(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘slavery

“Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance”*…

A thoughtful consideration of Eric Williams‘ groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery and of his career as a politician…

… Despite his humble origins, the studious and disciplined Williams won a prized academic scholarship at the age of 11, putting him on track to become a “coloured Englishman,” he noted ruefully. His arrival at Oxford in 1931—again on a scholarship—seemingly confirmed this future. There he mingled in a progressive milieu that included the founder of modern Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and the self-exiled African American socialist Paul Robeson. It was at Oxford that Williams wrote “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” which was later transformed into the book at hand. In both works, but in the book more decisively, Williams punctured the then-reigning notion that abolitionism had been driven by humanitarianism—an idea that conveniently kept Europeans and Euro-Americans at the core of this epochal development. Instead Williams stressed African agency and resistance, which in turn drove London’s financial calculations. He accomplished this monumental task in less than 200 pages of text, making the response that followed even more noteworthy. Extraordinarily, entire volumes have been devoted to weighing his conclusions in this one book.

It would not be an exaggeration, then, to say that when Williams published Capitalism and Slavery in 1944, it ignited a firestorm of applause and fury alike. His late biographer, Colin Palmer, observed that “reviewers of African descent uniformly praised the work, while those who claimed European heritage were much less enthusiastic and more divided in their reception.” One well-known scholar of the latter persuasion assailed the “Negro nationalism” that Williams espoused in it. Nonetheless, Capitalism and Slavery has become arguably the most academically influential work on slavery written to date. It has sold tens of thousands of copies—with no end in sight—and has been translated into numerous European languages as well as Japanese and Korean. The book continues to inform debates on the extent to which capitalism was shaped by the enslavement of Africans, not to mention the extent to which these enslaved workers struck the first—and most decisive—blow against their inhumane bondage.

Proceeding chronologically from 1492 to the eve of the US Civil War, Williams grounded his narrative in parliamentary debates, merchants’ papers, documents from Whitehall, memoirs, and abolitionist renderings, recording the actions of the oppressed as they were reflected in these primary sources. The book has three central theses that have captured the attention of generations of readers and historians. The first was Williams’s almost offhand assertion that slavery had produced racism, not vice versa: “Slavery was not born of racism,” he contended, but “rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” To begin with, “unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan,” with various circumstances combining to promote the use of enslaved African labor. For example, “escape was easy for the white servant; less easy for the Negro,” who was “conspicuous by his color and features”—and, Williams added, “the Negro slave was cheaper.” But it was in North America most dramatically that slavery became encoded with “race” and thus, through its contorted rationalizations, ended up producing a new culture of racism.

This thesis was provocative for several reasons, but perhaps most of all because it implied that once the material roots of slavery had been ripped up, the modern world would finally witness the progressive erosion of anti-Black politics and culture. This optimistic view was echoed by the late Howard University classicist Frank Snowden in his trailblazing book Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Of course, sterner critics could well contend that such optimism was misplaced, that it misjudged the extent to which many post-slavery societies had been poisoned at the root. But this sunnier view of post-slavery societies was spawned in part by the proliferation of anti-colonial and anti–Jim Crow activism in the 1940s and ’50s.

Williams’s second thesis hasn’t stirred as much controversy, but it also exerted an enormous influence on the scholarship to come: He insisted that slavery fueled British industrial development, and therefore that slavery was the foundation not only of British capitalism but of capitalism as a whole. To prove this claim, Williams cited the many British mercantilists who themselves knew that slavery and the slave trade (not to mention the transportation of settlers) relied on a complex economic system, one that included shipbuilding and shackles to restrain the enslaved, along with firearms, textiles, and rum—manufacturing, in short. Sugar and tobacco, then cotton, were ferociously profitable, adding mightily to London’s coffers, which meant more ships and firearms, in a circle devoid of virtue. Assuredly, the immense wealth generated by slavery and the slave trade—the latter, at times, bringing a 1,700 percent profit—provided rocket fuel to boost the takeoff of capitalism itself.

