Slavery was not a one-off event – a single horror confined to the 18th century or simply to Africa.
It was one of the products of the rise of capitalism, and in turn it gave a great boost to capitalism’s growth. The black historian Eric Williams wrote that slavery “fertilised the entire productive system”.
Profits derived from the “triangular trade” accounted for between a quarter and a third of the entire new investment made by the British ruling class in the years around 1770.
The slave plantations were crucial sources of cheap raw materials for emerging industries, as markets for British goods and as a source of considerable profit.
A big portion of the money made from slaves was invested in industrial production – in canals, railways, ships and new productive techniques.
The firm of Boulton & Watt, Britain’s most important maker of steam engines, was dependent for a period upon slavery.
Colonial conquest was also important. The historian Robin Blackburn writes, “The profits of the plantations and the slave-based trades probably constituted the largest single source of imperial gains. But Ireland and India greatly swelled the revenues available to Britain’s ruling class.”
Slavery was a fruit of the first wave of capitalist globalisation. It was a central part of the process which Karl Marx called “the primitive accumulation of capital”.
The early British capitalists’ use of “free labour” (labour which must sell itself on the market) at home gave a vicious dynamism to their profit making. This meant they could then exploit unfree labour (slaves) on a new scale.
As Karl Marx put it, “the veiled slavery of the wage-earners in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World”.
Slavery itself was transformed as capitalism lurched forward. It was the British colonialists in Barbados who established plantations in the 1640s with several hundred slaves, mechanised processing, and the efficient production of commercial goods for the European markets.
At first this meant drawing capital off to the developing colonies. But this diversion of capital became incredibly profitable, and provided further capital for investment at home.
As Robin Blackburn says, “By the 1770s the British colonies had the largest number of slaves, followed by Portugal (in Brazil), then the French and Spanish colonies.
“The first way the colonies could be said to have stimulated the industrial revolution is through providing a market, through providing demand.
“The second way is through the achievement of a surplus – the profits. It used to be thought – including by Eric Williams – that the plantations became unprofitable towards the end of the 18th century. Modern research shows that this was not the case.
“Indeed they were at their most profitable during this period. They were providing super-profits to merchants in England, which enabled them to offer credit to early industrialists and manufacturers.”
Britain was also drawing colonial super-profits from Irish landed estates and the sacking and plunder of India. But the profits of the slave trade were by far the most significant.
Once this system established itself and contributed to the industrial revolution, then the industrial revolution itself encouraged the further expansion of slavery in the cotton plantations.
Slavery’s centrality to capitalist development is part of the reason why the slave trade has always been an acute embarrassment to our rulers, and why they will now try to suggest it was a product of a long-dead era.
In fact it was structured into the way their system was born.
The Labour ministers who solemnly take part in the commemorations of the act which claimed it would abolish the slave trade will certainly have been at a drinks reception with businessmen whose predecessors ran ships packed with African flesh.
The ruling class gained from slavery – not ordinary people in Britain, the US and elsewhere. In fact slavery simply fuelled the monstrous instrument – capitalism – which exploited factory workers, agricultural labourers, clerks, child textile workers and millions of others.
Slave money financed the massive cotton mills where generations of workers spent a vast portion of their stunted, short lives. The use of big workforces on the plantations was a model for the creation of factories in Britain.
The use of child slaves in the Americas was the template for the use of children who were pressed into wage slavery in the mills. Infant paupers were taken from the workhouses and transferred to textile firms.
As an account in 1842 says, “These children are sent off by wagon loads and are as much lost to their parents as if they were shipped for the West Indies.” Calling the conditions of early industrial workers “slave-like” was no exaggeration.
Brothers and sisters
In the Barbados sugar cane fields slaves were unlikely to live for more than four or five years. Many died in their teens or early 20s. In Manchester in 1840 the average age at death for labourers was 17.
The Irish labourers, the European factory workers and agricultural proletariat were all brothers and sisters of the slave. That is why there was an almost instinctive unity between poor whites and slaves which the ruling class made great efforts to extinguish.
What reparations would be great enough to redress this crime which was one of the foundations of a series of crimes that continue to the present day? A payment will not do away with the racism that continues today or the class society of capitalism.
A minimal step would be to immediately and unconditionally wipe out the debts that the Third World now “owes” to the banks, Western governments and the great financial institutions.
But this would be a drop of water compared to the desert created by slavery and its effects.
Even handing over the wealth of the banks to workers and peasants in the Third World and workers in the West would be a tiny part of the redress required. Yet it goes far beyond anything that capitalism will concede.
This weekend politicians will proclaim about great deeds, but they will continue to balk at significant deeds.
Real reparation will only come when the exploited and unemployed – of all lands, black and white – seize back what was taken from them. Tearing down the system and the institutions which slavery helped to build is the means by which scores can be settled.