It is entirely true that the British abolished slavery because the British West Indies Colonies were no longer profitable. In the years leading to the abolition of the slave trade, the production of sugar dropped precipitously by as much as 50 percent. It is notable that sugar was a labor-intensive commodity and slave prices in Africa had risen to up to $25 while the prices in the Americas remained at $35. The dip in production, therefore not only had an effect on the slave owners but also on the people who marketed and those who consumed the sugar in Britain. Slavery was premised on the economic interest that it served. When the British invaded the West Indies, the push factor was the need to make money. Ward observes that, over time, the reality of the expensiveness of the West Indian sugar hit the British people as, compared to the planters in Dutch, Danish and French Islands, the British colonies could not deliver cheaper sugar to Europe. The British thus had to let go of a non-profitable venture.
The relationship between slavery and profits cannot be overstated. The profits arising from the slave trade were derived from various avenues. Firstly, there were profits from the direct slave trade. Secondly, there were profits generated through speculation on the products which were shipped on the triangular voyages. Around 1700, merchants in Bristol invested between PS50,000 and PS60,000 in the slave trade. In the 1730s, these figures increased to about PS150,000 and further to about PS280,000 in between 1788 and 1792. Similar trends were recorded in Liverpool. Out of the investments on slaves, merchants made massive profits. Two prominent slave traders, Henry Bright, and Richard Meyler left behind fortunes worth PS50,000 and PS30,000 respectively. Morgan writes that, in the late 1780s, it was determined the profits garnered from slave trade were way above that derived from capital invested within Britain. Williams, further, this point when he notes that, 'the triangular trade made an enormous contribution to Britain's Industrial Revolution.' Based on this direct link between slavery and profits, it goes without saying that only a decline in one would affect the other.
According to Temperley, the fact that abolitionists viewed ending the slave trade as leading Britain to economic prosperity withdraws the ethical narrative often attached to the anti-slavery campaigns. As Williams intimates increased slave labor resulted in overproduction which reduced the price of the commodity. As such, it was quite easy for even the abolitionists to refer to the dwindling economic value of the slave trade. One also needs to look at the timing of the abolitionist movement to determine the impact of its campaign against the slave trade. The British entered the West Indies in 1625. By 1713, the British had transported about 144,000 African slaves to its colonies, including the West Indies with no resistance. British merchants who were involved in the trade became extremely wealthy while Britain benefited greatly from the trade by diversifying its economic activities to textile manufacturing. It was not until the 1830s that a section of British citizens began to agitate for the abolition of the slave trade on ethical grounds. One wonders why it took almost a century for the British to realize that the slave trade was unethical.
The disparity in the decision to abolish the slave trade and the relatively long time it took between adjacent countries justifies the conclusion that the end of the slave trade was profit-related. In Haiti, the abolition of the slave trade was effected in 1793. This was the very initial case of the abolition of the slave trade. It is interesting to note that it was only until 1886 that slave trade was abolished for the case of Cuba. Two things are notable here. One, it took close to a century between the first case of abolition of the slave trade and the last case. This long period of time counters the narrative that the abolition of the slave trade in West Indies was mainly the work of abolitionist ethical considerations. It is therefore easy to conclude that there must have been economic gains which made it impossible to leave these sugar production grounds until when the Industrial Revolution occurred and it was now easier to produce sugar. Two, Cuba and Haiti are very close. If there was a reason to abolish the slave trade to Haiti in 1793, the same reason should have been applicable in Cuba at the same time. However, waiting for another century only confirms the fact that there were economic gains which were not worth leaving at the time.
The signing of the Emancipation Bill by the King in 1833 was a move in favor of the East Indies which posed greater development potential. Historians such as Drescher may not agree that the abolition of the slave trade was due to the dwindling potential of the investments on slavery s a means of production, but there exist progressions which serve to confirm that it was indeed because of reduced profits that slavery was abolished. According to Ward, by the end of the 18th century, while the slave traders were at the peak of their trade, there was already the realization that sugarcane was not sustainable any longer because the crop exhausted the soil and that when most plantation owners were absentees, their managers increasingly became ineffective. A closer look at the dynamics of plantation farming in the West Indies during the period preceding the abolition confirms the relationship between the slave trade and reducing profits. During this time, plantation agriculture was already on its path to collapse.