Williams the politician was forced to reckon with many of these knotty matters, in particular as they pertained to the purposefully incomplete process of decolonization and the rise of new forms of empire. As prime minister, in order to court the United States’ favor, he was derelict in extending solidarity to its antagonists in Cuba and neighboring Guyana, where Cheddi Jagan would be joined by Jamaica’s Michael Manley in seeking to pursue a noncapitalist path to independence.

Williams’s tenure as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago extended for nearly two decades, from 1962 to 1981. But the presence of oil on the archipelago attracted the most vulturous wing of capital, further limiting his aspirations. As in Guyana, tensions between the various sectors of the working class—one with roots in Africa, the other in British India—were not conducive to anti-imperialist unity, hampering Williams’s ability to forge a sturdy base. Incongruously, though he did as much as any individual to assert the primacy of enslaved Africans in modern history, he ran afoul of the Black Power movement in his homeland, which—not altogether inaccurately—found him too compliant in dealing with the intrusive imperial presence in Trinidad. Yet despite being hampered by a divided working class and a proliferating Black Power movement that often regarded him with contempt, Williams was able to hang on to office, though he lacked the political strength to solve the persistent problems of poverty and underdevelopment.

The scholar whose X-ray vision detected the role of enslaved people in the innards of capitalism and empire was seemingly felled by both when the moment to confront their toxic legacy arrived. Even so, the failings of Williams the politico should not be used to vitiate the insights of Williams the scholar. As slavery-infused capitalism continues to run amok, we must, like an expert diagnostician, finally develop an adequate history that can drive a comprehensive prescription for our ills.

Eric Williams and the tangled history of capitalism and slavery: “The Politician-Scholar,” from Gerald Horne. Eminently worth reading in full. For a taste of the on-going dialogue that Williams provoked, see “A Few Random Thoughts on Capitalism and Slavery” (source of the image above).

* “Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance. It had been the basis of Greek economy and had built up the Roman Empire. In modern times it provided the sugar for the tea and the coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton to serve as a base for modern capitalism. It made the American South and the Caribbean islands.” –Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery

###

As we puzzle out the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792 that construction began on the White House with the laying of the cornerstone. Slaves, free African Americans, and Europeans did much of the construction. Wage rolls for May 1795 listed five slaves Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, three of them owned by White House architect James Hoban.

The 1795 Carpenters Roll for the White House, containing the names of slaves slaves Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel source: National Archive

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 13, 2021 at 1:00 am

“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves… are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons”*…

Today is Juneteenth.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 (effective January 1, 1863), word was slow to spread.  Indeed, in Texas (which had been largely on the sidelines of hostilities in the Civil War, had continued its own state constitution-sanctioned practice of slavery, and so had become a refuge for slavers from more besieged Southern states) it took years… and federal enforcement.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, who’d arrived  in Galveston, Texas, with 2,000 federal troops  to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves, read “General Order No. 3” from a local balcony:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Former slaves in Galveston celebrated in the streets; Juneteenth observances began across Texas the following year, and are now recognized as state holidays by 41 states– and as of this past Thursday, as a federal holiday.

Ashton Villa in Galveston, from whose front balcony the Emancipation Proclamation was read on June 19, 1865 (source)
Juneteenth celebration in Austin, c.1900 (source)

While the commemoration has deep historical and political resonance, Juneteenth has also become a time for family reunions and gatherings, but usually with a eye to the past. As with most social events, food takes center stage. Juneteenth is often commemorated by barbecues and the traditional drink – Strawberry Soda – and dessert – Strawberry Pie. Other red foods such as red rice (rice with tomatoes), watermelon and red velvet cake are also popular.  The red foods commemorate the blood that was spilled during the days of slavery.

[Image at top: source]

Abraham Lincoln, in the Emancipation Proclamation

###

As we set to the work still to be done, we might recall that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was approved, after surviving an 83-day filibuster in the United States Senate on this date in 1964. The House agreed to and passed the Senate version on July 2, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law that same day.

Pres. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among the guests behind him is Martin Luther King Jr. (source)

This day– or any day– would be a good day to watch this profile of James Baldwin, produced in 1979 for ABC’s 20/20, but never aired.

