Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation
Seymour Drescher’s The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation is an attempt to understand the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in terms of the neutral appeals to social science made by abolitionists and the slave interest.
When the abolition of slavery was finally enacted from 1834 to 1838, it was framed as a “Mighty Experiment” by Colonial Secretary Edward Stanley that would have “immense influence” on the lives of millions and “generations yet unborn” on both sides of the Atlantic.
Among other things, Britain’s “Mighty Experiment” was regarded at the time as the ultimate test under controlled conditions of the free labor ideology articulated by liberal political economists like Adam Smith and its relative competitiveness as a social and economic system versus plantation slavery in the Caribbean.
Freedom Failed: The Missed Red Flags
Previous experiments in combinations of abolition and free labor that occurred before the “Mighty Experiment” were dismissed as precedents by anti-slavery activists:
Haiti – In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in Haiti, the remnants of the French population were exterminated, Europeans were banned from owning property under the Haitian Constitution, sugar production and the plantation system completely collapsed and Haiti quickly became dominated by a rural peasantry engaged in subsistence agriculture.
The abolitionist response was to argue that Haiti was an economic failure because of the unique violence of the Haitian Revolution, but that it was a social success under the Malthusian “population principle” because the Haitian population had become self-sustaining and was growing, unlike the British West Indies where “inhumane” sugar monoculture under wicked and cruel planters had created an unsustainable and demographically wasteful economic system. This wouldn’t happen again under more controlled conditions.
Guadeloupe – In 1794, the French National Assembly had abolished slavery throughout the French Empire, which resulted in the relatively peaceful and temporary overthrow of slavery in Guadeloupe and French Guiana.
In Revolutionary Guadeloupe, sugar production had also collapsed to some degree and was sustained by the Victor Hugues regime through a system of a coerced labor. In 1803, the Richepance expedition sent by Napoleon reconquered Guadeloupe and restored slavery, where it would endure until abolition under the Second Republic in 1848.
In Guadeloupe, the sugar plantations had generally remained intact, but the new “cultivators” (who were still coerced laborers) were unable to sustain sugar production at slavery levels. Maybe this inconclusive result in Guadeloupe was due though to the disruptions in the labor force caused by the war between Britain and France in the eastern Caribbean.
In any case, Guadeloupe was enough to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of some key abolitionists about the self-evident superiority of the “free labor ideology.” After the restoration of slavery in 1803, the French were able to produce more sugar in Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana and Réunion in the Indian Ocean than in Saint-Domingue at its height.
Sierra Leone – In the 1790s, the Sierra Leone Company established a black free labor colony in West Africa that was backed by abolitionists and was explicitly designed to demonstrate the superiority of free labor over slave labor in the production of tropical commodities. The abolitionists led by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce naively envisioned “a zone of freedom” radiating out from Sierra Leone that would expose the economic futility of enslaving Africans, cruelly transporting them to the New World and brutalizing them on West Indian sugar plantations with negative incentives to extract the surplus value of their labor.
The Sierra Leone utopian experiment quickly became a huge albatross for the abolitionists and was pilloried by the slave interest. Financially, it was a disaster that collapsed into bankruptcy and was taken over by Britain as a Crown Colony. Economically, it failed to produce commodities that could compete with slaves in the West Indies. Socially, it was an even bigger failure under the “population principle” because black and White mortality in “free labor” Sierra Leone was significantly higher than in any of the “slave labor” West Indian colonies.
British West Indies – Even before abolition, the free negro was a common sight in the British West Indies, and the refusal of the free negro to work on the sugar plantations as a wage laborer was one of the many reasons cited by the slave interest in their arguments that abolition would be an economic disaster should it be forced on their islands.
The abolitionist response to this criticism was that plantation labor in the West Indies had degraded and stigmatized labor which is why the blacks refused to work on the plantations as free laborers. Once slavery was abolished and labor was dignified by the free labor ideology, then the blacks would happily work on the plantations and their natural motivation to improve themselves would make them more productive and efficient laborers than under slavery.
United States – The United States was also problematic for British abolitionists.
By the 1830s, free blacks in the Northern states had not developed a reputation as an industrious labor force or as a particularly thriving community, but were already then notable as a notorious criminal element. In fact, the slaves on Southern plantations were more fecund and had a higher life expectancy than the free negro in the Northern states.
It also seemed that Southern slaves were more fecund and more dynamic workers than British free laborers. The slave interest counterattacked the abolitionists by pointing to Southern slaves as proof that slavery was compatible with the population principle and that the White working class in Britain as well as the miserable free negro in the Northern states was worse off than Southern slaves. Black slaves in the American South had a higher life expectancy at the time than most Europeans and the industrial working class in Britain.
India – Oddly enough, the abolitionists placed great hope in India as a potential “free labor” competitor to the West Indies in sugar, even though there were far more slaves in India and “free labor” in India had already proven unsuccessful in competing with the Cotton Kingdom in the American South. It wouldn’t lose this comparative advantage until abolition in 1865.
