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Capitalism and Slavery: A Critique Author(s): Roger T. Anstey Source: The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol.

21, No. 2 (Aug., 1968), pp. 307-320 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Economic History Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2592438 Accessed: 27/09/2009 17:08
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Capitalism andSlavery: a Critique1


BY ROGER T. ANSTEY
HE unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations."2 Whilst the mass of Englishmen probably continue to believe that Wilberforce and his Evangelical brethren secured the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in a manner wholly creditable to themselves and only a little less to their country, it would also seem that, at the scholarly level, the dictum of Lecky was only a slightly extreme form of the view commonly held until about the midway point of the present century. Prof. Coupland, in particular, had in the inter-war years substantially endorsed Lecky.3 Admittedly the West Indian writer, C. L. R. James, had argued in I 938 that Pitt's humanitarianism in the I 790's was, at best, subordinate to a global strategy aimed at breaking the monopoly of the continental market enjoyed by San Domingo sugar, and replacing it with British sugar.4 But this was an incidental theme in a work of Marxist historical interpretation, and it is doubtful if this minor strand attracted much attention. When in I944 Dr Eric Williams launched a frontal attack on the traditional view, it was the first major onslaught to be made in the English-speaking world. For the author of Capitalismand Slavery5the perspectives of men like Coupland, C. M. MacInnes,6 and F. J. Klingberg7 were all wrong. The role of the humanitarians, the key figures in what amounted to a parade of virtue, had been "seriously misunderstood and grossly exaggerated by men who have sacrificed scholarship to sentimentality and, like the scholastics of old, placed faith before reason and evidence".8 Positively, and in Williams's own words, Capitalismand Slavery was "strictly an economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the Industrial Revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism in destroying the slave system".9 The immediate formal reception of the book was muted, doubtless because of the distractions of war time: no more than summary reviews appear to have been published. But in the following years the book came to gain considerable favour amongst historians, and also amongst many English-speaking West African intellectuals who saw it as a bed-rock statement of Afro-European relations before the colonial period. In the former case a sympathy with the growing cause of
1 An earlier form of this article was read at a seminar on the slave trade organized by the Edinburgh Centre of African Studies in June I 965. 2 W. E. H. Lecky, A Historyof European Morals, 6th edn (i884), II, I53. 3 R. Coupland, TheBritishAnti-Slavery Movement (Oxford, I923) . (I 933), p. 25.I See also his Wilberforce 4 C. L. R. James, TheBlackjacobins: Toussaint l'Ouverture andtheSan DomingoRevolution (I 938; and rev. edn, New York, I963), pp. 5 I-4. References are to this revised edition. 5 First published at Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press. 6 EnglandandSlavery(I 934). 7 The Anti-Slavery Movement in England(New Haven and London, I 926). 8 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery(reissued New York, I96I), p. I78. Other reissues in I964 and I 966. All references in this article are to the I 96I edn. 9 Ibid. p. vii.

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colonial independence and a decline in imperial sentiment, in the latter an understandable predisposition to seek historical as well as other bases for anti-colonialism, together with a bitter memory of the slave trade and all its works, were perhaps in some part responsible.' Capitalism and Slavery has certainly aroused some criticism. The late G. R. was specifically inspired by a Mellor's British Imperial Trusteeship,I783-I8502 concern to refute Eric Williams. Mellor's work has real merits but only limited value as a critique of Williams, for whilst Mellor convincingly points to cases where Williams misused or distorted evidence, this is done in an incidental way. It would seem, also, that Mellor's whole approach combined with certain infelicities of style to present the image of a stalwart traditionalist fighting a rearguard action against a brilliant, younger critic. A number of illuminating critical insights into Capitalismand Slavery are also to be found in the late Prof. W. L. Burn's The British West Indies,3but it was not the function of that book for these insights to be developed into a critique. It may therefore be useful to offer some comments on a book whose continuing influence is suggested by the appearance of no less than three reissues between i96i and I 966. These comments do not pretend to be comprehensive and do not bear on the earlier part of the book where the role of the slave trade and slavery, and of mercantilism, in the British economy up to the closing years of the eighteenth century is considered. The part of Williams's thesis which will here be considered is, broadly, the second half of his book, where he argues that Britain's changing attitude to slavery and the slave trade was essentially a function of her changing economic situation and interest. We shall look, in particular, at the author's interpretation of Pitt's conduct, of the abolition of the British slave trade in i807, and of Palmerston and the suppression of the foreign slave trade.

Williams argues that from the time of the American War of Independence onwards the traditional role and privileged position of the British West Indies in the supply of tropical produce, and especially sugar, was being increasingly questioned in Britain. The British islands could not compete on the European market with the French Caribbean islands, especially the extremely fertile San Domingo, and it became clearer every year that the natural links of the expanding British economy were with countries outside the system of imperial protection. Pitt sought to reverse the loss of the European market to San Domingo by an international abolition of the slave trade which would ruin the still expanding foreign West Indian sugar islands, leave relatively unharmed the largely "saturated" British islands, and pave the way for the recapture of the European market by British East Indian sugar. When the San Domingo planters, out of fear ofJacobinism, white and black, offered the island to Britain, Pitt's zeal for abolition necessarily dried up and the abolitionists could avail nothing. During the Napoleonic
1 Some words in C. G. Woodson's review of Capitalism and Slaveryin the Journal of Negro History,xxx

93-5, may be significant in this connexion. "This work should make a strong appeal to those who now array themselves against the British Empire because of its present policy of grabbing all of the universe which it can find any excuse for taking over."
(I945),

I95I

I95I.