“There is always something new out of Africa”*…

Afrofuturism is a fun and interesting subgenre of science fiction and philosophy:, but I kind of chuckle every time I see the word, because all futurism is actually Afrofuturism. Africa is literally the future of the entire world. Here is one of the two or three most important charts you will ever see:

Notice that this is the projection for total population. It has Africa just about equal to Asia by the end of the century, but if we were to look at only young population, Africa would have a clear majority here. 

“Wait,” you may be about to ask. “Are these 80-year-ahead projections really reliable? What if African fertility falls?”

And the answer is: It’s going to fall! It’s already falling fast. As countries get richer their fertility rates drop; as Lyman Stone shows, Africa’s fertility rates are dropping faster, relative to their income level, than any other region except India…

recent paper in The Lancet attempts to model how African population will change as women’s education and access to contraception (the two biggest things other than GDP that we know affect fertility) increase. They predict a population for Sub-Saharan Africa of about 3.4 billion by century’s end — only 0.8 billion lower than the UN median projection. That’s still an absolutely enormous fraction of humanity, and an even larger chunk of the young population.

Thus, the future of Africa is the future of humanity, despite the fact that Africa will experience a normal fertility transition and its population will eventually stabilize rather than explode. I don’t think people in the U.S. (or, probably, other regions) have come to grips with the full import of this.

But what happens to Africa is even more important, relative to the rest of the world, than these population numbers suggest! This is because Africa is still a mostly poor region. Economics teaches us that marginal utility — i.e. the amount life gets better when you get a little richer — is much higher for poor people. And with China and (to some degree) India industrializing successfully and seeing population growth slow, soon most of the extremely poor people in the world will probably reside in Africa.

So the future welfare of humanity depends crucially on whether Africa can make big strides against poverty — in other words, whether African countries can achieve substantial economic growth… 

The fate of humanity in the 21st century and beyond hinges on whether African countries can figure out the riddle of industrialization.

Can Africa industrialize? Noah Smith (@Noahpinion) believes that it can: “All futurism is Afrofuturism.” The full argument (and more supporting charts and data) in the complete post.

* Pliny the Elder

###

As we look to the future, we might recall that it was on this date in 1775 that an anonymous writer, now widely thought to be Thomas Paine, published “African Slavery in America,” the first article in the American colonies calling for the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery.

source

“The future, said Herzen, was the offspring of accident and willfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind”*…

 

Herzen

 

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in, and admiring of, plurality. Plurality—a condition of society in which people who hold widely different beliefs and are committed to quite different values nevertheless find some way to live in relative peace with one another—is to be distinguished from pluralism, which may be described as a conviction that a society in which people pursue a great diversity of ends is intrinsically superior to a more unified society. That I don’t believe. I think that our society would be better off if we were all united by a deeply shared set of convictions—my convictions, as it happens. (Imagine that!) But I would want such singleness of vision to be freely chosen, which will obviously never happen. So in default of my ideal, I say: Better plurality than tyranny, and better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me.

From this point of view, the most zealous on the contemporary American left and the contemporary American right have something fundamental in common: They never ask the question, Am I fit to rule others?” I see this self-blindness not only in electoral politics but also in intra-religious and academic disputes. They take it for granted that the rightness of their convictions makes them fit: that the justice of a cause can make a perfectly straight thing out of the crooked timber of their humanity. To be sure, I continue to say, better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me; but I also say, better that none of those zealots ever achieve the power they lust for—because their very confidence in their right to rule is the most absolute disqualification for rule that I can imagine. This Alexander Herzen understood.

The central figure in Tom Stoppard’s great dramatic trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2002) is Herzen (1812–70), the first Russian socialist. From exile in England, Herzen published The Bell, which the great American critic Dwight Macdonald, the editor of an English-language edition of Herzen’s memoirs, called perhaps the most effective muckraking magazine in radical history.”…

What distinguishes Stoppard’s Herzen—which I think is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the real Herzen— from Marx and Chernyshevsky is simply that his thought is more historical than theirs. Both of them believed themselves to be deeply historical thinkers, but they had, in their different ways, settled on a complete and wholly enclosed understanding of the point that history is coming to, the point at which it will effectively conclude. They shared a sense of the telos, the goal, or end, of history...

