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Does Decline Make Sense?
The West Indian Economy and the Abolition of the British Slave Trade

David Beck Ryden


One of the most lively and long-lived historical controversies centers on the causes of British anti-slavery policies during the first years of the nineteenth century. Participants in this debate dispute whether the health of the West Indian sugar industry had any impact on the decision to abolish the slave trade in 1807. Advocates of what is commonly referred to as the "Decline Thesis" believe that slavery's faltering profitability mandated abolition, whereas the opposition tends to reject the very notion of economic hardship in the West Indies. Recent historians tend to fall into this latter camp, their research focusing on how social and cultural changes within England provided a fertile environment for reform movements to flourish. This line of thought argues that the industrialization of Britain introduced new systems of production, trade, and politics that fostered the emergence of the anti-slavery movement as the major philanthropic agenda of the day. Despite these two differing opinions regarding the fundamental cause of Britain's first major assault on slavery, both positions have relied upon economic theory and application to bolster their points of view.

New evidence presented in this article resurrects the argument that planters were facing rapid decline at the turn of the nineteenth century. Both sugar prices and estimated slave prices culled from the Jamaica Archives confirm the contemporary commentary that outlines the problem of "overproduction," which [End Page 347] led to a financial crisis among British planters on the eve of the slave trade's abolition. Previous studies have ignored both variations in transport costs and the runaway inflation of the late- eighteenth century, creating an overoptimistic portrait of planters' prospects and erroneously eliminating the role of West Indies from the abolition equation.

the rise and fall of the decline thesisIn the mid-twentieth century, the most popular explanation of the slave trade's demise came from the Manichean model of world history purveyed by Clarkson--the first chronicler of British abolition and an active participant in the fight to destroy the trade. The "Clarksonian" point of view pictured abolition as the consequence of a divinely guided confluence of Christian thinkers toward social change within the empire, as his diagram, reproduced in Figure 1, illustrates. 1

Clarkson's story of Christian progress remained the conventional interpretation of abolition a century after the publication of his history. Coupland, the pre-eminent early-twentieth-century scholar of British anti-slavery, echoed much of Clarkson's sentiment in his account of the movement, though he saw the struggle not between good and evil but between morality and national self-interest. According to Coupland, the slave system was a "necessity" for Britain after the loss of the North American colonies. Upon surveying "what was left of the old Empire," Parliament chose to follow a policy that protected the status quo of all economic arrangements, including that of West Indian black-white relations and the slave trade. Subsequently, the early anti-slave-trade campaigners became persona non grata in the eyes of the establishment. Coupland interpreted the eventual success of the movement as a tribute to the single-mindedness of the abolitionist "Saints" to raise public consciousness above the nation's economic-self interest. 2 [End Page 348]

Williams' seminal book, Capitalism and Slavery, viciously attacked Coupland and other followers of the Clarksonian tradition, claiming that they "sacrificed scholarship to sentimentality and . . . placed faith before reason and evidence." In Williams' view, Anglo researchers had neglected to investigate the possibility of more worldly and structural causes of slavery's destruction. Williams explained [End Page 349] that previous studies had artificially inflated the importance of the sugar industry in order to glorify the achievement of the abolitionists, thereby failing to recognize the underlying materialist causes behind the prohibition of slave trading. Earlier historians missed the fact that the new capitalistic economy had no need for the arcane labor system of slavery. The success of British free trade following the American Revolution, coupled with the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (Glasgow, 1776), exposed the fact that the riches generated by the mercantilist system were actually a fiction on the empire's balance sheet. Furthermore, a decline in both the importance and profitability of the sugar industry made the slave system an outdated mode of production in a burgeoning capitalistic economy. The cessation of the British slave trade had little to do with the evangelical abolitionist movement in Britain and everything to do with the faltering profitability and political influence of West Indian sugar producers. 3