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Wars there was overproduction of British sugar in relation to available markets, whilst the post-war years saw the growth of other, rival, low-cost producersnotably Brazil, Cuba, and Mauritius-and of free-trade convictions to which fiscal discrimination against foreign sugar was an affront. At the same time many of the traditional supporters of the old system of imperial protection were deserting the West Indian interest. As a result "overproduction in i807 demanded abolition; overproduction in i833 demanded emancipation."' The equalization of the Sugar Duties in I 846 (by which protection for British sugar was to be progressively removed) was another manifestation of essentially the same response, and by encouraging the slave trade to Brazil and Cuba, and the extension of their slave-labour sugar estates, made the basic economic motives starkly clear. "The slave trade was abolished in i807, slavery in i833, the sugar preference in I846. The three events are inseparable."2 Wholly coherent with the compulsive demands of free trade was the failure to take decisive action against the foreign transatlantic slave trade-Palmerston, allegedly the foremost crusader, being all gush and little action. Williams does not disregard humanitarianism completely. That would be "a grave historical error and to ignore one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time. The humanitarians were the spearhead of the onslaught which destroyed the West Indian system and freed the Negro. But their importance has been seriously misunderstood and grossly exaggerated."3 Williams's argument is to an extent persuasive. It is difficult not to think that the radical change in the position of the British West Indies in the later eighteenth century did not affect English attitudes to the slave trade and slavery, whilst some of the figures Williams quotes are significant. For example, he shows that between i8I5 and I833 the West Indies became relatively less important as a mart for British exports4 and that British sugar imports from Brazil, Cuba, and Mauritius increased considerably whilst British Caribbean production remained stationary.5 Again, as Williams rightly asserts, by I807 the slave trade had become much less important to Liverpool, the British port most engaged in it.6 Of great interest is the way in which Williams relates the equalization of the Sugar Duties to the abolitionist movement. Few writers before Williams had seen any possible connexion between the two, and, when a connexion was seen, equalization tended simply to be dismissed as unfortunate but incidental. The connexion is important. In the parliamentary-and other-debates on the proposal to reduce the preference on imperial, i.e. what had become free-grown, sugar (I84I) and progressively to equalize the duties on sugar imports (I846), numerous warnings were uttered that this would inevitably encourage the Brazilian and Cuban slave trades. Yet on the second occasion the Bill passed-whilst the abolitionists, Williams argues, were no longer prepared to retain fiscal measures against slave-grown sugar.7
1 Williams, op. cit. p. I52. 2 Ibid. p. I36. 4 Ibid. p. I32. 3 Ibid. p. I78. I50-I. Nonetheless in i832-3 the British West Indies still furnished about 70 per cent of British sugar imports. This rough estimate is based on the figures which Williams cites (on p. I 5 i) and on the graph of sugar imports from the British West Indies contained in L. J. Ragatz, TheFall of thePlanter Classin theBritishCaribbean, I763-I833 ( I963 reissue, New York), p. 288. This book first appeared in I 928. 6 Williams errs in citing a Commons speech of Lord Howick on ia June i8o6 as authority for this assertion, since Howick did not speak on that day. However, Howick used a similar argument in a speech of 23 Feb. I807.-Williams, op. cit. p. I62, and Parliamentary Debates,VIII, 946-56. 7 Williams, op. cit. p. i6i.

5 Ibid. pp.

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When one comes to particular applications of the Williams thesis, however, his argument is less persuasive. Consider his analysis of Pitt's actions in regard to the slave trade. Following C. L. R. James,1 Williams argues that Pitt was persuaded that the traditional West Indian system, with the slave trade which supported it, was no longer profitable and that it was necessary to break the control of the European sugar market enjoyed by San Domingo. His plan was twofold: to recapture the European market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade which would ruin Saint Domingue [because of its dependence on the continuing import of slaves at a high level]. If not international abolition, then British abolition. The French were so dependent on British slave traders that even a unilateral abolition by England would seriously dislocate the economy of the French colonies. But, continues Williams, the plan failed and for two reasons: the duties imposed on East Indian sugar, since it did not enjoy the preferential rate which West Indian sugar commanded, made its import on any scale impossible, whilst France, Holland, and Spain would not agree to abolition of the slave trade. At this point "the French Revolution came to the aid of Pitt. Fearful that Revolutionary idealism would destroy the slave trade and slavery, the French planters of San Domingo, in I79I, offered the island to England," and, when England went to war in I 793, Pitt accepted the offer. In the years that followed "Britain lost thousands of men and spent thousands of pounds in the vain attempt to capture Saint Domingue." This [continues Williams] is of more than academic interest. Pitt could not have had Saint Domingue and abolition as well. Without its 40,000 slave imports a year, Saint Domingue might as well have been at the bottom of the sea. The very acceptance of the island meant logically the end of Pitt's interest in abolition. Naturally he did not say so. He had already committed himself too far in the eyes of the public. He continued to speak in favor of abolition, even while giving every practical encouragement to the slave trade. But it was not the old Pitt of the Pitt of Latin tags, brilliant oratory and infectious humanitarianI789-I79I, ism. The change can be followed in the debates in Parliament and in Wilberforce's diary. In I 792 Wilberforce's diary struck the first ominous note: "Pitt threw out against slave motion on St. Domingo account" [i.e. displayed petulance (at a discussion on abolition) when it was proposed to introduce an abolition Bill that year, because of San Domingo]. Thereafter Pitt's support of Wilberforce's annual motions became nothing short of perfunctory.. . Under Pitt's administration the British slave trade alone more than doubled, and Britain conquered two more Sugar colonies, Trinidad and British Guiana. As the abolitionist Stephen wrote with bitterness: "Mr. Pitt, unhappily for himself, his country and mankind, is not zealous enough in the cause of the negroes, to contend for them as decisively as he ought, in the cabinet any more than in parliament."2 To this argument a number of objections can be made. It is an essential part of Williams's argument that Pitt's double-barrelled plan to ruin San Domingo and substitute East Indian for San Domingo sugar on the European market, was formed some time before the early autumn of I 79I. After that time the devastaI James,