Herzen… didn’t know where history was going or how it would get there. He understands himself to be in the midst of a great procession, one of many both before and after him to take up the cause of justice and freedom. History is plurality, even among those who share a commitment, a cause. 

This is Stoppard’s image of the true scholar and the true activist alike. In Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia, Septimus Hodge consoles his pupil Lady Thomasina Coverly when she cries out in grief for all the lost plays of the Athenians”: We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short.” And Stoppard’s Herzen, near the end of this magnificent trilogy, finds the same consolation and expresses it with some of the same words, but even more concisely and beautifully: The idea will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.”…

Why the great Russian thinker refused to pick up the axe to advance his cause: “Alexander Herzen and the Plural World.”  From Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and proprietor of a consistently-interesting newsletter, Snakes and Ladders.

* Tom Stoppard, in an essay on Alexander Herzen

###

As we ponder plurality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 came into force (though it remained legal in the possessions of the East India Company until the passage of the Indian Slavery Act, 1843).

200px-Official_medallion_of_the_British_Anti-Slavery_Society_(1795)

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”, 1787 medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood for the British anti-slavery campaign

source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

“He got his fat dreams, he got his slaves / He got his profits, he owns our cage”*…

 

slave ship

Plan, profile and layout of the slave ship The Séraphique Marie

 

For a generation, the relationship between slavery and capitalism has preoccupied historians. The publication of several major pieces of scholarship on the matter has won attention from the media. Scholars demonstrate that the Industrial Revolution, centred on the mass production of cotton textiles in the factories of England and New England, depended on raw cotton grown by slaves on plantations in the American South. Capitalists often touted the superiority of the industrial economies and their supposedly ‘free labour’. ‘Free labour’ means the system in which workers are not enslaved but free to contract with any manufacturer they chose, free to sell their labour. It means that there is a labour market, not a slave market.

But because ‘free labour’ was working with and dependent on raw materials produced by slaves, the simple distinction between an industrial economy of free labour on the one hand and a slave-based plantation system on the other falls apart. So too does the boundary between the southern ‘slave states’ and northern ‘free states’ in America. While the South grew rich from plantation agriculture that depended on slave labour, New England also grew rich off the slave trade, investing in the shipping and maritime insurance that made the transport of slaves from Africa to the United States possible and profitable. The sale of enslaved Africans brought together agriculture and industry, north and south, forming a global commercial network from which the modern world emerged.

It is only in the past few decades that scholars have come to grips with how slavery and capitalism intertwined. But for the 18th-century French thinkers who laid the foundations of laissez-faire capitalism, it made perfect sense to associate the slave trade with free enterprise. Their writings, which inspired the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), aimed to convince the French monarchy to deregulate key businesses such as the sale of grain and trade with Asia. Only a few specialists read them today. Yet these pamphlets, letters and manuscripts clearly proclaim a powerful message: the birth of modern capitalism depended not only on the labour of enslaved people and the profits of the slave trade, but also on the example of slavery as a deregulated global enterprise…

[Adam] Smith became far more influential than his teacher. As his own version of laissez-faire ideas came to seem like common sense in the following century, the pioneering Gournay Circle was largely forgotten. Their sense that the slave trade was a prime example of free trade in action disappeared. Yet the writings of Gournay and Morellet reveal that modern capitalism is entangled with slavery in multiple, profound ways. Slave labour supplied the cotton, sugar and other vital commodities. The profits from the sale of slaves created fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in a disturbing paradox, the founding fathers of laissez-faire saw the slave trade as a showcase of liberty.

The chilling tale of a “secret ingredient” in capitalism-as-we-know-it and of the 18th-century thinkers behind the laissez-faire economics that power it: “Slavery as Free Trade.”

* Richie Havens, “Fate”

###

As we face history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

300px-Prise_de_la_Bastille

Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël

source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: