This sadistic cycle worked like a charm for the booming economies of Europe and later America. For instance, prior to the U.S. Civil War, one crop, slave-grown cotton, provided more than 50% of all American export earnings. 50%. In fact, for decades, American slaves cultivated more than 60% of the world’s cotton.
This major windfall in the textile industry laid the foundation for America’s vast economic growth throughout the 19th century. For 200 years, American historians and propagandists have conveniently tried to frame slavery as pre-capitalist when, in fact, this horrific chapter in Europe and America’s history is inherent to wealth building in the modern era.
At the time and to this day, there were widely held claims that the collapse of slavery in the West Indies was brought about by British humanitarianism. Williams dismisses this claim, arguing that abolition was driven instead by the changing financial conditions and new economic demands that arose, and the British Empire transitioned from a mercantile model to a capitalist system.
William’s reason that it was only after slavery became an economic hindrance that abolitionists in Europe and then in the United States actually succeeded in curbing the slave trade and finally abolishing slavery. Historian, journalist, and social theorist C.L.R. James whose similar work on the American diaspora The Black Jacobins greatly influenced Eric Williams. Like any good investigative journalist, asks the hard the necessary questions: what turned the tide on a British slave trade? Was it the intellectual and moral climate of the enlightenment, or was it the changing economic climate?
James passionately concludes: “The loss of a slave-holding American colonies took much cotton out of the ears of the British bourgeoisie. Adam Smith and Arthur Young, heralds of the Industrial Revolution and wage slavery, were already preaching against the waste of chattel slavery. Death up to 1783, the British bourgeois now heard and looked again at the West Indies. Their own colonies were bankrupt. They were losing the slave trade to French and British rivals, and half the French slaves that they brought were going to San Domingue, the India of the 18th century. Why should they continue to do this? In three years, the first abolitionist society was formed and the British prime minister began to clamor for the abolition of slavery for the sake of humanity, no doubt, says Gaston Martin, a slave trade historian, but also be it well understood to ruin French commerce.”
James argues that there were two central reasons: first, that despite the theatrics in Britain’s Parliament about the morality of slavery, it was the economic pressure that brought about their sudden change of heart. But there was another, even more responsible historic groundswell that forced the captor’s hand, and that was the actual resistance and rebellions of the African slaves themselves.
One of the great myths perpetrated on the world in general and the American people in particular is that of the submissive and obedient African slave. C.L.R. James dispels this lie. The Negro’s revolutionary history is rich, inspiring, and unknown. Negroes revolted against the slave raiders in Africa. They revolted against the slave traders on the Atlantic passage. They revolted on the plantation. The docile Negro is a myth. Myth indeed. For we only need to investigate the names Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and a Missouri slave named Celia who was executed by the state for fighting back against her master for his penchant for rape.
These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.