Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: The real history of slavery

- a review of Hugh Thomas, The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (Picador 25)

Weyman Bennett

If history is the world's court then capitalism is convicted of the most heinous crimes. One such crime is New World slavery. Yet some historians would like to deny capitalism its bloody past. A new book by Hugh Thomas, The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (Picador 25), though containing some useful facts, represents such a view.

However, it is undeniable that slavery produced regular profits for the British Empire. These represented a massive boost to cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol. Liverpool was transformed from a small fishing village into a huge dock, the hub of the growing world capitalist system. A walk around the Liverpool Exchange with its motif of black women tells you of the origin of its wealth. The canal from Manchester to Liverpool that cut the cost of transport from 40 shillings a ton to 6 shillings a ton was paid for by profits from the slave trade. High street names like Barclays and Lloyds banks made their entry into commerce because of the sweated labours of the slave.

In the early days of capitalism's growth the slave plantations formed a constant demand for manufactured goods, taking up to 20 percent of goods produced. It is calculated that the West Indian plantations alone brought an aggregate profit of 150 million for Britain's rulers. Karl Marx argued that 'direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present day industrialisation turns as are machinery and credit. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large scale machine industry.'

There was a direct connection between the rise of racism and the slave trade. An ideology was needed to justify the transportation of millions of blacks. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, argued that blacks had the same intelligence as orang-utans. This exposes the contradictory nature of the emerging capitalist society, which on the one hand hailed the ideas of the French and American revolutions - equality and unalienable rights - yet at the same time depended on the horrendous trade in human flesh. The American president Adams, at the end of the American Revolution which had been expected to abolish slavery, declared they had 'got the wolf by the ears but they daren't let it go.' World capitalism couldn't progress without a massive expansion of slavery in the American South.

Implicit in the argument that comes from Hugh Thomas is the idea that the Atlantic slave trade grew out of the slavery that already existed in African and Islamic societies prior to the 1700s. Essentially, he portrays slavery as a bad idea which was made worse by Europeans. Slavery, he argues, was a universal feature of ancient societies, but it was not racially based - slaves were the spoils of war. He fails to recognise that the Atlantic slave trade was unique because of the role it played in the emergent capitalist system.

There were class divisions in pre-capitalist societies. But in ancient Africa slaves were more like serfs - they were not barred from marrying the chief's daughter, or from owning property, or even rising to be governors. Two factors prevented African societies developing in the same way as Europe. Neither was to do with any inherent inferiority in those societies. In many ways Africa had been more advanced than Europe. In 1066, as Harold lost his eye, the complex infrastructure of Great Zimbabwe was in full force, controlling the movement of cattle on a vast scale. But the very success of cities such as Timbuktu, Benin and Mali meant there was no drive to develop production. Secondly, tsetse fly and poor soil ruled out the introduction of the plough and the possibility of higher agricultural yields that would parallel European development. There were constant crises in many African states, civil wars and famine - but in no way were these the killing grounds of the West Indian plantations. The dynamic for this came when, as Marx described, capitalism came into the world dripping with blood.

Prior to the development of capitalism and New World slavery contacts between Europe and Africa were on the basis of a meeting of equals. The cartographers' maps of the known world at this time gave African kings the same status as European monarchs. Thus, far from having no history, Africa was a combination of states much like Europe at that time. The introduction of firearms and gunpowder into Africa changed the balance of power between African states. The only way guns could be paid for was in slaves. Each African state would raid the others to pay for goods and this formed a dynamic in which Africa, in Marx's words, became the commercial hunting ground of black skins.

Trade in sugar and tobacco was the foundation of the British Empire and this was predominantly found in 'the Americas'. The first slaves in the New World after Columbus arrived there were natives who were subject to a massive assault. In Hispaniola the population fell from 300,000 to 30,000. In South America the population declined by 30 million. Having exhausted the local people as a source of labour, the planters turned to white indentured labour. Up to 340,000 people were sent from Europe. But this was still not enough labour to run the massive factory-style plantations. And so the planters turned to Africa for labour and here began the most horrific trade ever seen. Some 25 million people were transported from Africa to work the plantations. Once they arrived the average life expectancy of a slave was only three years - they were cheap and replaceable.

The biggest slur against the Marxist explanation of slavery is over the question of abolition. Most historians, like Hugh Thomas, write the history of capitalist landlords. William Wilberforce and Josiah Wedgwood raised the cry, 'Am I not a man, am I not a brother?' which, it is claimed, broke the hearts of the slaver. Letter writing campaigns and abolitionist propaganda played a role but the main reason slavery was abolished was because of the activity of the slaves themselves.

There were constant revolts against slavery - in Africa, on the ships and in the New World. These revolts initially involved blacks and poor whites. In the British West Indies between 1638 and 1837 there were 75 major slave rebellions, 22 of which involved thousands of slaves. In Barbados in 1683 handwritten leaflets were distributed. In Jamaica during the Maroon Wars of the 1700s, a planter wrote:

'We are in terrible circumstances in respect to the rebellious negroes. They get the better of all our parties; our men are quite dispirited and dare not look them in the face in open ground or in equal numbers.'

The great revolution in San Domingo in 1794 led by Toussaint L'Ouverture rang the death knell for slavery. Half a million black inhabitants repeatedly fought off the combined armies of Europe. The slaves' cry of self-emancipation was the real motor for abolition. The British supported abolition because they wanted to weaken the French Empire which was based on the wealth of San Domingo. But the masses stormed onto the stage of history, not as helpless victims, but as shapers of their own future.

Even more hidden from history is the popularity of anti-slavery sentiments and organisation amongst white workers, especially in Britain. For instance, in 1795 a 20,000 name petition from Manchester called for the abolition of slavery. In 1814 a petition of 1.5 million names was collected in Manchester. White workers made the link between the horrors of capitalism and slavery. The Chartists attracted and were led by black radicals like William Cuffay, a freed slave.

There were constant links between the slave revolts and workers' movements. The Sam Sharpe Rebellion in Jamaica in 1832 involved 20,000 slaves, included the first slave strike and rocked the foundation of slavery in Jamaica. The slaves read out pamphlets from Britain calling for the end of slavery and universal suffrage, and so slaves took the whole island over for a week, with some whites joining the rebellion. The revolt was ultimately put down by the regular army, but immediate plans were made by the British government for the abolition of slavery. Sam Sharpe was caught and hanged. Before he died he said, 'I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.'

Industrialisation meant that capitalism was no longer dependent upon slave labour, but slavery's end was hastened by the fight of slaves to empancipate themselves. Historians such as Hugh Thomas who currently write about slavery (with the noble exception of Robin Blackburn) want to write about a capitalism without exploitation and misery. We want to understand the development of capitalism because the chains of slavery have given way to the invisible chains of capitalist exploitation. The real history of slavery is a history of resistance and revolutionary change from below. That does not just belong in the past, it's what we need in the present to win the future.


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