Op. Cit. pp. 53-4,

I32-6,

I46,

I99-20I,

2I4.

2 Williams,

op. Cit. pp.

I47-9.

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tion and anarchy in San Domingo caused a fall in production such that the encouragement of East Indian sugar production to replace San Domingo sugar in Europe was frequently and widely urged.' The two situations are quite different, and the distinction is succinctly put by Mellor. "Seeing the possibility in I 792 of recapturing a market from a competitor already crippled is not the same as scheming before I792 to cripple a competitor by recapturing a market."2 This being so, it must be said that Williams gives no convincing evidence that Pitt harboured such a scheme for East Indian sugar before the San Domingo rising. The implied suggestion that he did so in I789, as evidenced, Williams claims, by an (unsuccessful) attempt to reduce the East Indian duty, rests on the improbable attribution of some words of Hawkesbury to I 789.3 What might at first sight appear to be firmer evidence that Pitt planned to recapture the European market before the San Domingo rising is an assertion in Ragatz which Williams cites-namely, that "Pitt and Dundas ... strongly favoured attempting the capture of continental markets with East Indian sugar."4 But Ragatz makes this statement in reporting proposals for the encouragement of East Indian production in the aftermath of the San Domingo revolt. It is, theoretically, possible that Ragatz was testifying to an attitude held before the rising, but the context renders this an unwarrantable conclusion. Moreover, as Mellor has pointed out, the minutes of the West India Committee of Planters and Merchants contain no reference to any proposal to import East Indian sugar until February I 792.5 Nor, in respect of Pitt's motives before the San Domingo rising, does Williams offer any convincing evidence that Pitt's resolve to secure abolition of the slave trade was subordinate to a determination to ruin San Domingo. In this part of his thesis Williams is simply asserting what C. L. R. James argues on evidence which simply will not sustain his conclusions-as reference to the date, or content, or both, of two of his major sources will show.6 The very acceptance of San Domingo, says Williams, "meant logically the end of Pitt's interest in abolition", and the first indication Williams gives of Pitt's new attitude is his display of petulance "on St. Domingo account", in the words of Wilberforce's diary, in I 792. Williams can only mean to imply that Pitt's attitude to abolition was changing because of the prospect of acquiring San Domingo for England. What Williams quite ignores is the clear purport of the section of the Lifeof Wilberforce, from which Williams takes the diary entry, that the essence of Pitt's reason for wanting to postpone action on an abolition Bill was, in Wilberforce's words to a correspondent, that people here are all panic-struck with the transactions in St. Domingo [i.e. the slaughter and disorderwhich had followed the slave rising], and the apprehension or pretended apprehension of the like in Jamaica and other of our islands. I am pressed on all hands . . . to defer my motion till next year.7
1 Ragatz, op. cit. pp. 2 10-I2. 2 G. R. Mellor, BritishImperialTrusteeship, p. 53 (see p. 308 above). I783-i850, 3 Williams, op. cit. p. I 46 and n. 8I. The date of I 789 is improbable for the discussion, in ministerial circles, of the question of lowering the East Indian duties to the West Indian level, for East India Company officials assumed until early I79I that East Indian sugar would enjoy the preferential Caribbean rate.-Ragatz, op. cit. p. 2I0. 4 Ibid. p. 2I I. 6James, op. cit. pp. 53-5. 5 Mellor, op. cit. p. 5I. 7 R. I. and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (I838), I, 340-5I. For one of the several

