Capitalism and Slavery: The Development Of The Negro Slave Trade

For our last bit of JuneTeenth celebration this month, I decided to pull an excerpt from one of the books featured in our two part commemorative JuneTeenth recommended reading list (Part One, Part Two). This excerpt is from Eric Williams and Colin A. Palmer’s Capitalism and Slavery, Third Edition.

 The negro slaves were “the strength and sinews of this western world.” Negro slavery demanded the Negro slave trade. Therefore the preservation and improvement of the trade to Africa was “a matter of very high importance to this kingdom and the plantations thereunto belonging.” And thus it remained, up to 1783, a cardinal object of British foreign policy.

The first English slave-trading expedition was that of Sir John Hawkins in 1562. Like so many Elizabethan ventures, it was a buccaneering expedition, encroaching on the papal arbitration of 1493 which made Africa a Portuguese monopoly. The slaves obtained were sold to the Spaniards in the West Indies. The English slave trade remained desultory and perfunctory in character until the establishment of British colonies in the Caribbean and the introduction of the sugar industry. When by 1660 the political and social upheavals of the Civil War period came to an end, England was ready to embark wholeheartedly on a branch of commerce whose importance to her sugar and her tobacco colonies in the New World was beginning to be fully appreciated.

In accordance with the economic policies of the Stuart monarchy, the slave trade was entrusted to a monopolistic company, the Company of Royal Adventurers trading to Africa, thirty incorporated in 1663 for a period of one thousand years. The Earl of Clarendon voiced the enthusiasm current at the time, that the company would “be found a model equally to advance the trade of England with that of any other company, even that of the East lndies.” The optimistic prediction was not realized, largely as a result of losses and dislocations caused by war with the Dutch, and in 1672 a new company, the Royal African Company, was created.

The policy of monopoly, however, remained unchanged and provoked determined resistance in two quarters—the merchants in the outports, struggling to break down the monopoly of the capital; and the planters in the colonies, demanding free trade in blacks as vociferously and with as much gusto as one hundred and fifty years later they opposed free trade in sugar. The mercantilist intelligentsia were divided on the question. Postlethwayt, most prolific of the mercantilist writers, wanted the company, the whole company and nothing but the company. Joshua Gee emphasized the frugality and good management of the private trader. Davenant, one of the ablest economists and financial experts of his day, at first opposed the monopoly, and then later changed his mind, arguing that other nations found organized companies necessary, and that the company would “stand in place of an academy, for training an indefinite number of people in the regular knowledge of all matters relating to the several branches of the African trade.”

The case against monopoly was succinctly stated by the free traders—or interlopers as they were then called—to the Board of Trade in 1711. The monopoly meant that the purchase of British manufactures for sale on the coast of Africa, control of ships employed in the slave trade, sale of Negroes to the plantations, importation of plantation produce—“this great circle of trade and navigation,” on which the livelihood, direct and indirect, of many thousands depended—would be under the control of a single company.” The planters in their tum complained of the quality, prices, and irregular deliveries, and refused to pay their debts to the company.

There was nothing unique in this opposition to the monopoly of the slave trade. Monopoly was an ugly word, which conjured up memories of the political tyranny of Charles I, though no “free trader” of the time could have had the slightest idea of the still uglier visions the word would conjure up one hundred and fifty years later when it was associated with the economic tyranny of the West Indian sugar planter. But in the last decade of the seventeenth century the economic current was flowing definitely against monopoly. In 1672 the Baltic trade was thrown open and the monopoly of the Eastland Company overthrown. One of the most important consequences of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the expulsion of the Stuarts was the impetus it gave to the principle of free trade. In 1698 the Royal African Company lost its monopoly and the right of a free trade in slaves was recognized as a fundamental and natural right of Englishmen. In the same year the Merchant Adventurers of London were deprived of their monopoly of the export trade in cloth, and a year later the monopoly of the Muscovy Company was abrogated and trade to Russia made free. Only in one particular did the freedom accorded in the slave trade differ from the freedom accorded in other trades—the commodity involved was man.

Eric Williams (1911-1981) served as the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago beginning in 1962 until his death. Prior to entering politics, he was a professor of social and political science at Howard University. 

Colin A. Palmer was a leading historian of the Caribbean and the African diaspora. He chronicles the history of the Caribbean in the wake of British and U.S. imperialism in the trilogy comprised of Freedom’s ChildrenCheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power, and Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean