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Slavery in the Development of the Americas

Author(s):Eltis, David
Lewis, Frank D.
Sokoloff, Kenneth L.
Reviewer(s):Wright, Gavin

Published by EH.NET (June 2005)


David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, editors, Slavery in the Development of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ix + 372 pp. $75 (hardback) ISBN: 0-521-83277-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gavin Wright, Department of Economics, Stanford University.

This collection of essays is a worthy and fitting tribute to Stanley L. Engerman, the honoree. The editors — David Eltis of Emory University, Frank Lewis of Queen’s University, and Kenneth Sokoloff of UCLA – open the volume with an affectionate appreciation for Stan Engerman and close with a ten-page bibliography of Engermaniana. But unlike most festschriften, this one has real thematic unity, with sections devoted to the origins of African slavery in the Americas, patterns of slave use, and the implications of slavery for productivity, growth, and distribution.

A brief review can hardly do justice to all of the contributions, but there are many highlights to be noted. Several chapters offer new data series or explore new sources on various aspects of the slave economies. Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert S. Klein present new evidence on the use of slaves to produce food crops in the region surrounding S?o Paulo, Brazil; David Eltis and David Richardson report new estimates of long term (1673-1865) trends in prices of newly arrived African slaves; Laird W. Bergad compares slave prices in the U.S., Cuba and Brazil during the 1850s, calling attention to common patterns; James R. Irwin offers new probate data on wealth in colonial Virginia, showing that the positive accumulation trend for slaveholders preceded (and was not interrupted by) the American Revolution. Lorena Walsh draws upon new databases on the Chesapeake slave and servant trades to explore the links among merchant strategies, credit networks and labor supply in the tobacco regions. Frank Lewis analyzes slave manumission (in the tradition of Ronald Findlay) as a principal-agent problem, showing that manumission was more likely for skilled slaves, at an “optimal age” inversely related to productivity — predictions generally confirmed by a rich set of manumission records from the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe. Robert Margo presents a comprehensive compilation of data on north-south wage differentials during the second half of the nineteenth century. Although there are some indications that an area of low-wage white labor was emerging in the South Atlantic during the antebellum era, Margo’s principal finding is that the Civil War marked a fundamental break point in regional labor history. All parts of the South experienced a pronounced decline in relative wages after the war, and despite some recovery during the 1870 and 1880s, the region’s relative wage status at the end of the century was no higher than in the late 1860s.

Other essays survey more general themes: Pieter Emmer asks why the British surpassed the Dutch, who were the early seventeenth century leaders in the Atlantic slave economy. His answer has many elements (loss of naval superiority; inflexible financial institutions; the absence of young, mobile Dutch settlers), but seems to boil down to the view that the early Dutch position was somewhat accidental and therefore unsustainable in the wake of Britain’s historic surge. Philip D. Morgan’s essay considers the distribution of material conditions among slaves and poor whites, exploring a wide range of indicators. Although the editorial introduction stresses the “overlap between the condition of slave and free labor” (p. 19), Morgan holds that the difference was fundamental: “Poverty is a relative condition, and varies according to the prevailing standards of time and place. …Slavery is a legal institution; poverty a material state. Slavery was an absolute, poverty a relative, condition” (p. 291). The contrast was most vivid in the case of sugar, whose “cultivation was literally a killing regime” (p. 302). In Barbados, white servants worked in sugar initially, but “they soon learned of its rigors and avoided it at all costs” (p. 313).

One essay returns to familiar cliometric territory, as Elizabeth Field-Hendry and Lee Craig present a new variation on their frontier production function estimates, using the Parker-Gallman sample of southern farms in 1859-60. The main novelty here is integrating the dataset with a sample from the Bateman-Foust sample of northern farms. Although the editors assert that Field-Hendry and Craig’s results “largely support Fogel and Engerman’s original conclusions” (p. 16), this is not entirely accurate. The authors find that controlling for the share of cotton in total output, large slave plantations in the southeast had no productivity advantage over free northern farms; similarly, the advantage of large plantations over free farms in the southwest disappears when cotton shares are controlled (pp. 246-248). These same large slave farms are also found to have the highest average inefficiency level, defined as the shortfall relative to the frontier. Despite Field-Hendry and Craig’s noble attempt at comprehensiveness, however, these results cannot be considered definitive. Cotton shares are said to be treated as endogenous, but the first-stage regressions are not displayed, so that the model of crop choice and crop mix remains implicit. Further, no allowance is made for the exceptional southwestern cotton yields of 1859-60, documented by Donald Schaefer.[1] Finally, labor inputs are aggregated into units of “male equivalent labor,” a specification that fails when subjected to econometric test.[2] Still, this is as close as the gang labor thesis comes to critical scrutiny in the volume.

One chapter is notable as a contribution of lasting potential impact. Seymour Drescher’s “White Atlantic?” is a protracted inquiry into the racial basis for New World slavery. The editors are to be commended for giving Drescher space to elaborate his argument, since its primary target is the proposition associated, with David Eltis, that enslavement of Europeans by fellow Europeans was inhibited by a cultural/psychological taboo against this practice.[3] To the contrary, argues Drescher, who shows in grisly detail that Europeans had few compunctions against torturing, raping, killing, and incarcerating other Europeans in galleys, especially during the war-torn centuries between 1500 and 1700 when the Atlantic slave system took shape. Drescher maintains that there was “no insuperable psychological or cultural barrier” to enslavement of fellow Europeans, but institutional and political constraints to such an innovation were far more important. Despite the cogency, sophistication, and persuasiveness of Drescher’s argument, one wonders if there might yet be something to be said for the Eltis position, if viewed from a New World as opposed to an Old World perspective, and if understood as the outcome of an institutional selection process rather than a reductionist cause. Economic historians can agree on the primacy of economic motives for the rise of slavery, yet we should not deny the force of Abbott Emerson Smith’s observation that “there was never any such thing as perpetual slavery for any white man in any English colony.”[4]

A final note about the volume is that the extended editorial introduction is itself a substantive contribution to the slavery debates. In summarizing the essays and setting the historiographical context, the editors advance a number of provocative assertions, not all of which would necessarily be endorsed by Stanley Engerman himself, so renowned for moderation in spoken and written word. For example, the editors suggest that the shift of the world’s economic center of gravity from the tropics to the temperate zone might only have occurred because of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself (p. 17). They go on to write that “greater inequality of both income and political power is perhaps more properly seen as a result rather than a prerequisite of development” (p. 23). The introduction is well worth reading, and indeed the volume as a whole is essential reading for those following the economics of slavery. But for the wisdom of Engerman, my advice is to read him in the original. Best wishes to Stan for continued good health and productivity.


1. Donald F. Schaefer, “The Effect of the 1860 Crop Year upon Relative Productivity in the Antebellum Cotton South,” Journal of Economic History 43 (December 1983): 851-865.

2. Jane Toman, “The Gang System and Comparative Advantage,” Explorations in Economic History 42 (April 2005): 310-323.

3. David Eltis, “Europeans and the Rise and Fall of African Slavery in the Americas: An Interpretation,” American Historical Review 98 (1993): 1399-1423; and The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 63-70.

4. Abbott Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1775 (University of North Carolina Press, 1947), p. 171.

Gavin Wright is former editor of the Journal of Economic History and the author of “Slavery and American Agricultural History,” Agricultural History 77 (Fall 2003): 527-552.


Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century