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There may be little logic in the prevalence of such reasoning, but an age which has seen "white backlash" as the reaction to "Black Power" should hardly be surprised at it. For Pitt, as personal friend of Wilberforce, as friend of abolition, and as Prime Minister, it was natural to give tactical advice to Wilberforce. There is other and more powerful evidence to support the view that such a calculating purpose as Williams ascribes was not in Pitt's mind. In early I792, when Pitt made his little outburst, it was most unlikely that San Domingo would pass into British hands. A group of planters had offered the colony to England in I 79I, but Pitt did not accept the cession until England went to war with France in I 793. How far he was from envisaging war in early I 792 is clear from his famous budget speech of February I 792 in which he prophesied the continuance of peace for another fifteen years.1 Even more direct evidence is the fact that it was after this outburst that Pitt made, on 2 April 1792, his great speech in support of Wilberforce's motion for immediate abolition.2 Although Williams's claim that from I793 "Pitt's support of Wilberforce's annual motions became nothing short of perfunctory" could be shown to be exaggerated, it remains true that, when the period from I 79 I onwards is considered as a whole, Pitt's support of Wilberforce was less than complete. Steven Watson points out, for instance, that, on the very night of his great I 792 Commons speech supporting immediate abolition, Pitt made no effort to stop Dundas from moving a wrecking amendment.3 But there are more subtle reasons for this equivocation than Williams will allow. In Watson's words, "His advocacy was not insincere, but it was not carried to the point of disrupting his political system."4 Pitt indeed had a political system to maintain. Important to the understanding of that system is that, as Prof. Pares has pointed out, reform measures such as Catholic emancipation, parliamentary reform-and abolition-were not in this period measures which could be cabinet measures, given the convention that cabinet measures were restricted to "matters of government, as government was then understood".5 On "open" questions, on the other hand, as Prof. Aspinall has shown, there was no possibility of ministerial agreement-quite apart from the need to secure the king's agreement.6 Add to this the fact that Pitt became overburdened with the
indications of the influence of San Domingo events see Hawkesbury's observation in the April I792 Commons debate on abolition: "He then desired the house to reflect upon the state of St. Domingo. Had not its calamities been imputed by its deputies to the advocates for the abolition? Was ever any scenes of horror equal to those which had passed there? And should we, when principles of the same sort were lurking in our own islands, expose our fellow subjects to the same miseries?-Reported in of theAfricanSlave Trade of theAbolition andAccomplishment Thomas Clarkson, TheHistoryof theRise, Progress by theBritishParliament(New York, I 836), III, I 73. 1 Quoted inJ. Holland Rose, Life of WilliamPitt (I923), pt II, pp. 3 I-2. 2 Ibid. pp. I35-9; Wilberforce, op. cit. I, 345-6. 4 Ibid. III (Oxford, I 960), p. 30I. Reignof George 3J. Steven Watson, 7The 5 Richard Pares, King George III and thePoliticians(Oxford, I 953), pp. I 64-5.
6

A. Aspinall,'The Cabinet Council, I780-i832',

XXXVIII of theBritishAcademy, Proceedings

(I952),

See also Clarkson's observation: "The Lord Chancellor Thurlow ran counter to his wishes almost at the very outset. Lord Liverpool and Mr. Dundas did the same. Thus, to go no further, three of the most powerful members of the cabinet were in direct opposition to him. The abolition, then, amidst this difference of opinion, could never become a cabinet measure" (Clarkson, op. cit. III, 235). See also III and Holland Rose's assessment in Holland Rose, op. cit. Pt I, pp. 477-8, and D. G. Barnes, George WilliamPitt, 1783-I806 (Stanford, I 939), pp. 2 I I-I 2. For a valuable recent unpublished monograph on Pitt and and abolition see P. C. Lipscomb, William Pitt and the Abolitionof the Slave Trade (Ph.D.,
223-4.

Universityof Texas, I960).

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cares and infinite responsibilities of a war of national survival, and we have a further reason why he was prevented from giving the abolitionist cause more attention and help. Certainly one abolitionist, James Stephen, could, in I797, assert that Pitt "was not zealous enough in the cause of the negroes"I-a view quoted, as we have seen, by Williams. But Thomas Clarkson was at least as singleminded as Stephen-that "most extreme of Abolitionist writers", as W. L. Mathieson termed him2-in the cause of abolition and is unlikely to have minced words had he believed that Pitt avoidably dragged his feet. His verdict was: But though Mr. Pitt did not carry this great question, he was yet one of the greatest supportersof it. He fostered it in its infancy. If, in his public situation, he had then set his face against it, where would have been our hope? He upheld it also in its childhood, and though in this state of existence it did not gain from his protection all the strength which it was expected it would have acquired, he yet kept it from falling, till his successors,in whose administration a greater number of favourable circumstances concurred to give it vigour, brought it to triumphant maturity.3 II Prohibition of the slave trade to British subjects came, of course, in i807, and to the immediate causes of this Williams devotes one page. His argument can therefore be expressed largely in his own words. The ruin of Saint Domingue did not mean the salvation of the British West Indies. Two new enemies appeared on the scene. Cuba forged ahead to fill the gap left in the world market by the disappearance of Saint Domingue. Bonaparte ... gave the first impetus to beet sugar... Whilst, under the American flag, Cuban and other neutral sugar still found a market in Europe, British West Indian surpluses piled up in England... A parliamentary committee set up in I 807 discovered that the British West Indian planter was producing at a loss. In i8oo his profit was 22 per cent., in i807 nothing. In I797 the planter got i9/6d profit per hundredweight; in I799, Io/9d; in I803, i8/6d; in I805, I2/-; in i8o6, nothing. The committee attributed the main evil to the unfavorable state of the foreign market. In I 8o6 the surplusof sugar in England amounted to six thousand tons. Production had to be curtailed. To restrict production, the slave trade must be abolished. The "saturated" colonies needed only seven thousand slaves a year... That explains the support of the abolition bill by so many West Indian planters of the older islands ... The war and Bonaparte's continental blockade made abolition imperative if the older colonies were to survive. "Are they not now", asked Prime Minister Grenville, "distressedby the accumulation of produce on their hands, for which they cannot find a market; and will it not therefore be adding to their distress, and leading the planters on to their ruin, if you suffer the continuation of fresh importations ?" . . . Abolition was the direct result of that distress.4 There is no disputing that, by i807, the West Indian planters were overproducing and making no profit. To argue therefrom that "to restrict production the slave trade must be abolished" is the next step in a logical sequence of argument, but it is the logical sequence only in an imposed pattern, which by no means coincides with the actual pattern. First, the most explicit connexion made
1

