By Sadie Robinson
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Capital — built on slavery

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Issue 2669
Young children being sold at a slave auction
Young children being sold at a slave auction (Pic: Wellcome Collection)

Defenders of the system portray capitalism as progressive. They insist there is a world of difference between ­brutal systems such as ­feu­­dalism or slavery and modern capitalism.

A recent book turns this argument on its head. It shows how capitalism is built on slavery. And several innovations credited to industrial capitalists were key to making slavery profitable.

Accounting for Slavery by Caitlin Rosenthal looks at how sugar and cotton plantations organised and tracked production. It is a fascinating yet horrifying history of how planters saw the slaves they profited from—and how they drove up production.

Slaves who rebelled or failed to work hard enough faced brutal punishments. These included branding, removing ears and whipping and “literally rubbing salt in wounds”.

A racist ideology developed in order to justify the barbaric treatment of black slaves.

Extreme violence helped a tiny minority maintain power. But Rosenthal says accounting was also key.

The book looks in detail at plantation records and accounts from the Caribbean to the south of the US. Rosenthal argues that “by the end of the 18th century, practices on many ­plantations were becoming highly standardised”.

These include production methods associated with industrial capitalism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor is said to have founded the theory of “scientific management” during the 1880s and 1890s. This holds that bosses can get more out of workers by close monitoring and efficient labour processes.


It’s assumed that modern management emerged on US railroads in 1860. But according to management scholar Bill Cooke, at that time 38,000 plantation overseers “were managing four million slaves”. And they were doing so “according to Taylorian principles”.

Like slave owners, Taylor thought workers spent too much time “in partial idleness, talking and half working, or actually doing nothing”.

He aimed to “learn what really constituted a full day’s work for a first class man”. Rosenthal says “more than half a century earlier” South Carolina planter Plowden CJ Weston had described his aims in “almost identical terms”.

Weston said, “In nothing does a good manager so much excel a bad one, as in being able to discern what a hand is capable of doing and in never attempting to make him do more.” Rosenthal says, “Systematic accounting practices thrived on plantations—not despite slavery but because of it.”

Some planters measured slaves’ progress three times a day and gave “small prizes” as incentives for them to pick more. The aim was to work out how much each slave could pick.

If slaves later fell short of this amount, they faced ­punishment. If they exceeded it, they would be expected to always pick this higher amount. Some “responded with subtle modes of resistance”. One of these was “sogering” or ­“pretending to work, and accomplishing as little as possible”.

Still, the slavers’ methods worked. Rosenthal describes “a tremendous increase in productivity during the sixty years ­preceding the US Civil War”.

“Between 1801 and 1862, the average amount of cotton picked per slave per day increased about ­fourfold, or 2.3 percent per year.” This wasn’t due to new strains of cotton that were easier to pick.

Higher yields came about “because planters could calculate and enforce a faster rate of picking”.

So accounting turned the south of the US into “a vast laboratory for agricultural improvement”.

Sugar plantations involved a variety of tasks. Rosenthal cites studies showing ­“assembly?line production,” “subdivided tasks,” and “systematised shift work”.

“Sophisticated accounting techniques were not incidental to plantation slavery,” says Rosenthal.

Whole industries grew up to provide account books, journals and logs for planters.

Journals produced by Leapidge & Bailey stationers in London recorded land use, a daily diary, goods received, produce sold, slaves and livestock.

Humans were recorded in the same way as animals. Lists of slaves recorded their employment status, ­helping planters “detect shifting labour patterns as the seasons changed”.

Slaves were valued as units of capital. Their value was referred to as percentages of a “hand”. Full hands were the most valuable. Others would be referred to as a ­“quarter?hand” or a “half-hand”.

Children grew in value as they aged and planters valued their slaves from birth. Many years before their labour was measured, they were already entered into “account books as capital”.

“Slaves were, quite literally, human capital, whose value could appreciate or depreciate,” says Rosenthal.

The scale of slaves’ resistance could well be underestimated because revealing this would slash their value. “Whenever they could, sellers concealed slaves’ efforts to escape,” writes Rosenthal. 

Valuing each slave meant they could “serve as collateral for loans”. They became interchangeable and standardised.

Rosenthal says all of this put southern slaveholders “at the cutting edge of nineteenth-century valuation practices”.

Other records also ­protected planters. Tools accounts were “tallied up frequently”, helping them “maintain a near ­monopoly on potential weapons”.

As Rosenthal explains, “One lost axe might be a sign of wastefulness or carelessness, but several missing in a short period could be a harbinger of violence or rebellion.”


An example of a plantation that slaves worked on

An example of a plantation that slaves worked on (Pic: Picryl)

She describes how slaves resisted.

“They defied planters’ efforts to reduce them to columns of capital and units of output. They ran away, they rebelled, and they conspired to commit arson and murder.” Resistance sometimes meant losses for planters. But the system remained hugely profitable. “Planters earned fortunes not despite slavery but because of it,” says Rosenthal.

“During a period when labour turnover in free enterprises regularly reached 100 percent or more over the course of a year, Caribbean sugar planters experienced almost none,” she writes.

On Prospect Estate, turnover was less than 5 percent. Factory owners had to negotiate with workers—planters did not. The differences are clear from the accounts.

“On monthly reports, plantation managers filled in neat columns of numbers,” says Rosenthal. “Time books kept by factory owners hiring wage labourers are full of blanks.

“Names changed from month to month because workers often quit.”

Accounting helped those fighting slavery too. Some used the descriptions of brutal punishments as ammunition.

Moves to abolish slavery transformed planters’ ­relationships with their ­workers into “market relationships”. They had to recruit and retain workers, and had much less control over their lives.

Rosenthal cites diaries from planters bemoaning their ­workers “roving all over the country” and refusing to work. One journal noted, “Hands in a stew. Uneasy. Apparently not satisfied.”

But planters “struggled to reassert control”. They imposed contracts that sought to control workers personal lives.

Widespread illiteracy meant workers couldn’t understand what they were signing. Former slave Louis Thomas from Missouri recalled, “They sent for all us hands to come to sign a contract.

“He took my hand, put it on his pen, and signed my name himself.

“I got mad as a wet hen about that agreement he read to me. So he tried to make me feel good saying he was going to give me half. I knowed better.”

The move away from slavery saw women and children work much less. Freed people “gained increased control over their lives” but “did not make large economic gains”.

The book doesn’t have all the answers. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why such a profitable system as slavery made way for other forms of production.

But it challenges many dominant ideas about capitalism, class and progress.

We are told that ­capitalism benefits everyone. But as Rosenthal says, “Growing the pie brings no guarantee about how it will be divided.”

She says modern narratives of capitalism “assume that vast wealth accumulated by a few accompanies improved circumstances for many”.

“The history of slavery’s capitalism warns against these expectations,” she writes.

Accounting for Slavery by Caitlin Rosenthal is out now in hardback for £23.75. A paperback edition is released on 25 October 

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