming indistinguishable from these cheque presentations. For example, there was what amounted to a full-blown Martini ad, complete with the familiar tune and a woman on roller skates with tray and drinks, who rolled on to present a cheque for a mere £ 10,000. The equivalent length of time for an ordinary paid TV ad would have cost several times as much as this, about £50.000. It seems that on this occasion both commercial advantage and conscience money came dirt cheap. Barclays Bank presented a cheque for £100,000, and had their name and image glorified across our screens. Were these charitable donations tax deductible? If they were, Michael Aspel certainly wasn't saying anything about it. In any case, as a fraction of Barclays' world profits, this amount would only represent about one afternoon of their earnings.

To criticise the pop-charity of recent years may be unpopular, but it does not take much investigation to see what is happening here. It is no coincidence that the present government, with its talk of Victorian values, and the cutting down of social benefits for the "undeserving" paupers, is quite keen on the indignities of good, old-fashioned private-enterprise charity, for the more "deserving" clients (if indeed the government believes that there are any left). The problems have remained or multiplied since efforts such as Band-Aid. and this has even been admitted by the charity guru, Bob Geldof himself. But "conscience money" allows people to retreat from real political action, safe in the false security of feeling that "something is being done". In the case of Telethon, it would be more accurate to say that "someone was being done", namely the viewers, as we were dished up hours of adverts and publicity-seeking, disguised as entertainment and compassion. . . and all for a pittance.
Clifford Slapper