Capitalism and Slavery's narrative is a precursor of the world system model of economic development that Karl Marx inspired; the early portion of the book links Britain's wealth to the exploitation of the world's lesser-developed economies. Nevertheless, the heart of Williams' argument that connects abolition and economic decline is based on a neoclassical economic theory. Based on Ragatz's The Fall of the Planter Class, Capitalism and Slavery maintains that the first planters enjoyed tremendous profits because they were early entrants into an industry that was situated to enjoy a long-term rise in demand. The early slaveholders had not only the best soils in the British West Indies but also the protection afforded by the Navigation Acts, which guaranteed high sugar prices and exclusive trading privileges with North American suppliers. Whether by design or by good fortune, the first sugar growers in Barbados, Jamaica, and the smaller sugar islands amassed huge fortunes throughout the 100 years after 1650. 4

This trade policy, however, could not protect British sugar [End Page 350] growers from increasing competition within the empire. Ragatz suggested that the first blow came at the end of the Seven Years' War, when Britain was poised to expand its Caribbean holdings. Established planters lobbied hard against Britain's acquisition of additional sugar islands during the Peace of Paris. They were successful in keeping Guadeloupe and Martinique under French rule, but they could not prevent the cession of Grenada, the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Vincent, and Tobago to British rule. These new islands with their fresh soil helped to accelerate Britain's expanding sugar economy. McCusker estimates that between 1750 and 1775, British West Indian production more than doubled; the contribution of the ceded islands enhanced production by 20 percent. Grenada alone exported, on average, 12,000 hogsheads per year (a hogshead being roughly 1700 lb during this period) to England after 1770. 5

North American revolutionary politics intensified planters' economic pressures. The American Revolution created a short-term crisis that, in Williams' words, introduced "the first stage in the decline of the sugar colonies." During this period, planters were "entirely cut off from usual Supplies from America." Food, in particular, became scarce, and slaves suffered the worst consequences. Williams highlighted the financial crisis that ensued by noting the high mortality rate of slaves during the Revolution. In Jamaica, 15,000 of them died of famine between 1780 and 1787. This catastrophe was even greater in the Leeward Islands and in Barbados, where the majority of fields were devoted exclusively to sugar production, leaving planters unable to use locally grown provisions to feed their workers. When prices for such goods as flour, Indian corn, and salted meats doubled during the hostilities, most estate owners had to call a moratorium on slavery's century-long expansion. Planter interest in slavery waned during the Revolution, and during the first year of warfare, slave traders were forced to sail from island to island with little hope of selling their cargo, despite low prices. 6

For Williams, the importance of the Revolution lay not in its [End Page 351] short-term effect, but in how it revealed the inherent weakness of the crumbling mercantilist system and the artificiality of West Indian wealth. The Williams' thesis claims that slavery did not come to an end because of humanitarian or spiritual reform but because of its association with an arcane system of labor that encouraged sugar output to be in excess of demand. The net wealth and profits generated from the Caribbean sugar industry were no longer critical to the empire's economy. Williams accordingly advised researchers to describe facts in ways "that you can touch and see, to be measured in pounds sterling or pounds avoirdupois, in dollars and cents, yards, feet and inches," rather than in moral or spiritual terms. 7

This call for empiricism did not go unheeded. Ironically, many subsequent economic and quantitative studies were highly critical of Capitalism and Slavery. Drescher, the book's most prominent critic, attacked Williams by questioning the basis for the decline narrative. He argued that slavery was hardly a moribund institution in the years following the American Revolution. He measured the dynamism of the sugar industry by emphasizing the elasticity in the supply of African slaves and by demonstrating the ability of planters to increase sugar production during the fifty years preceding abolition. As the largest non- Continental trading partner with Britain, the British Caribbean's importance was increasing over time, as the graph in Figure 2 illustrates. Contrary to Williams, these data purport to show that the decision to end the slave trade was, in fact, economic suicide, or "Econocide," for Great Britain. 8

Since the publication of Drescher's Econocide, historiography [End Page 352] [Begin Page 354] has shifted to a neo-Clarksonian interpretation of abolition. Most historians have abandoned Williams' point entirely, eagerly drawing from Drescher's thesis that slavery was a vibrant institution that produced large financial returns to individual planters on the very eve of abolition. Their common theme is that abolition was not a policy decision to launch Britain into the new era of capitalism; it was the result of capitalism and the social changes that accompanied its development. Even economic historians tend to agree with this interpretation. They appreciate Capitalism and Slavery more for its political or radical historiographical message than for the specific content of its argument. 9