Whereas Ward does not dwell on the possible reasons for resistance, he notes that in 1805, an anti-slave labor bill failed for the eleventh time within a span of fifteen years to sail through parliament. The general show of apathy noted during this period only keeps one guessing about what could have been the motivations for holding on to the slave trade. When the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill of 106 was presented to parliament, Ward reports, it was the change of tactic as the appeal to justice and humanity had failed to gain traction. There was a general apathy not only within the leadership but also among the citizens. It is noteworthy that some of the citizens did not get to see the slaves as they were handled in specific ports. As such, one can only believe that the only reason that could push the British to abolish slave trade through popular support would have been caused by the lack of significant gains in the country.
It was not until Britain was economically self-sufficient that it ultimately ended the slave trade. British manufacturing and industry were stimulated by the slave trade. Slaves and estates needed clothes and utensils. It is no secret that the Industrial Revolution began with the slave trade. The British industry benefited from the slave trade as some of their commodities were sold to Africa in exchange for more slaves. Internally, profits derived from slave trade enabled British entrepreneurs to set up the industry, insurance, and banks. Over time, therefore, as the Industrial Revolution led to changes in production ways, the slave trade continued to take a back seat. It is noteworthy that the West Indian Interest of the 1740s was one of the sugar trading organizations to have the biggest voice in Parliament. As such, it was not easy for abolition movements to make any significant policy gains when parliament appeared to represent the interests of the slave traders. As such, the slave trade can be said to have ended upon the realization by this strong parliamentary representation of the fact that the plantations were no longer profitable or that the profits were no longer sustainable.
According to Temperley, 'capitalism was hostile to slavery.' Capitalism was founded on the idea of minimal costs and profit maximization. The ideas that support buying low and selling high and making the private capital investment on ventures that offer the most return. As such, it is not unexpected that as the foundations of capitalism stabilized, as the industry grew, as the industrial revolution took place, British capitalists found new ways to produce crops cheaply. As a result, it was only advisable that they let go of the slave trade as it involved heavy capital outlay yet the profits stagnated. Over the years, as abolition ideologies picked steam, there was the transition from mercantilism to free trade and later industrial capitalism. Of course, the British merchants had foreseen an end to the slave trade and made sure that through the slaves, they set up an alternative system that would ensure the same or even better productivity as the slave labor. In reference to this, Williams notes that 'African slave trade was a very important factor in the growth of a capitalist economy in England.'
A number of historians have come forward to discredit the assertion by Williams that the abolition of the slave trade in the West Indies was informed by the reduced profits of such a venture. Whereas these historians argue in favor of the abolitionists and regard the abolition as having been necessitated by calls for humanity and justice, inferential evidence supports William's assertions. The timing of the abolition in the backdrop of industrial gains, the long-time spans between abolition in adjacent countries, the notable drop in slave labor and the transition to capitalism are some of the reasons to believe in Williams. From the considerations of the factors surrounding the decision to abolish slave labor in the West Indies, it is tellable that the slave traders were in full control of parliament and that such decision could only have taken place after they were convinced that their internal preparations were sufficient enough to replace slave labor. It is also noteworthy that out of slave labor, Britain's industrial capacity grew multiple-fold. It is, therefore, fair to conclude that the decision to abolish slave labor in the West Indian sugar plantations was informed by the reduced profitability of the venture.
Drescher, Seymour. "Whose abolition? Popular pressure and the ending of the British slave trade." Past & Present 143 (1994): 136-166.
Drescher, Seymour. Econocide: British slavery in the era of abolition. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery, Atlantic trade, and the British economy, 1660-1800. Vol. 42. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Solow, Barbara Lewis, and Stanley L. Engerman. British capitalism and Caribbean slavery: The legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Temperley, Howard. "Capitalism, slavery and ideology." Past & Present 75 (1977): 94-118.
Ward, John R. "The Profitability of Sugar Planting in the British West Indies, 16501834 1." The Economic History Review31.2 (1978): 197-213.
Williams, Eric. Capitalism and slavery. UNC Press Books, 2014.
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