Trinidad – After the War of 1812, the British settled some American ex-slaves in Trinidad where they were also unsuccessful in competing with slave labor in the production of tropical commodities, but this example was also quickly forgotten.
The Defense Makes Its Case
Before the “Mighty Experiment” began in 1834, the slave interest had responded to the abolitionists – who deployed the free labor ideology (Smith) and the population principle (Malthus) to make their case – with a number of compelling social and economic arguments in defense of slavery:
First, the slave interest could point to the indisputable wealth and prosperity of the British West Indies, the value of its trade to Britain (its most important trading partner) and the productivity of its agriculture which was without peer in the British Empire.
Second, the slave interest could point to the fact that the abolition of slavery in the French West Indies had destroyed its most efficient competitor and was a great boon to the British Empire that had come at the expense of France, and that tampering with slavery in the British West Indies would put British planters at a competitive disadvantage to more unscrupulous planters in Cuba and Brazil. This prediction of doom later came true in the British West Indies.
Third, the slave interest could point to the long track record of failed or unconvincing free labor experiments above which cast serious doubt on the so-called “superiority” of free labor and its application to negro slaves.
Fourth, the slave interest could point to the American South as proof that slavery wasn’t incompatible with Malthus’ population principle, and explain the mortality in the West Indies as an artifact of the slave trade (in terms gender ratios and age deciles) and in terms of the tropical diseases (malaria and yellow fever) that were even more devastating to the White population than to slaves. The environment, not the system, was the cause of the mortality rate.
Fifth, the slave interest could charge that the population principle discredited London and most European cities which were similarly dependent on immigration to sustain their populations.
By the 1830s, there were already clear signs that the Malthusian population argument against slavery was fatally flawed. Parts of Brazil became self-sustaining in population. Barbados had become self-sustaining in population. A female creole majority had emerged on the sugar islands and this was indicative of an emerging self-sustaining demographic pattern.
In the long run, these compelling arguments were too little too late to stop the momentum of abolition. The level of public enthusiasm and political pressure on the British Parliament was too intense and this is what doomed slavery in the British West Indies.
Race Realism, Political Economists and the Spirit of the Age
As we have already seen, the slave interest was afraid to deploy race realist arguments in metropolitan Britain to defend and justify slavery, even though West Indians like Edward Long of Jamaica were ferocious race realists.
The ideological consensus in favor of human equality in metropolitan Britain at the time was so overwhelming that not one MP in the debate over abolition defended slavery on racial grounds. Insofar as race figured into the debate at all, only the unreconstructed racism of West Indian planters was cited as an obstacle to abolition!
No one expressed any doubt that blacks lacked the racial capacity to maintain a European standard of civilization. The free labor ideology took for granted the existence of human equality which underpinned the supposedly “universal” laws of political economy.
The generation of political economists that followed Adam Smith attempted to avoid immersing themselves in the public debate over slavery. There was already growing doubt at the time that “free labor” was really superior to “slave labor.”
In some situations, political economists began to realize that slavery might be rational and enjoy a decisive comparative advantage over “free labor” such as in sparsely populated frontier areas, where a planter could command and intensely deploy labor that would otherwise uneconomically disperse across over an abundance of land.
Slaveowners could economically command the labor of women and children and the elderly that would be lost to the labor force. While the slave might lack the “motivation” to improve himself, the cupidity of the master to acquire potential wealth was unlimited.
The strength of slavery was not in the motivation of individual slaves, as Adam Smith had assumed, and negatively contrasted to free labor. It was in the management, the scale and the intensity of the plantation, which are the advantages of modern agribusiness.
Blacks also possessed a clear biological advantage over Europeans as tropical laborers. They had greater immunity to diseases like yellow fever and malaria which are native to Africa. Might also blacks as an indolent tropical race respond more readily to negative incentives to labor than positive incentives to better themselves? How is slavery necessarily incompatible with technology? What could stop planters from adopting the latest European technology like the railroads and steampowered mills in slave labor Cuba?
As a labor system, some early nineteenth century political economists like Jean-Baptiste Say realized that slavery could combine opulence with authority without liberty and equality. The existence of thriving opulent slave societies in the New World stood out as a thorny problem for liberal economists because it contradicted “liberty” based economics.
The Spirit of the Age in Britain – Adam Smith’s free labor ideology, the Enlightenment’s human rights ideology and especially the rise and negative influence of evangelical Christianity over the British mind – caused slavery to be stigmatized and problemized and demonized on moral, religious and ideological grounds at that particular point in history.
Race realists and political economists were reluctant to singe themselves and lose status (think of how John Derbyshire managed to survive at National Review for years) by swimming against the tide of the public’s great religious and moral anti-slavery crusade which often employed dubious economic arguments and was fueled by the moral certainty of evangelicalism.
When slavery came under attack in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by abolitionists, the insitution of slavery was thriving in the Caribbean and the South. British slavery was poised to expand into the new colonies of Trinidad, into undeveloped parts of Jamaica and the newly acquired Dutch colonies that would later become British Guiana.
