‘British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834’ by J. R. Ward

1988, 279 p & notes

I have sometimes heard parallels drawn between action on climate change today and the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. There is a limit to how far one can push the analogy because the physical science of climate change has its own inexorable reality, unlike a human-created social and political system like slavery.  But both climate change and abolition policy face/d common challenges: the perceived threat to the whole economic structure of the day, the Parliamentary influence of lobby groups and reference to moral underpinnings that are/were derided by opponents more concerned about the economic impact.  They also have/had in common the argument that accepted that change had to occur up to a point, but that improvement could improve gradually and willingly as long as it is not forced by government or external bodies.

This was the argument mounted by British West Indian plantation owners, both in the West Indies and through their Parliamentary lobby groups in the UK.  The initial prohibition of slave-trading was hoped to improve conditions for slaves because if slave numbers could no longer be replenished by a seemingly never-ending supply from Africa, then slave owners would need to look after the slaves they already had more carefully.  New regulations introduced during the 1820s were intended to increase the  oversight of plantation conditions and to reduce the most egregious examples of cruelty and mistreatment.  Just leave us alone, the planters said, and we will make improvements ourselves.

Slavery might be disagreeable, but its character was steadily improving and would continue to do so if the colonies were spared outside interference.  Eventually the institution would melt away, just as it had done in England (p. 2)

This book examines the planters’ argument that “amelioration”  of slave conditions pre-empted the need for outright abolition.  The author draws on the plantation records of a number of different British slave-owning families, many  of whom were absentee owners whose plantations were managed by overseers who needed to report ‘home’. By drawing on a wide range of records, he is able to trace changes over time from the seventeenth through to nineteenth centuries, and across different slave colonies.  In particular, he distinguishes between the “old” sugar colonies where the soil was often depleted and profits were falling, and the newer colonies like  British Guiana which were able to benefit from technological developments and a different geography.

This is a strongly economic book, replete with statistics and tables, generating a “balance sheet” on the effect of amelioration, and later abolition.  As a more socially- and culturally- attuned historian, I found such an abstract treatment of human beings rather distressing and compromising: as if I was almost complicit in a balance-sheet approach.  I was more attracted to the moments when the human experience broke through- like, for example, the observation that in the 1780s two-and three-year olds were sent out into the fields alone to gather grass, but that increasingly the children were brought to the house for their lunchtime meal so that their health could be observed and to foster feelings of gratitude and respect.  Or, for example, the observation that horsebeans as a source of food gradually reduced during the 18th century, which was a thoroughly good thing. They required a great deal of boiling, and often slaves lacked the time, energy or even sufficient water to do this properly, and so ate them raw.  “Like a negro’s T— that ate horse-beans” was a simile that came naturally to a planter when discussing some poorly made sugar (p.21).  But example and anecdote, for all the richness they provide, can only take you so far.  In the end, just as with climate change debate, you need hard data rather than emotion.

And so, looking at the hard-data, shorn of the babies in the fields and the horse-beans, did amelioration work?  Yes, to a point, Ward argues.  The measured output per head of the population grew as rapidly on the sugar estates as it did among industrial workers in Britain, but not markedly more.  This growth in productive efficiency was accompanied by a marked improvement in the slaves’ material state, which in many ways was no worse than that of industrial labourers in British cities.   However, although death rates among slaves declined, there was not a corresponding rise in the birth rate until the abolition of slavery and the shift away from the plantation sugar economy.

So why did this improvement not come to the notice of the abolitionists in England?

First, it was largely an invisible improvement, gained by degrees and without the shiny, visibly new products of the industrial revolution in Britain.  Second, although there was demographic evidence that pointed to the effectiveness of amelioration, this same evidence could just as easily embarrass the slaveholders because it highlighted that it was sugar production, in and of itself, that prompted the low birth rate.  Third, planters could hardly crow about the improvements in their profitability brought about by amelioration when they were at the same time agitating for a reduction in their tax burden as the price of sugar fell.  Finally, the preponderance of lobbyists for Jamaican plantation owners was not a good look, as Jamaica had a particularly negative death:birth ratio and was a declining sugar industry in any event.

Ward suggests that the abolition of slavery in British colonies was a strong, landmark decision with which to inaugurate the new Parliament, elected under the new conditions of the Reform Bill.

So far as working planters were concerned, amelioration provided a means to reinforce slavery, by making it function more efficiently.  For humanitarians in the mother country, however, amelioration was a step towards a higher social state, undermining basic principles of racial authority and subordination…The nineteenth-century slave, however well maintained and lightly worked by earlier standards, was still a slave, liable to arbitrary punishment, likely to be denied Christian instruction and marriage.  Faced with such abuses, a moral cause could not be satisfied for long merely by further adjustments to the details of plantation life. (p. 276)

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One response to “‘British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834’ by J. R. Ward

  1. Pingback: ‘Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies’ by W. L. Burn | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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