The widespread dismissal of the decline thesis may have been premature, for Drescher's economic analysis ignored a close study of sugar prices during the period of abolition. This same criticism, however, can also be directed toward those who drafted the decline thesis. Williams, like Drescher, turned to London-based prices that were first published in Ragatz's The Fall of the Planter Class (see Figure 3). Neither side in the debate paid much attention to these numbers, since no pattern was discernible in them. From the decline perspective, this price series makes little sense. The long-run increase that followed the low point just after the [End Page 354] American Revolution suggests that "overproduction" was not a problem among planters. Drescher capitalized on this omission, tersely noting that the final decade of the eighteenth century was "overwhelmingly favorable to producers." This brief reference, however, is the limit of Drescher's exploration of sugar prices. The general reticence is probably an implicit recognition of the limitations of British price data: The figures that Ragatz, Williams, and Drescher marshaled tell more about changing shipping charges than variations in sugar revenues. Contemporary writers who analyzed the financial prospects of planters, as well as the planters themselves, recognized the bias inherent in British prices [End Page 355] and typically turned to colonial "spot" prices or estimated values net of shipping costs. 10

THE FREIGHT RATE EFFECT ON SUGAR PRICES Much of the large body of literature that outlines changes in transport costs during the colonial period heralds the accomplishments and acumen of the merchants and sailors who reduced long-run costs by designing new trade routes and methods of marketing. The subsequent long-term decline in shipping charges during the seventeenth century provided a vent for surplus American crops, thereby providing the basis of economic growth in the colonies. Most important to the efficiency gains was the establishment of shipping lanes that were free from molestation by pirates, privateers, or ships of war. These gains disappeared, however, during the half-century preceding the abolition of the slave trade when the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars placed a frequent and heavy burden on all parties to Atlantic shipping--including consumers who faced higher prices on imported goods--for twenty-five years. 11

Naval warfare was particularly burdensome for Caribbean staple producers; it made even the smallest aspects of sugar marketing expensive. Lumber shortages during the American Revolution, for instance, caused the cost of sugar and rum casks to rise dramatically. [End Page 356] The major increase in the cost of ocean shipping was particularly acute in the Caribbean, where French and British sugar islands were in close proximity. 12

Although we know little about the exact charges for freight and insurance after 1750, there is research that clearly illustrates the effect that wars had on shipping costs. Morgan's work on the Bristol trade reveals one extra expense that merchants had to assume was the installation of deck cannon. During the Seven Years' War, the number of them that merchant vessels sailing to Jamaica had to carry more than doubled. Soon after the fighting ceased, the freight tons per gun increased nearly six times, only to fall sharply again during the American Revolution. This pattern is also reflected in crew wages, since the sailors needed to man these weapons had to increase during wartime. The burden of carrying more weapons and men was compounded by the fact that merchant vessels were also forced to move in convoys, thereby negating the century-long gains in limiting "turn-around" times in port. This safety-in-numbers approach also caused delays and created inefficiencies by eliminating the flexibility enjoyed by merchants in peacetime. 13

Warfare produced high anxiety among absentee planters, who often had to wait months to learn whether their West Indian agents had successfully secured deck space for the season's muscovado and rum output. Thomas Hall, an owner of a Jamaican estate, instructed his manager to do everything possible to ensure shipment of his crop: "I beg ye will Ship me all the Sugars you can, if no Ships belonging to Msr Holme & Co. will be ready to sail by this 1st Convoy, you are in that case to Ship on board such Ships for London as you can be assured will Sail." 14

These same tensions are expressed by those who managed the estates. The attorney for an estate in the parish of St. Andrew, Jamaica, [End Page 357] wrote to the absent owner in 1778, "it is imagined there will be at least one third of the crop left in the island," adding bitterly that "even at Kingston it is a favor to get the Captains to take your sugars on board." He, as well as other estate attorneys and managers knew that the few merchant ships plying the Caribbean Sea had the upper hand in the island markets. What he did not acknowledge, but in all likelihood knew, was that vessels sailing during wartime bore an enormous risk and extra costs that had to be offset by higher freight charges. 15