There was no economic force, only moral and political obstacles, stopping slavery from enveloping much of Central America and South America. As Cuba and Brazil later demonstrated, the Golden Circle was still in its infancy, not its obsolescent elderly years.
This was something that might have spread much further into the tropics and which might have eventually become a much more powerful counterweight to Western liberalism if the New World slave states had developed a greater political, economic and military unity, as Rhett had argued, and not been divided between rival imperial metropoles.
The Mighty Experiment: The Plunge Into The Third World
From the 1650s to the 1850s, the Caribbean and the wider Golden Circle plantation civilization had been at the center of the world economy. This was one of the richest, most profitable and intensely cultivated parts of the world, which is why Europeans squabbled over it for two centuries.
In hindsight, Great Britain’s “Mighty Experiment” permanently changed that by shutting down the slave trade to its own colonies (1808), by forcing other nations to abolish the slave trade after the Congress of Vienna (1815), by abolishing slavery in the British West Indies (1834 to 1838), and by the liberal example it set which was followed by France (1848), Denmark (1848), the Netherlands (1863), the United States (1865) and Spain (1870 and 1886).
It is inconceivable that any other major European nation would have took the lead in abolishing slavery as an “experiment.” France had already been terribly burned in Saint-Domingue after going down that road. No other European nation developed a mass abolitionist movement.
In the end, the planters and their creditors were compensated with £20 million after losing the political fight over abolition – 1/4 the value of the market price of the slaves and, if memory serves, 1/8 the total value of the sugar colonies in 1833.
In some ways, the “Mighty Experiment” was a success: the ex-slave population became self sustaining (which would have happened anyway), and there was little violence in the transition from slave society to free society, unlike what happened in Haiti.
Abolitionists were initially encouraged when some of the smaller islands – St. Kitts, Barbados, Antigua – increased sugar production after 1838 – in reality, planters planted more sugarcane because free labor was less profitable, and on the small, densely populated islands they could command labor from freedmen without access to land, especially in a protected market with the “safety net” stimulus.
In Jamaica, where the blacks could escape the plantations to squat on worthless unclaimed land, there was a sharp turn to peasant subsistence agriculture like in Haiti and a catastrophic decline in sugar production and real estate values, as the worst fears of the planters were realized.
Whatever the disparate fate of sugar production on various British sugar islands from 1833 to 1860, the price of sugar in metropolitan Britain increased 40 percent, and then to 60 percent and there was a 25 percent net decline in sugar production.
In the 1840s and 1850s, it also became indisputably clear that the British West Indies could not compete with slave labor in Cuba, Brazil and Louisiana – blacks as free laborers could not keep up with demand, would only work short hours in a short work week for exorbitant wages and could not sustain the absolute level of sugar production under slavery.
The “Mighty Experiment” was declared a failure by the British press, protectionism was removed (1846) because the cost of anti-slavery fell too hard on the British consumer, abolitionism peaked and faded in Britain after 1840, and the British West Indies stagnated and then fell into a long term economic tailspin as the region became a backwater of the British Empire.
It was the beginning of the “Third World” in the British Caribbean: blighted, ruined, abandoned plantations, unemployed free negroes living in rural indolence and squalor, empty ports and declining commerce and investment, imperial neglect, etc. The British West Indies developed an archaic, “postmodern” look – one could imagine this is what Rome must have looked like at the beginning of the Dark Ages, or the transition in Detroit after the 1967 Race Riots. When has reality ever gotten in the way of a good theory though?
The Legacy of Freedom
In three crucial ways, I can see that Great Britain’s “Mighty Experiment” in the British West Indies had an extremely damaging and lasting impact on our own society:
- In the 1830s, the “Mighty Experiment” emboldened Northern abolitionists to push for the abolition of slavery in the United States, which alienated the South from the Union and precipitated the War Between the States.
- The failure of free society in the British West Indies following the “Mighty Experiment” convinced Southern radicals like Robert Barnwell Rhett that a slave society must rule itself or perish like Jamaica and Haiti, and that resistance even to the brink of war was justified to avoid such a fate.
- The “Mighty Experiment” set in motion a destructive chain of events by which the free labor ideology, even though it was proven to be an economic failure when applied to blacks, ultimately became normative and institutionalized for moral, religious and ideological reasons in the United States. The dogma is still unquestionable to this day.
The free labor ideology was briefly cast into doubt in Britain in the aftermath of abolition in the British West Indies:
“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. …
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!”
How much has free blacks, the Civil Rights Movement and the Visible Black Hand of Economics cost our society and other ex-slave societies in the Caribbean and South America? Why are we unable to see that freedom failed even though the effective result of emancipation is hidden in plain sight? Why are we unable to see what happened to Detroit?
It is because of the moral, religious and ideological smokescreen stirred up by Smith, Clarkson, Wilberforce & Co. that inspired the unprecedented folly described in this book and which can be briefly glimpsed in the squishy, sentimentalist documentary below. This was the cultural fountainhead from which all subsequent liberal reform movements would flow.
Note: Liberalism was forced on the South at gunpoint in the Reconstruction era.