Wilberforce, op. cit.


III,

II,

3 Clarkson, op. cit.

225. 235-6.

2
4

W. L. Mathieson, British Slaveryand its Abolition(I 926), p. Williams, op. cit. pp. I49-50.

I54n.

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by contemporaries between overproduction and abolition which Williams cites, is one of Grenville's arguments when moving the abolition motion in the Lords. In fact Williams picks out one argument from a speech which included several arguments in favour of abolition.1 That Grenville should have used the argument of planter distress, as one amongst many, is far less significant than the fact that in all the long debates on the i807 Abolition Bill, in both Lords and Commons, only one other speaker commended abolition as a remedy for overproduction.2 Nor should it be forgotten that Lord Howick and a number of others were very much concerned to strengthen their case by demonstrating that abolition would not harm the West Indies, or that it might positively benefit them. Had the argument from overproduction been in their minds they would hardly have neglected to use it.3 Secondly, it may seem that Williams is citing another contemporary link between overproduction and abolition in relating, as he appears to do, in the section quoted above, the conclusions of the i807 parliamentary committee to the decision to abolish the slave trade. If this is to read Williams correctly, then it must be pointed out that there is no possible connexion. The Abolition Bill was introduced in the Lords on 2 January i807 and the third reading was carried in that House on IO February. In the Commons the decisive division was on the second reading, and that took place on 23 February-the House did not divide on the third reading.4 The parliamentary committee referred to, on the other hand, was not set up until I2 March i807 and its report was not ordered to be printed until 8 August I8o7.5 Ofcourse, the parliamentary committee's finding that the sugar planter's profit had seriously declined since i 8006 is wholly valid evidence of the depressed condition of the West Indian planter, but it is significant that neither that committee nor two further committees on West Indian distress which reported in i807 and i8o87 made any reference whatsoever to abolition as a relevant factor. To this omission one is entitled to attach considerable importance.
Parl. Deb. VIII, 659 (5 Feb. I807). His argument may have been heard with indifference by his parliamentary colleagues for his speech was immediately followed by cries of "Question".-Ibid. VIII, I050, Mr Jacob. 3 The Lords debates are to be found in ibid. VIII, 257-9, 657-72, and 70 I-3, and the Commons debates, includingthe debatein committee,in ibid. VIII, 7I7-22, 940-3, 945-95, I040-53, and IX, 59-62, 63-6, and I I4-40. It is certainly true that in the advocacy of the I8o6 Bill to prohibit British ships carrying slaves to conquered, ceded, and foreign colonies, "sound policy" was, to use the Attorney-General's terms, as much emphasized as the "humanity" to which it was "united". The measure was designed to serve a direct national interest in time of war-the reduction of foreign competition with British Caribbean sugar-and to be the new ministry's first onslaught on the slave trade. But the limited importance ascribed to the measure is shown by the meagre size of the only Commons vote, that on the third reading -35 in favour, I 3 against-whereas on the crucial second-reading vote on the I 807 Bill, there were 283 in favour and i6 against. Williams does not, in fact, make use of such support as one of the avowed purposes of the i806 measure could be made to bring to his case.-Parl. Deb. VI, 597, I025; VIII, 995. 4 Ibid. VIII, 257-9, 70I-3, 945-95; IX, I I4-405 Ibid. IX, 85- Ioi and lxxx. 6 This is certainly what it did find, but the profit levels which Williams cites for I 787, I 799, I 803, I 805, and I 8o6 do not, in fact, come from the report but from Hibbert's speech when presenting the West India petition on I 2 March, the petition whose sequel was the appointment of the committee.-Report of the on theCommercial Committee Stateof the WestIndiaColonies. of theHouseof Commons Great Britain, S [essional] P[apers], Commons, i807 (65), III; Parl. Deb. ix, 98, lxxx-lxxxvi. 7 Committee on the Distillation of Sugar and Molasses and Relief of Sugar Growers of the West Indies, Four Reports. Great Britain, S.P. Commons, I808 (I78, 278, 300, 3I8), IV; Parl. Deb. xi, lxxxi-cxv; Report from theSugarDistilleryCommittee, S.P. Commons, I806-7 (83), II.
2 1

