Last week, Columbia University presented the Bancroft Award to two books that directly address the relationship of capitalism, slavery, expansion, and empire: my The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Both are part of a renewed scholarly attention to capitalism and slavery, carried out by historians such Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist, Calvin Schermerhorn, Bonnie Martin, Kathryn Boodry, Seth Rockman, Ada Ferrer, Adam Rothman, and Caitlin Rosenthal (and keep an eye out for Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette’s forthcoming, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry).
The argument that capitalism was dependent on slavery is, of course, not new. In 1944, Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery, made the case. In 1968, the historian Lorenzo Greene wrote that slavery “formed the basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” Even before the expansion of slave labor in the South and into the West, slavery was already an important source of northern profit, as was the already exploding slave trade in the Caribbean and South America. Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut, some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slave lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses. Fathers who “made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages” left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments” and donated to build libraries, lecture halls, universities and botanical gardens. Many of the millions of gallons of rum distilled annually in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were used to obtain slaves, who were then brought to the West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses, boiled to make more rum to be used to acquire more slaves. Haiti’s plantation’s purchased 63 percent of pickled fish from New England. In Massachusetts alone, David Brion Davis writes, the “West Indian trade employed some ten thousand seaman, to say nothing of the workers who built, outfitted, and supplied the ships.”
Starting in the early 1800s, Southerners in the United States began to defend slavery as their “peculiar institution” and northerners didn’t mind, since the phrase suggested that chattel bondage was quarantined from the rest of the nation, that it was, or soon would be, a relic of its past and would not define its future. But, for all the variation that distinguished the Catholic south from the Protestant north, for all the variance in regional intensity, the way the institution spread in different moments in different places, there was nothing peculiar or particular about it. Slavery was the western hemisphere’s universal institution. Centuries of buying and selling human beings, of moving them across oceans and continents, treating humans as property, paying taxes on them, putting them to labor, making profit off of their reproduction, and using them as collateral and capital, brought together the Western Hemisphere’s diverse parts, even those parts that didn’t seem to be directly implicated in the slave trade, into a greater whole. Slavery standardized maritime and commercial jurisprudence, including insurance. Slavery spurred individual regions to develop their comparative advantage—salting of fish in New England, curing of meat in Argentina, for examples (discussed in The Empire of Necessity). Defending slavery, opposing it, or attempting to reform and regulate it led to the transformation of Christianity, moral philosophy, and international law. Research into how to ameliorate the coerced transport of humans, or to make the transport more profitable, led to advances in medicine that today benefit us all. One of the things I tried to show in The Empire of Necessity was how, in Montevideo and Buenos Aires at least, the high mortality rate of the Middle Passage led to the secularization of medical knowledge: Every time a doctor threw back a hatch to reveal the horrors below, it became a little bit more difficult to blame mental illness on demons.