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Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Selwyn H. H. Carrington, The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1775-1810. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2002. xxii + 362 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8130-2557-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Richardson, Department of History, University of Hull.

As we approach the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of its slave trade in 1807, debate over the origins of this remarkable event remains as lively as ever. At the heart of this debate lies the issue of the relative importance of economic and non-economic factors in determining abolition. For over a century after Parliament ended British slave trafficking, abolition was primarily portrayed as a victory of religiously inspired humanitarianism, but this consensus was broken when from the 1920s Caribbean-orientated historians claimed that though humanitarianism could not be ignored economic factors were paramount in dictating Britain’s ending of slave carrying from Africa in 1807. Central to this argument was the claim that the British slave-based planter class in the West Indies was in decline from the 1770s onwards and ultimately fell victim to an emergent British industrial capitalism that identified intellectually and politically with principles of free labor and free trade. This argument has been the subject of severe criticism, not least by Seymour Drescher (Econocide, 1977; The Mighty Experiment, 2002), but as shown by this latest book from Selwyn Carrington, a West Indian-born, Howard-based historian, it is still capable of attracting vigorous support. It remains to be seen whether Carrington’s new book proves to be the “classic study” in the decline thesis tradition that his fellow West Indian-born historian, Colin Palmer, predicts in his forward to the book (p. xvii).

In common with earlier exponents of the decline thesis, Carrington argues that the American Revolution was critical in simultaneously undermining the economic viability of British West Indian sugar production and the mercantilist philosophy which had given rise to sugar preferences and slavery. Fatally wounded by the loss of cheap North American provisions and of a mainland market for its rum after 1775, British West Indian slavery, according to Carrington, had run its course by the end of the eighteenth century, squeezed between rising costs of producing and marketing sugar, on the one hand, and inadequate demand for sugar in war-torn Europe, on the other. Carrington notes that West Indian planters actively sought to resolve their economic problems, anxiously trying to retain preferences in sugar markets, adopting, inter alia, new — and higher yielding — strains of sugar cane in the 1790s, and resorting to hired slave labor to ease their cash flow. But, he argues, all proved in vain, as planter profit margins on sugar production were steadily eroded after 1776 and ultimately almost totally eradicated in 1804-7 by sluggish wartime markets for sugar and inexorable increases in costs. Moreover, throughout the period 1783-1807, the British authorities did little to ease the plight of planters. For Carrington, therefore, an impoverishment of the British West Indian planter class that began with the American Revolution and was subsequently compounded by a growing over-production crisis in sugar provides the key to explaining Parliament’s decision to abolish the slave trade in 1807.

Carrington’s book is an elaborate endorsement of an argument, the essentials of which were first advanced some sixty years ago by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944). In doing so, it draws on a much greater evidential base than Williams did. Crucial to Carrington’s contribution to the decline thesis is his research on British colonial office papers as well as on the private papers of British planters, many of them absentees whose records are now lodged in archives scattered throughout Britain. Carrington is not the first scholar to draw on plantation papers, but the evidence he gleans from them is especially important to his story. They provide a wealth of data on the costs of sugar production as well as on the transport and sale of sugar and the profitability of plantation production, thereby ensuring that his study offers one of the most important sources of information we have on the financial workings of the West Indian economy between 1776 and 1807. Whether, however, the evidence that planters’ accounts offer provides convincing support for his general thesis that the British West Indies were in terminal decline after 1776 is more problematical. Some planters evidently felt under pressure during the decades before 1807, but, in the absence of planters’ comments in earlier periods, there is no reason to think their concerns after 1783 were exceptional. Moreover, providing a detailed catalogue of complaints about the economics of sugar production from absentee planters or even showing that profit margins on certain plantations were falling is far from conclusive evidence that the British West Indies as a whole were in economic decline before 1807, even less that such decline, if that was what it was, ultimately dictated British abolition of the slave trade. Indeed, evidence gleaned by other scholars such as John Ward (British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834, 1988) from plantation records similar to those used by Carrington shows that rates of return from British West Indian sugar planting just before 1807 were more or less identical to those achieved in the so-called “silver age” of sugar before the American Revolution. Furthermore, if Carrington’s case is difficult to reconcile with long-term trends in profitability, it is equally difficult to square with a post-1783 macro-picture that exhibits rising levels of sugar output and sales and buoyancy in slave markets through to 1807, prompted in part, but not exclusively, by expanding boundaries of the British West Indies after 1792, a point that Carrington almost totally ignores. In fairness to Carrington, he does offer some relevant macro-data, but what he presents relates to the older British islands and excludes output from Trinidad and British Guiana, and often neglects some well-known published sources of data. In short, he provides an inadequately delineated macro framework within which to locate and assess the reliability or partiality of findings based on a perusal of plantation records. Such methodological deficiencies in Carrington’s argument may be overlooked by those long convinced of the merits of economic explanations of Britain’s ending of its slave trade. They will, however, probably reinforce the skepticism of the decline theory’s critics, who will see in Carrington’s book evidence of a disjuncture between planter complaints and West Indian expansion after 1783, and will further encourage them to look beyond the economics of slavery itself in their continuing search for explanations of the abolitionists’ victory in 1807.

David Richardson is Professor of Economic History at the University of Hull in the UK and co-author of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: a Database on CD-Rom (CUP, 1999). He has published numerous articles relating to the Atlantic slave trade and is currently doing research (with David Eltis (Emory) and Frank Lewis (Queen’s, Ontario)) on trends in slave prices and productivity in the British West Indies, 1673-1807.