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No less important an omission-this time on Williams's part-in what is nothing if it is not an economic interpretation of abolition, is any sustained statistical basis. For the economic interpretation to impress, figures for profitability of sugar over a number of years before i807 are called for. Whatever the difficulties in working out such figures, some evidence was available when Williams wrote. In particular, Ragatz had given figures for the price commanded by West Indian muscavado sugar on the London market between I760 and I 787, and between I792 and i833.1 Even if a serious statistical basis had been provided by Williams-and here one broaches the really fundamental criticism of his approach-he would have made no more than a primaface case to be investigated further. Contemporaries did not make the connexion between overproduction and abolition; and Williams cited only one piece of direct evidence-an excerpt from Grenville's speech-in support of his contention that abolition resulted from overproduction. Furthermore, it is necessary for Williams's case that the allegedly dominant economic factors be studied at the level of the political process where alone they are transposed into legislation, and that that transposition must be shown to have occurred. This task he has not seriously attempted, let alone achieved. Still less has he examined the role of other relevant pressures in the political process, such as that of the abolitionists. To do so would not be mandatory if Williams had been content simply to depict the economic context of abolition-in fact Ragatz had already done this-but it is mandatory for one who ventures upon the sort of overall judgements which, as we have seen, he does not hesitate to make. His contention concerning the role of the humanitarians and his belief that what mattered were "the developing economic forces"2 are admissible as statements of metahistorical conviction: neither is valid conclusion from his work. It is not intended here to look at these other pressures and at the political process in any detail. But the deficiencies of Williams's whole approach may be the better demonstrated by making two simple points. First, there is the fact of the decisive change in the whole political context of the abolition movement which resulted from Pitt's death in January i8o6. A ministry succeeded which was dominated by men who were prepared to carry abolition. Because a dominant majority of ministers were united at least in this, even though abolition could still not be a cabinet measure, there was now little to fear from king and lords, whence had come the strongest opposition. In Pitt's day, despite his own sympathies, none of these favourable conditions obtained.3 The second point is that Williams's economic interpretation demands some correlation between sugar profitability and the strength or weakness of the abolitionist vote. After all, no one supposes that there was more than a small hard core of dedicated abolitionists, and of "slave traders", in Parliament. The important thing was the floating vote. This being so, certain votes, when related to the state of the sugar market, claim immediate significance. In particular, Wilberforce's I 796 motion for total abolition had a majority of 45 on the second reading, and was lost by 74 to 70 on
1 Ragatz, op. cit. graphs on pp. I 67, 34I . See also W. L. Burn, The British WestIndies,p. 86 (see p. 308, n. 3 above); Report... on theCommercial State of the WestIndia Colonies,S.P. Commons, i807 (65), III. 2 See above, p. 309, and Williams, op. cit. p. 2I0. 3 For a political outline of abolition see Watson, op. cit. pp. 440-I .

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who favoured abolition the third reading only by an unlucky chance-many were tempted away to see the first performance in London of a new Italian opera, I diu Gobi.' But how does this relate to the economic context? The answer is simple. As economic men the Members of Parliament were proving themselves just not up to scratch, for I796 was in the middle of the sugar boom, a long golden summer of the British Caribbean islands, which spanned the eight years

after the collapse of San Domingo in I 79I III

.2

When one moves on to an examination of Williams's argument from overproduction in relation to the abolition of British colonial slavery in i833, this economic argument seems, primafacie, much more likely. By this time, it has already been seen, the more cheaply produced sugar of Brazil, Cuba, and Mauritius was claiming an increasing share of the British market whilst, as Williams says, British Caribbean sugar had to be subsidized to enable the surplus to be sold on the Continent-in competition with sugar from some of Britain's best customers.3 The economic argument for taking a measure which might well be thought likely to restrict British West Indian production even more would therefore seem a strong one. And yet, even though the economic interpretation, in respect of i833, may seem persuasive, whereas in respect of i807 it is demonstrably vulnerable, it remains unproven. What is quite lacking is any hard evidence that the sort of economic considerations which are alleged to have dominated ministers and Members of Parliament in fact did so. We are given no indication at all of how these supposedly compulsive demands were translated into ministerial decisions and parliamentary votes. The compulsive role of economic considerations in policies affecting the slave trade and slavery would, at a first view, seem to have much to commend it in respect of the equalization of the Sugar Duties in i846. There seems little doubt that the removal of protection from what was now free-grown British Caribbean sugar encouraged the extension of slave-labour plantations in Brazil and Cuba and an increase in the supply thereto of new slaves from Africa. There are nonetheless three important reservations which must be entered. The first is that Williams's argument that the abolitionists succumbed to the constraints of economic logic in the matter of the Sugar Duties has been disproved by C. Duncan Rice.4 Rice shows that most abolitionists, though commonly free traders in respect of everything else, regarded sugar as a special case and campaigned against lowering the tariff on slave-grown sugar. Secondly, it would be wrong to ignore mid-nineteenth-century conceptions of what was the proper role of government in regard to free trade. It can be argued that the sway of free trade ideas was such that by the i840's a powerful body of opinion held that it was almost immoral to resist them. Their harmful consequences, if any, were confined to the
R. Coup]and, Wilberforce, pp. i8i-2. 2 Ragatz, op. cit. pp. 205n, 286. 3 Williams, op. cit. p. 152. 4 'The Anti-Slavery Interest and the Sugar Duties, i841-53', in The Transatlantic Slave TradefromWest Africa (Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, n.d. (i965), privately distributed in duplicated form), pp. 44-60.
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short run, or should be countered by other means available to government. One should at any rate consider Palmerston's argument, expressed in i84I when a measure similar to the equalization measure of I846 was unsuccessfully introduced by the Whigs. I can assure the House, that if we had thought that this measure would give to the slave trade any encouragement, which we should not be able by other means amply to counterbalance, we would not have proposed the measure to Parliament, whatever might have been the advantages otherwise to be gained from
it.'

