As Stephen Drescher observes in The Mighty Experiment, the total failure of free society in Sierra Leone, a free labor colony in West Africa chartered by abolitionists to take on slave labor in the British West Indies was an early warning of the economic collapse that would later be unleashed in the Caribbean:
“The Sierra Leone Company envisioned its own venture as part of a head-to-head competition between cultivation by free labor in Africa and slavery in the West Indies. Although the directors did not look forward to spectacular profits, their employers were instructed that their main and immediate priority was commercial viability. Sugar was selling at prices they had not been offered for almost a century. The Sierra Leone venture was soon so heavily subscribed that abolitionists boasted of having to take precautions to see that West Indians did not attempt to obtain a substantial share of the capital. Company directors and the governor felt that an ideal, perhaps divinely ordained, opportunity had been offered to them. The English press was also filled with high hopes for more cotton and sugar from West Africa. The optimism was echoed in York, Manchester, Northampton, Norwich, Chester, Derby, Shrewsbury, Reading, and Leeds. By the end of March, 1792 £200,000 had already been subscribed and the company announced the termination of subscriptions. Expectations for Sierra Leone, as for other tropical ventures, rested on the environmental premise of “tropical exuberance.” The directors reasoned that Africa’s natural fertility would enable the colony to compete with West Indian planters, who had to beat the costs of purchasing and transporting an abused, debilitated, and demoralized labor force from the very area in which the colony was establishing its colony.”
Free labor was going to prove its superiority to slave labor with positive incentives in the very area where the slaves were captured and transported to the Caribbean at great expense and subjected to negative inducements to labor like the whip on West Indian sugar plantations!
“The Sierra Leone experiment managed to endure through enormous initial difficulties, including internal strife, heavy mortality, and a devastating French raid in 1794. The list of plants designated for culture at Sierra Leone during the first two decades of its existence included sugar, cotton, coffee, pepper, rice, tobacco, cinnamon, guinea-grass, and mangoes. Aside from the difficulties of drought and pests, however, the chief complaint of the governors and directors turned out to be the difficulty of obtaining steady farm labor, either from white or black settlers or from native Africans. Successive waves of (HW: free black) migrants from England, Nova Scotia, and Jamaica all failed to meet the directors’ expectations and hopes. As early as the late 1790s, the company was no longer thinking in terms of profits, either from local agriculture or more distant trade. A decade after its launching, the company’s entire capital had fallen by over 90 percent from its early subscription days of 1791-1792.”
This answers John Bonaccorsi.
“When, on the verge of bankruptcy, the Sierra Leone Company petitioned for the colony’s transfer to the crown in 1807, it acknowledged its inability to compete with the slave traders. In the reasons for retention of the colony, its economic value and potential were not mentioned. The only hope was that the closing of the slave trade might remove “the want of a regular supply of labourers,” at that point “far below the demand.” A year before the company’s petition, the government had already contemplated breaking up the colony to reinforce its black West India regiments. The abolitionists’ rational for the colony’s existence now veered sharply away from its initial status as a staple-producing rival to slave labor. The company’s violation of free labor principles had indeed become one of the many charges laid against Sierra Leone’s managers. Maintenance of the colony was now defended in strictly humanitarian terms, as a residence for the resettled black victims of the American Revolution and of slaves rescued by British warships from the African slave trade.”
The British abolitionists’ great experiment in free labor in the 1790s was a total failure and became a major talking point for the slave interest:
“The abolitionists’ strategy became permanently defensive. Responding to increasingly sarcastic attacks, they stated that the experiment has proven that the people of Africa were capable of free labor and self-sustaining cultivation. In the turmoil of the early 1790s, the colony could be defended as an incomplete and interrupted experiment, not yet put to a fair trial. Its defenders could promise that favorable data would soon be forthcoming. Antiabolitionists, on the other hand, were relentless in their close attention to evidence of the total commercial failure of the company. In Parliament they took meticulous notice of the precipitous slide in the annual par value of the company’s shares before 1807. Above all, they yearned to close the books on the project and so designate it as a fully failed experiment. Whatever the lines of reasoning on either side, after 1807 it was clear that the abolitionists silently distanced themselves from the idea of Sierra Leone as a labor experiment in direct competition with West Indian slavery.”
Note: The British abolitionist experiment in free society in Sierra Leone depicted in the movie Blood Diamond below was complemented by its American abolitionist wingman next door in Liberia. For more details on how that experiment worked out see The (Black) “Land of the Free” and “Greater Liberia” Goes Full Gangsta.