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Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition

Seymour Drescher
With a new preface by the author and a new foreword by David Brion Davis
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In this classic analysis and refutation of Eric Williams's 1944 thesis, Seymour Drescher argues that Britain's abolition of the slave trade in 1807 resulted not from the diminishing value of slavery for Great Britain but instead from the British public's mobilization against the slave trade, which forced London to commit what Drescher terms "econocide." This action, he argues, was detrimental to Britain's economic interests at a time when British slavery was actually at the height of its potential.Originally published in 1977, Drescher's work was instrumental in undermining the economic determinist interpretation of abolitionism that had dominated historical discourse for decades following World War II. For this second edition, which includes a foreword by David Brion Davis, Drescher has written a new preface, reflecting on the historiography of the British slave trade since this book's original publication.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0432-9
    Subjects: History, Economics, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    David Brian Davis

    In 1933, when a global depression and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power presaged the revival of massive human enslavement by the end of the decade, Great Britain staged a glorious celebration of the centenary of the nation’s emancipation of colonial slaves. Attention focused on the great abolitionist leader William Wilberforce and on the theme that he and his fellow “Saints” had championed—a cause that had eventually led to the abolition of the very epitome of evil in most all of the world—dramatic evidence of the reality of moral progress in human history.

    This extremely reassuring message, reinforced by...

  6. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. xxi-xxx)
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxxi-2)
  8. 1 The Decline Theory of Abolition
    (pp. 3-14)

    For one hundred and fifty years a sense of the extraordinary has pervaded interpretations of the abolition of British slavery. To its supporters abolition represented an almost miraculous example of the triumph of the spiritual over the material, and of “humanitarian” over “interest” politics. The fact that the West Indies were the main theater for the contest encouraged this conception. Just as North American colonization displayed certain characteristics of European politics, released from the encumbrances of tradition, the Caribbean colonies were in their own way caricatures of the European capitalist ethic. In these colonies almost no thought had been devoted...

  9. 2 The 1770s as the Pivot of British Slavery
    (pp. 15-37)

    The decline thesis, however elaborate, comes to this: In the first half of the eighteenth century the slave economies were far more important to the mother country than afterward. Small islands in the Caribbean could rival continents in significance because of their relatively rapid rates of development. Their specialized production was of undisputed value in the imperial system, and their profits may have helped to fuel the capital needs of the industrial revolution.¹ Somewhere after the middle of the century, the slave economies began to lose their developmental lead and were unable to maintain their former position either as customers...

  10. 3 The Protected Economy Before the French Slave Revolution
    (pp. 38-54)

    British abolitionist agitation and colonial developments reached a critical moment in the years from 1788 to 1792. Abolition became a national issue in 1788, and the Commons first voted to eliminate the slave trade in 1792. At the same time the French began to experience serious metropolitan conflict, together with social disorders in the colonies which culminated in the explosion on St. Domingue in the summer of 1791. In this chapter we will attempt to show how the British slave economy appeared to contemporaries on the eve of the milestone vote in the Commons and the momentous uprising in the...

  11. 4 The Unprotected Economy Before the French Slave Revolution
    (pp. 55-64)

    The decline theory does not rest on sugar alone. Innovations outside the old sugar systems were supposedly decisive factors in the decline of British slavery. A new imperial political economy of laissez-faire and a new tropical product, cotton, rendered the slave system a fetter on the British imperial economy and caused it to be broken. An empire revolving around sugar, monopoly, and stagnation was incompatible with an open market empire.¹ Because of this, a system which enjoyed the approval of every economic interest in the middle of the eighteenth century had its position “eroded” dramatically until every interest was indifferent...

  12. 5 The Growth of Slavery in the Era of British Supremacy
    (pp. 65-91)

    The year ending in June of 1792 marked a new period for the abolitionist cause in Britain and for slavery in the Caribbean. At the far end of this period (1805-1807), a sequence of orders and acts finally prohibited the transportation of African slave labor by British subjects.

    A preliminary ambiguity must be noted before we attempt to estimate economic trends during this dramatic era. Before 1792, annual averages could be based on comparable peacetime periods. In 1787-1791, 1772-1775 was usually regarded as the historical base period. After 1791 these constellations of economic analysis simply disappeared. Between 1791 and 1800,...

  13. 6 The New Frontier and Abolition
    (pp. 92-112)

    British slavery was expanding in 1790. It expanded even more rapidly between 1791 and 1806, despite the dampening effect of political action on the slave-trade component in 1799. But alongside the increase of production, trade, and population there emerged a new frontier which shattered the temporal and spatial assumptions of the debate of the early nineties. The analysis of British economic and political responses to this frontier is crucial for the decline theory or for any other theory of abolition. The decline theory presumes (1) that the British slave system lacked resilience and could not match the growth prospects of...

  14. 7 Economic Conjuncture and Abolition Bills, 1791-1806
    (pp. 113-124)

    The relation of short-term economic situations to the dynamics of abolition constitute a special category of applied economic determinism inCapitalism and Slavery.Williams’s specific applications of the theory are by no means as widely accepted as is his secular analysis. Nevertheless, his working assumptions about the relation of political behavior to shortterm economic motivation have made sufficient scholarly inroads to warrant separate analysis. Such scrutiny also provides another opportunity to test the validity of the theory at different moments between the beginning of organized abolitionism and its triumph in 1807.

    Specific abolitionist political initiatives are portrayed by Williams as...

  15. 8 The Market Mechanism and Abolition
    (pp. 125-141)

    The first steps in the dismantling of the slave trade occurred at the end of the golden decade of the 1790s. But total abolition did not come until seven years after the St. Domingue windfall ended. The economic context of the deathblow therefore calls for careful consideration. Williams attempts to explain the final act of abolition as a response to market conditions. Tempted by the French colonial turmoil after 1791, the British planters overextended themselves in purchasing slaves and in shifting to strains of cane which increased sugar yields per acre. Beginning with 1799, concludes the decline account, overproduction was...

  16. 9 Abolition and the Decline of British Slavery, 1808-1814
    (pp. 142-161)

    At the heart of the decline theory lies the sense that slavery was unassailable so long as its existence was complementary to Britain’s major economic interests and unsalvageable once it ceased to be so.¹ Accordingly, abolition in 1807 is the seal of death, ratifying the inevitable downward path of British slavery. The tendency is for historians to rush on to the next great phase of abolitionism, the campaign for emancipation. It is possible, however, that the immediate postabolition period can shed some final light on the decline theory. Strictly speaking, since restoration of the slave trade was never formally submitted...

  17. 10 Beyond Economic Interest
    (pp. 162-186)

    We have attempted to look systematically at two fundamental concepts which have become embedded in almost all historical works on British abolition since the appearance of Williams’s seminal study. The first is that the decline of British slavery occurred before and was a prerequisite of abolitionist successes. The second assumes that abolition can be successfully explained in the framework of two variants of capitalist political economy, one of them tying abolition to the emergence of interests connected with laissez-faire capitalism hostile to the mercantilist nexus of slavery, and the other linking abolition to interests connected with mercantilist capitalism. A survey...

  18. List of Abbreviatiaons
    (pp. 188-188)
  19. APPENDIX I: Chronoloagy
    (pp. 189-192)
  20. APPENDIX II: Estimating the Sugar, Coffee, and Slave Trades
    (pp. 193-213)
  21. APPENDIX III: The Relative Strength of Suggested Motives in the Votes of 1806-1807
    (pp. 214-224)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 225-260)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-272)
  24. Index
    (pp. 273-279)