Slavery chained to the rise of capitalism

13 08 2013

Barry Biddulph reviews, The making of New World Slavery, Robin Blackburn,Verso, (London and New York, 2010 )

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Robin Blackburn’s  view of plantation slavery, based on a formidable amount of historical research,  is that it was an integral part of the development of Industrial Capitalism .  Black slavery in the Caribbean was a hybrid form of capitalism, a racist by-product of the transition to industrial Capitalism in Europe.  The circuits of capitalist production in western Europe,  presupposed a previous or primitive accumulation of Capital. In the words of Karl Marx : “the conversion of Africa into a preserve of the commercial hunting of black skins are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of Capitalist production”. (1) If wage labour is a hidden form of slavery, it was consolidated by an open racial slavery.

Eric Williams, as early as 1944, pioneered  the view that the slave Plantations in the West Indies were closely tied to the development of industrial capitalism in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.  Williams, ” did quite correctly identify the great intimacy between the surge of a slave produce, and trading on the one hand, and British capitalist development on the other”.  (2)  Robin Blackburn acknowledges the insights of Williams, but is able to base himself on decades of further research and debate.   His conclusion is that Plantation Slavery was not a historical hangover from the pre capitalist past, but a social and economic hybrid : an  extension of mercantile ,financial and manufacturing capital in the European metropolis, in a time of a transition to industrial capitalism.

In  Blackburn’s own words, the Slave plantations “were set up directly for supplying the European market,and had no other raison d’ etre”. (3) They were integrated into global networks of trade, commerce and finance. The planters acquired  equipment ,commodities, credit,  and African Slaves from the market. The logic of the plantations were not strictly speaking capitalist, but planters calculated profit and loss in their market trading.  Indeed, according to the Scottish historian Tom Devine : ” The credit structures linked to the plantation economy were crucial elements in the UK financial markets” (4) This comment brings out the connection to the growth of British industrialism.

Eric Williams described it as Britain’s triangular trade, which does simplify the complexities of the commercial pattern involved, but at the heart of it was manufactured goods shipped to Africa, buying captured African slaves and taking them to the Caribbean, to be resold into plantation slavery, and then carrying a cargo of sugar or other exotic produce to North America and Britain. Robin Blackburn’s estimates, from the research he surveys is “that profits derived from the triangular trade could have furnished anything from 20.9% to 55% of Britain’s gross fixed Capital formation in 1770″ (5) The secret of the original accumulation can be seen in the images of Robinson Crusoe, and the glamorous Glasgow Tobacco Lords strutting along the streets of the Empire’s second city, in  scarlet cloaks and gold tipped walking canes. The secret is their wealth was based on African people’s forced labour.

Robin Blackburn does not think slavery was organised maliciousness ,intended to punish those with black skins, but obviously “without racist assumptions the Atlantic trade would not have been permitted”. (6) Robin probably understates the racism involved, in making the case that plantation slavery was a rational quasi capitalist organisation. Barbara Bush makes the general point that,”the modern concept of race coalesced through contact with Africa and slavery between the sixteenth and nineteenth Centuries”.  (7) Linda Colley wants to play down the contrast between black victims and white slave traders. Although she is quick to state that white victims of captivity and slavery were not comparable with black slavery. Yet, she does go some way towards that view when she insists that the neat division of black victims and white perpetrators gives”insufficient attention to Ottoman and North Africa slave, and forced Labour systems”. (8)

Colley also throws in for good measure, the argument that people in Britain were treated badly in this period: Cromwell enslaved Scots in 1650 and what about the savage treatment of the Monmoth Rebels. Put this together with white slaves on the Barbary coast and we get the impression that this was the way of the world at the time, blunting any critique of Capitalist barbarism. Blackburn does engage in polemic ,in the footnotes, with the apologetics of historian David Eltis. Eltis argues that New World Slavery was not unrestrained. The western slave powers did not enslave their own people. This was a gain for humanity in western Europe. Presumably, this was the best that could be expected at the time : the best of what existed justifies the worst. To use Blackburn’s phrase : a perverse view.  (9)

Against David Eltis, Blackburn makes the obvious point that “there was economic and social progress in the Netherlands,England, and some parts of Western Europe precisely because they were not mired in  an East European morass of peasant servitude”. ( 10) There had been no peasantry in the countryside in England for a considerable historical period. The agricultural labourers had been separated from the means of production, and the means of subsistence. There had been enclosure of the commons, with wealthy landowners owning huge estates, operating as agricultural capitalists. In short, the growth of modern commercial society. The State in England had been modernised with the so-called English revolution in the 1640’s and consolidated by the revolution of 1688. As Alex Callinico notes this “allowed capitalist interests dominate.” (11)

The scale of African Slavery can be glimpsed by the rough estimates of the number of slaves transported from Africa provided by Blackburn: 370,000 in the Sixteenth century,rising to over one and a half million in the Seventeenth century and then to over three million in the Eighteenth century. Arguably the slavery in the British West Indies was the most exploitative and oppressive in the new world. Robin Blackburn’s research convincingly demonstrates the link between unfree labour in the West Indies and South America and capitalism  in the European  heartland.   Unfree labour still exits to this day in some parts of the world, providing  cheap goods for Western Capitalists to make super profits.  Capitalism and racism are still tied together.


1 Karl Marx, Capital Vol 1, Penguin Books, ( Aylesbury 1976 ) p.925. Also from the same page Marx adds “in fact the veiled slavery of the wage labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal”.

2 Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible, Verso, (London and New York 2011) p. 101

3 Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, verso ( London and New York 2010) p. 374

4 Tom M Devine, Scotland’s Empire 1600-1815, Penguin Books, ( London 2004 ) p. 221

5 Robin Blackburn, The Making of New world Slavery, p. 542. The rise of the Plantation originated in Brazil in 1580, but in a sustained way in British and French plantations from the 1650’s. The British State seized Jamaica in 1655, and Barbados earlier in 1627.

6 ibid,p.350

7 Barbara Bush,Imperialism and Post Colonialism, Pearson Longman, ( Edinburgh) 2006,p. 29

8 Linda Colley, Captives. Britain, Empire and the World,1600-1850,Pimlico, (London 20002 ) p.63

9 Blackburn’s other correct argument is that it would not have been possible to use mass slave labour from Britain, Holland and France at the time. And the fact is Black slave labour was used.

10 Robin Blackburn,  ibid, p.361

11 Alex Callinicos, Imperialism and Global Political Economy, Polity, (Cambridge 2009) p.132

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One response

18 08 2013
Randy gould

I find it rather odd that nowhere above do we see the names WEB Dubois, CLR James, Ted Allen, Noel Ignatiev, etc. Nor is there any mention of the relationship of slavery to white supremacy, white skin privilege, the social construct of race, class struggle, social control, accumulation of capital, zip, nada, STRANGE.


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