The American Revolutionary era was particularly difficult for commercial shipping. Not only were traders forced to raise rates to pay for extra armaments and crew, but wartime demands also bid up shipping rates indirectly. As was customary during wartime, the admiralty formed a board of trade responsible for securing ships from private merchants. The Crown required more than 1,500 ships to ferry nearly 70,000 troops, plus their supplies, across the Atlantic at a cost between £500,000 and £1,000,000 per year--an enormous sum given that the peak value of eighteenth-century exports from Great Britain to the thirteen colonies was less than £5,000,000. This war-induced demand meant that shipping all commodities from the Americas became more ex-pensive. 16

The heavy demand war placed on the shipping industry was exacerbated by the fact that merchants and traders faced shortages in the supply of vessels. Great Britain's merchant marine increasingly relied on colonial shipyards in New England, New York, and Philadelphia during the eighteenth century. By 1776, one- third of England's ships were built in North American yards specializing in ships that were 30 percent less expensive than vessels built in Great Britain. To make up for the deficiency in tonnage during the war, British traders had to turn to high-priced ship builders in Flanders, Portugal, and even Italy. 17

Changes in British wholesale prices of American-grown commodities, such as sugar, tended to reflect the adverse conditions [End Page 358] of trade and not the fortunes of the commodities' producers. In certain industries, producers theoretically bear the burden of transport costs; in others, consumers have to pay higher prices. If the costs of shipping were shared equally, the rising London prices noted by Ragatz, Williams, and Drescher might actually have indicated flagging prospects for planters. Likewise, a fall in British prices during times of peace might have signaled a rise in planter revenue per barrel of sugar. A solution to this problem is to turn to West Indian prices. According to efficient market theory, the price of sugar purchased in the islands should be net of the costs and the risks associated with transporting the sugars to the metropolis. If ship captains did not expect to make a fair return on sugar purchases in the Caribbean, they generally would not strike a deal. Likewise, if overseers, owners, or estate managers could make a better return by arranging for merchants in England to handle their product rather than meeting ship captains' prices, they would refuse to do business with the shippers. Thus, sale prices made in the West Indies reflect, on average, the revenue that planters expected to receive net of shipping charges. 18

THE INFLATIONARY EFFECT ON SUGAR PRICES Warfare on the high seas had an inflationary impact that was not limited to sugar. Just as hostilities with the French made seafaring more difficult in the Caribbean, it also raised the prices of all imported goods. Moreover, the huge expenditures by the British government to fund its army and navy created inflation throughout the economy. Planters, like any other manufacturers had to receive higher prices for their sugar or increase the number of sales if they were to maintain the same level of real income. Ragatz, Williams, and Drescher ignored the implication of wartime inflation during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Schumpeter empirically described the inflationary effects that eighteenth-century warfare had on the English economy more that fifty years ago. Not only did she construct the most widely used price index for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; her work also provides a solid analysis of price movements. She framed her discussion of prices in Keynesian terms, noting the real [End Page 359] and monetary effect that Britain's hostility with France had on the economy. The government's massive expenditures--for such things as armaments, ships, rope, canvas, clothing, and food--injected money into the pocketbooks of owners and workers, who, in turn, used it to purchase other producer and consumer goods, thereby setting in motion a multiplier effect that bid up virtually all prices and wages in the empire's economy. 19

Schumpeter also described how government borrowing was "especially important" for funding the Seven Years' War, the struggle against the American Revolution, and the first part of the Napoleonic war (1793-1802). The unfunded debt, or short-term obligations, used by various departments of government--in the form of tallies, exchequer orders, exchequer bills, navy bills, or army bills--were either circulated by recipients as credit or redeemed by the Bank of England in exchange for a bank note. In either case, as the volume of credit, or money, increased, the value of the currency declined. Labor, understanding that the nominal value of the shilling had fallen, demanded higher nominal wages. Likewise, producers, merchants, and capitalists realized that they too should raise their prices to match the decreased value of money. 20

The wars of the late-eighteenth century required increases in the public debt that pushed up nominal prices, but the final decade of that century placed the heaviest burden on the British government. Expenditures to prepare for war were nearly ten times that of expenditures on debt, though the interest and management of the public debt was at an all time high in 1797. MacCulloch, a nineteenth-century observer, commented that the crisis was due to a number of factors, including "loans to the Emperor of Germany, to bills drawn on the treasury by the British agents abroad, and partly and chiefly, perhaps, to the large advances made by the Bank of England to Government." These advances grew so large that rumors about the French preparing to invade Great Britain sparked a run, first, on small country banks and then on the Bank [End Page 360] of England. The Privy Council responded by "suspend[ing] payments in cash at the Bank" until the instability was rectified. But instead of returning to a bullion-backed Bank note, the government kept the restrictions in place. Thus, the Bank made "large advances to Government, without subjecting herself to a drain for bullion" until six months after peace with the French. 21

The runaway inflation accompanying the policies of the late eighteenth century masked the fluctuations of the real price of sugar in the series used by both Ragatz and Drescher. Planters were painfully aware of inflation's effect. One West Indian agent in the early nineteenth century reported that prices for "British produce and manufactures . . . [were] 100 per cent. more than they [were] twenty years ago." 22

British sugar prices are not the most accurate measure of planter revenues. Properly deflated prices from the West Indies, unlike the series in Figure 3 show estimates that are net of the influence of shipping costs during wartime. Furthermore, after proper deflation according to Schumpeter's index, these figures are also net of the inflationary pressures associated with Britain's preparation for warfare. These data reveal a long-run decline in prices during the eighteenth century. This fall was particularly acute during the years following the brief rise in prices during the Haitian Revolution. Nominal sugar prices could not keep up with the runaway inflation of the 1790s and the 1800s.

REAL MUSCOVADO SUGAR PRICES FROM JAMAICA There were two basic financial vehicles for exporting sugar from the West Indies. In the eighteenth century, most sugars were shipped from the islands via the consignment system. Planters typically demanded tight control over the distribution of their sugar and took financial responsibility for the shipment of their produce. Rather than selling [End Page 361] their sugar in the West Indies to a British merchant, they frequently consigned some proportion of the year's crop to an agent in Britain who would be responsible for chartering vessels, receiving the shipment, paying the duties, and warehousing any sugars that the planter wanted to hold for speculative purposes. The return for these services was a sales commission as well as additional commissions for a miscellany of services related to supplying the plantation.

Although this consignment system dominated the trade, it was not uncommon for sugars to be sold to merchants who accepted the risk of transporting and marketing the sugars "on their own Account." Most notable were the merchants from Britain's "Out-Ports [who were] wholly excluded from that lucrative" consignment commerce. Merchants outside of London typically directed their shipmasters or agents in the West Indies to purchase sugar directly from planters. Merchants in Bristol were particularly active in Jamaica's local sugar market, sending representatives to the island to direct their business or dispatching shipmasters, or supercargoes, to fill the holds of their vessels by making a series of purchases. 23

A great number of eighteenth-century Jamaican sugar sales were recorded in documents known as "crop accounts"--a compilation of thousands of plantation records that "contain all the Rents, Issues, Profits, Proceeds and Produce" from hundreds of estates. Local law mandated that these figures be collected in order to prevent "frauds and Breaches of Trust by [the owner's] attorneys or agents." If an estate owner was an absentee, a woman, a child, or an invalid, the law required that the plantation manager keep close account of the estate's production and appear before a magistrate during the cane-cutting months to declare the year's produce. The amount of detail in their reports varied greatly. Some managers swore to the accuracy of records that listed the output simply in terms of containers filled; others enumerated ships, agents, and sometimes, in the case of local sales, prices received. These documents were subsequently recorded and housed by the island government. 24 [End Page 362]

Local sales took place in every parish of Jamaica, but the crop accounts from the western parish of Westmoreland contain a significant number of "on-the-spot" transactions. Although this region may indeed have sustained a greater volume of sales than other parts of the colony, it might just have had better bookkeeping. There is some evidence that local attorneys there may have demanded unusual detail in crop accounts. The records of Westmoreland follow a consistent yearly format about how the crop was allocated.

