British West Indies
In Caribbean Project: Review: Slave Society in Cuba During the Nineteenth Century, we saw how the abolition of slavery in Haiti (1794) and the British West Indies (1838) set off an economic boom in slave labor Spanish Cuba.
In 1770, the French Caribbean (Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana) produced 46.7 percent of the sugar in the Caribbean. After the loss of Saint-Domingue (1804) and French abolition (1848), the French share of Caribbean sugar collapsed to 7.4 percent in 1850.
In 1770, the British Caribbean (Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Barbados, Windward Islands) produced 40 percent of the sugar in the Caribbean. After the abolition of slavery (1838) and the triumph of free trade (1846), the British share of Caribbean sugar plunged to 28.5 percent in 1850.
In 1770, the Spanish Caribbean (Cuba and Puerto Rico) produced only 5 percent of the sugar in the Caribbean. After the loss of Saint-Domingue (1804) and the abolition of slavery in British West Indies (1838) and French West Indies (1848) and the triumph of free trade in Britain (1846), the Spanish share of Caribbean sugar rose to 60 percent in 1850.
This excerpt from Stephen Drescher’s The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor vs. Slave Labor in British Emancipation shows how the “free labor” British West Indies had been sent into an economic tailspin as a result of competition with “slave labor” Cuba after the end of the slave trade (1807), the abolition of slavery (1838), and the triumph of free trade in the home market (1846).
The British were determined to prove that the application of their doctrines of “free labor” and “free trade” in Jamaica could compete with “slave labor” Cuba in a head-to-head competitive matchup:
“Wilson’s checklist consisted of a set of experiments that might be contested for one “definitional” reason or another. His final case, however, must have been the one that really caught the attention of the House of Commons. By their own immediate avowal, it bowled over its bankers, West Indians, and abolitionists alike. Wilson selected an example whose economic success was universally recognized from one end of the world to the other. Subsequent historians have verified that impression. By 1850, “its per capita output must have ranked among the top half dozen of the world’s nations,” 65 percent above that of Jamaica.
Wilson’s pièce de résistance was, of course, the island of Cuba. “Let the House,” thundered the editor of the Economist, “compare those under the British Crown with Cuba or Porto Rico: there was a material difference between the social position of the inhabitants.” In Cuba, both English and Spanish families avoided the perils of absenteeism. There was no need to look only at its economic growth, in sugar or coffee exports. The signs of contingent economic development were everywhere. Cuba had no fewer than 800 miles of railway, the great symbol of modernity and progress, whereas there were only 1200 miles of railroad in the British colonies combined. Cuba was purchasing the latest British machinery for increasing the efficiency of production and transportation. The British colonies were also admonished to follow Cuba’s stringent regulations against vagrancy and squatting – the test of a “civilized and cultivated society.”
The West Indian who replied to Wilson confessed that he was devastated by Wilson’s argument. He heard the British government’s spokesman wax eloquent on the magnificent prosperity of Cuba, saying, “See what slavery has done!” and then he heard the same speaker point to the distressed British Caribbean, saying, “Behold the result of freedom.” To what conclusion should the House of Commons come if all Wilson’s statistics on bridges, buildings, and railways pointed to the accomplishments of slave labor? Even those unconnected with the West Indies noted that an argument for the superiority of free labor based on the dynamism of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Louisiana was a peculiar message to the slaveholders of the New World. Eventually, even a free trader from Lancashire reminded Wilson that there was a free labor experiment in progress. If the experiment failed commercially, no other country would imitate Britain’s example.”
Freedom failed, spectacularly.
The disaster in the British West Indies would have been even worse if the British had not forced other Europeans nations to abolish the slave trade and had not spent millions of dollars interdicting the slave trade to Cuba which made African slaves in Cuba far more expensive than they otherwise would have been.
By the 1850s, William Wilberforce’s son in the House of Lords was denying that the abolitionists had ever pushed the superiority of the “free labor” doctrine as a justification for the abolition of slavery, and asserted that the superior competitive advantage of slave labor in Cuba justified protectionism in the British West Indies.
“Embittered protectionist Tories, who had no hope of repealing the Corn Laws, took rhetorical delight in comparing the devastated sugar colonies to the government’s earlier predictions of emerging prosperity. Benjamin Disraeli found West Indian distress a convenient stick with which to beat the free trade Whigs. The great experiment, the greatest blunder in the history of the English people, had simultaneously ruined the British colonies, encouraged the African slave trade, and revealed “the quackery of economic science!”
Drescher dwells at on length on the multiple examples of the inability of “free labor” to compete with “slave labor”: free Haiti where the sugar industry collapsed after 1804, Guadeloupe from 1794 until 1803 when slavery had been overthrown from above without a revolution, the disastrous Sierra Leone experiment in free labor, the decimation of Indian cotton and textiles by slave labor competition in the American South, how Jamaica benefited from French abolition during the French Revolution, the failure of free negroes to work for wages on the plantations in the British West Indies before abolition, and finally on the failure of “The Mighty Experiment” itself when the British West Indies were unable to compete with slave labor in Cuba, Louisiana, and Brazil.
Cuba, with its hundreds of miles of railroads and steam powered mills, also refuted the old chestnut about freedom and technology:
“By 1848, few free traders maintained that emancipation plus competition would produce a widening technology gap in favor of freedom. Their opponents echoed Peel’s question: how, under free trade, could one prevent slave owners from purchasing machinery? It was not just a question of technological parity. British machinery was pouring more swiftly into the Spanish than into the British Caribbean. Old machinery was being left to rust in the British colonies while British planters reexported their own most recent purchases to Havana, where planters could purchase them at bankruptcy prices. Free trade was opening a technological gap in favor of slaveholders. The new steam-based machines could run for twenty-four hours a day, so Cuban planters could run their laborers closer to twenty-four hours a day at the harvest peak. This point was also made by those calculating the relative productivity of Cuban and Jamaican labor. Cuba was outpacing the British colonies off the plantation as well. New steam-driven vessels were being introduced into the transatlantic slave trade. Cuban “dependence upon slave labor and the slave trade remained as central characteristics of a colonial sugar economy which had reduced every other economic sector to insignificance.” The Economist‘s prediction had been right. Free trade stimulated the purchase of “our wonderful machinery” – in Cuba.”
Free soil, free labor, free men, free quackery!
Note: Here’s something else that is interesting about this book: Drescher notes that the history of the Americas refuted the Whig theory of history. In Western Europe, slavery withered away over centuries, and prosperity followed, but in the Americas the trend was reversed, and slavery supplanted freedom, and American plantation agriculture was more productive and efficient and generated more wealth per capita than its European counterpart.
The slave societies of the New World in both their rise and fall had demonstrated that freedom and equality are not a necessary condition of wealth or progress – indeed, the triumph of freedom and equality in Haiti and the British Caribbean had a retarding effect on wealth and progress.