The third reservation is that for two decades before equalization and for some years after that measure, Britain, in respect of Brazil, a country whose cheap sugar and commercial possibilities allegedly corrupted British virtue, pursued a policy which attached such importance to ending the Brazilian slave trade as to prejudice British commercial interests. Whereas, writes A. K. Manchester, in i825 the larger power, to all appearances, was beginning to exercise a virtual protectorate over its South American ally ... friction that grew more embittered as time passed arose over the continuance of the slave trade... The smouldering resentment felt by Brazil over what it termed the arbitraryand dominating action of England broke into open revolt at the expiration of the [slave trade] convention of i826 when Great Britain, determined on the suppression of the traffic at any cost, employed coercion when persuasion failed. This coercion aroused such universal opposition in Brazil that "no cabinet dared enter into a [commercial] treaty with Great Britain."2 Indeed, to broaden the criticism, it is in respect of the long-sustained activity of Britain in general, and Palmerston in particular, against the foreign slave trade that Williams appears at his most strange. He makes much of the parliamentary attack, led by William Hutt, on the policy of naval suppression of the foreign slave trade in the later I840'S,3 but quite omits to point out that this attack was unsuccessful, the policy of naval suppression being confirmed in I850. Williams's view of Palmerston himself is even odder. "In office Palmerston accomplished little. Out of office he goaded the government to greater efforts to accomplish what he had failed to do."4 Such a judgement ignores Greville's important observation that Palmerston associated himself with Russell in threatening resignation to their supporters when, in April i850, there had been a real chance that a number of them might have backed the Hutt motion to end the policy of naval suppression.5 More than this, Palmerston's whole record of action against the slave trade is ignored. At a simple and straightforward level there was, for example, his successful unilateral action against Portuguese slavers in I 839 after protracted negotiations had been unsuccessful; 6 and, on the diplomatic front, as well as a number of slave-trade treaties with minor powers, there were such near successes as the Quintuple treaty of I842 which, if ratified, would have seen the
Hansard, 3rd ser. LVII, 648. A. K. Manchester, BritishPre-eminence in Brazil (Chapel Hill, I933), pp. 252, 297. 3 Williams, op. cit. pp. I 72-4. 4 Ibid. p. I 74. 5 C. C. F. Greville, The GrevilleMemoirs,ed. Henry Reeve (new impression, I903), VI, 332. Also cited in W. L. Mathieson, GreatBritain and theSlave Trade, i83_-65 (I929), p. Io6. 6 Ibid. pp. 21-3.
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acceptance by the major European powers of the important mutual right of search.' Williams also quite ignores the point that Palmerston's slave-trade policy was an integral part of a wider purpose-and one which may possibly be regarded as a more credible inspiration for a long-sustained policy than humanitarian zeal alone.To this wider purpose there is abundant testimony in the words of Palmerston himself. My belief is, that if the slave trade could be entirely put down there would be a very great increase of legitimate trade with the coast of Africa; the natives are much in want of commodities with which we can furnish them, and they possess very ample means of paying for them in commodities which we require.2 Or again Our naval officers ... should sweep along the whole African coast from end to end, West and East ... and use such means of persuasion as belong naturally to a strong naval force to persuade the chiefs of any part of the Coast from whence slave trade is or can be carried on to sign and conclude ... treaties for Commerce and against slave trade . . .3 Nor did the fairly consistent naval and diplomatic action against the slave trade from I 8 I 5 onwards depend on Palmerston alone. Quite apart from the fact that he only became personally involved in this question in the i 830's, there were also times when even he was out of office. What must strike any student of the Foreign Office records relating to Africa for the half-century after i8I5 is that the notion that action against the slave trade on both humanitarian and commercial grounds was a good and proper concern of policy became the received conviction of the office, something which did not require to be argued afresh as one generation of officials succeeded another, as one Foreign Secretary gave place to his successor. To borrow the terminology of Robinson and Gallagher, the notion became an important part of the "official mind".

IV
In sum, and in reference only to that part of his book where he seeks to demonstrate the role of mature capitalism in destroying the slave system, Dr Williams too often uses evidence misleadingly, makes too large claims on only partial evidence, or ignores evidence. Generally speaking, his argument is persuasive to the extent that it suggests that, with the decline of mercantilism, it was more possible to take action against slavery and the slave trade, and that future research on these questions must take account of economic factors. For these reasons students
LVIII,

1 Ibid. pp. I3I-2. See also Palmerston's own account of his exertions up to i84I in Hansard, 3rd ser. 649-5 I . 2 First Report from the Select on theSlave Trade.Great Britain, S.P. Commons, I 849 (308), XIX, Committee

para. 48.