Savanna-la-Mar, the port city for Westmoreland, was the "metropolis" of the western parishes. Sixty to seventy vessels, a total of nearly 12,000 tons, entered and cleared the port each year. The town's leeward location allowed merchant ships easy access to the harbor to purchase more sugar to fill their holds before proceeding to Britain. During times of war, Westmoreland's importance was enhanced by the proximity of Bluefields Bay, which served as a point of "constant rendezvous . . . for the homeward-bound fleets and convoys, intending to steer by the way of Florida Gulph." 25

Although carved out of St. Elizabeth in 1703, the parish is considered one of Jamaica's "early" settlements. Its heritage and its excellence in growing sugarcane help to explain the sophistication of the local traders and the importance of the region as a trade center. For a southern parish, its flat coastal land was unusually well watered, and the soil was far from depleted.

The majority of the West Indian prices collected herein come from Westmoreland, covering the period between 1760 and 1807. Data for the period 1753 to 1759 derive from miscellaneous crop accounts compiled in various parishes. Figure 3illustrates the late-eighteenth century trend of real prices in a three-year moving average. A comparison of these local figures with prices in Britain shows that during wartime, the price differential increased by 4 shillings, 8 pence per hundredweight. 26 [End Page 363]

Figure 4 shows that the long-run price of sugar, net of shipping costs and inflation, was in decline between 1750 and 1807. Contemporary qualitative reports confirm the high and low price ranges in general terms. This secular fall in the net value of sugar, however, is not, in itself, evidence of a decline in the viability of sugar estates. Nor is it a confirmation of the Williams thesis. A supply-side explanation might suggest that plantations were becoming less costly to operate during this period and that, given the competitive nature of the industry, the savings benefited consumers. During the second half of the eighteenth century, "A spirit of experiment . . . appeared, which by quitting the old beaten track, promis[ed] to strike out continual improvements." In Jamaica, the plow and new irrigation techniques contributed to higher total factor productivity. This ingenuity may explain the long-run fall, but it does not explain the intensity of the price drop after the peak during the 1790s. The 10.5-shilling fall between 1795 and 1807, more than 40 percent, cannot be explained away by a decrease in production costs. The introduction of Otheite cane--introduced to the West Indies at the end of the eighteenth century--failed to achieve proportional gains in output, and steam power had yet to be implemented to any significant extent. The steep fall in prices was the consequence of the planters' failure to recognize that their industry would no longer be propped up by mercantilist policy in an era of overproduction, under a classical free-trade regime. 27

OVERPRODUCTION AND THE INTRODUCTION OF A FREE MARKET In his attacks on the decline thesis, Drescher carefully avoided applying economic theory and data ahistorically. He steered clear of [End Page 364] epistemological entanglements by demonstrating that his trade statistics were available to, and discernible by, both the British public and the members of Parliament. His fundamental conclusion--that abolition caused the decline of the sugar industry, not vice versa--is evident in his aggregate export and import figures, [End Page 365] which show undeniably that British-West Indian trade was at its peak in 1807. However, Drescher's framework for discussing the decline thesis underestimated the sophistication of the contemporary discussion about the empire's economy. Whereas Drescher saw strength in the enormous growth in sugar production during the decade and a half before 1807, nineteenth-century critics and supporters of the sugar industry saw planters under siege by fierce international competition. 28

West Indian planters had always emphasized their industry's important contribution to the empire's wealth and prestige, claiming that their "peculiar commodity . . . helped to put in motion nearly the whole circle of [British] national industry." The bedrock on which their industry rested was the Navigation Acts, which ensured that any benefit from the manufacture, trade, or the distribution of sugar would accrue to Britons only, but also ensured that British consumers would consistently pay higher prices than their counterparts on the continent. Mercantilist theory, however, argued that the benefits enjoyed by Britain's economy outweighed any burdens. This situation persisted until the late 1790s, when British sugar producers found themselves in competition with non-British producers for the first time, and the Navigation Acts were no longer able to protect them. 29

In 1807, at least four major tracts were written about the crisis within the sugar economy. Three of the pamphlete
Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.3 (2001) 347-374


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