3 F.O. 84/702, Palmerston, Minute, 9 Aug. I 846. For elaboration of the fact that Palmerston had an African policy in which commercial and humanitarian considerations were united see K. 0. Dike, Trade (Oxford, I956), esp. pp. 84-5, 9i-6, I75-6; J. D. Hargreaves, and Politics in theNiger Delta, i8jo-i885 to thePartitionof WestAfrica ( I963), pp. 34-5, 54-6; A. A. Boahen, Britain, theSaharaandthe Western Prelude (Oxford, i964), chs. vi, vii, Ix; Roger Anstey, Britain and the Congoin the Nineteenth Sudan, I788-i86i Century(Oxford, i962), pp. 43-54; R. J. Gavin, 'Palmerston's Policy towards East and West Africa, (Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, I958). I830-I865'

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of the subject will always be in his debt. But to assert the predominance of economic forces when their impingement on the political process, on opinion-forming, on decision-making has not been studied is invalid. When the impingement has been studied it has, at the very least, not been proved. Nor is it admissible to assert the predominance of those economic forces when no serious attempt has been made to consider the relative importance of the humanitarian impulse. Williams may claim that this subordination of the humanitarian role was deliberate. But no judgements of relative importance can be made when only one set of forces has been seriously studied. Suchjudgements can only be ventured when changing economic circumstances and their possible influence, together with the influence of other pressures, have been systematically studied. The vital level of investigation is the political process itself. More especially demanding examination are the impingement of ideas and pressures on parliamentary opinion and the influences and circumstances leading to ministerial action, including, before i807, the major changes in the political economy of the Atlantic region, such as the rising proportion of British carried slaves sent to foreign colonies, the possible influence on British Atlantic policy as a whole of the neutral slave trade, the threat to Britain's economy of the neutral carriage of slave-grown enemy produce. And what, after i 8 I 4, was the place of the policy of suppression, by naval and diplomatic means, in the overall European, American, and African policies of the Foreign Office? What was the relationship of that suppression policy to the shifting economic policies, interests, and assumptions of Britain, and to parliamentary reform? And what sustained that policy in face of major attacks, and when the humanitarians were divided and much weaker than in the first four decades of the century? Until this approach has begun to yield up its fruits, a modified form of the traditional interpretation is more convincing than that propounded in Capitalismand Slavery. As of now, then, the most persuasive view, in the present writer's estimation, runs along these lines: the initial impulse for abolition of the slave trade came from newly awakened Christian conviction strengthened by the "reasonableness" and philanthropy of the Enlightenment. But, even despite a nation-wide agitation, this humanitarian impulse could not immediately prevail. The shaking of the foundations of the old political order, which began with the attacks on the American war and its conduct by ministers, and from which followed the parliamentary-reform movement and a political climate somewhat favourable to other reforms, was followed by the French Revolution and the revolt in San Domingo. For more than a decade the tendency to identify reform with revolution can only have weakened the chances of carrying abolition-not so much in the Commons, perhaps, as in the Lords, the persistent source of opposition. Only when political circumstances changed radically in i8o6 was a successful onslaught on the slave trade possible, the new ministry containing several influential men committed to abolition on humanitarian grounds. It probably also weighed with them that the United States slave trade was due to end in I 8o8, that of other foreigners only Portugal carried on any significant slave trade, that this was therefore a good moment to stop British ships supplying foreigners with slaves, and that the prohibition of the slave trade to British colonies would only affect the future development of those newly acquired. Here, perhaps, is a limited sense in which concern

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about overproduction influenced abolition. After i 807, it gradually became clear that the state of slavery was not going to wither away and abolitionist pressure was strong enough to bring about emancipation of the slaves in i833. The inspiration of the naval and diplomatic action against the foreign slave trade was originally the same abolitionist pressure,1 but from the late i830's, with humanitarianism a declining parliamentary force, one must look to a somewhat different explanation. It is found both in the particular conviction of Palmerston that suppression was not only desirable in itself but also a precondition of the development of British commerce with Africa, and in the more general assumption of the "official mind" that action against the slave trade was a good and proper function of policy. Certain clear inconsistencies between the suppression of the slave trade on the one hand and commercial and fiscal goals on the other may be explicable if each sphere of action is seen as having its own criteria and compulsions. For instance, equalization of the Sugar Duties was imperiously demanded by the new economic orthodoxy, and consequences at the level of an increase in slavery and the slave trade must be checked by methods appropriate to that sphere. No less noteworthy, Britain was commonly prepared, in her relations with foreign powers, to let the demands and logic of suppression dominate -even if this caused a decline in commercial influence over Brazil, even if the Portuguese squirmed at British arrogance, and even if such an attitude was a major cause of strain in Anglo-American relations. It may be untidy for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing, and, in politics, this is not normally a disposition which attracts the commendation which it receives in Scripture. This failure of coherence may, nonetheless, be as frequently met in the political field as it is perhaps infrequently encountered in the eleemosynary. Universityof Kent
1 For a valuable study of early abolitionist pressure see Betty Fladeland, 'Abolitionist Pressures on the Concert of Europe, i8i4-i832', Journal of ModernHistory,xxxviii (Dec. i966), 355-73.