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July 04, 2016


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What was the reason for the crash in sugar prices? Was it the development of beets as a source of sugar, or something else?

Doug M.

Great question. From memory, the crash was due to new areas of cane sugar growing fast: Cuba, Java and Louisiana. That, however, only pushes the question back a step: why did those places expand then, and not earlier? I have a vague memory of Eltis and Engerman addressing that question, but I don't have the references handy.

Actually, in a world like that why would the slave owners in the West Indies give up slaves for compensation on offer? Why not just sell off your slaves to some North American slave owner for the full value of the West Indian slave or even half the value of a North American slave? Are we assuming that the abolition of the slave trade goes as per OTL?

Thought some of the slump was due to protected beet sugar in the continental market?

J.H.: Yes -- cutting off slave imports was good for existing slaveowners; the political economy of ending the slave trade should be the same.

Carlos: from memory, there were two crashes, one after the end of Napoleonic Wars (from bubble heights) and another in 1820-30. I know there was protection in Europe; what I don't remember is if it got worse afte 1820. IIRC, the Napoleonic Wars stimulated the industry and it was well in place by the 1810s.

The political context of 1833 - first Liberal government since 1783, which had just finished passing the Great Reform Act - is really important. There was a built-up pressure for a number of reforms after nearly 50 years of increasingly reactionary Tory government, and ending slavery was on that list.

The political allies of the planters were out of government, and the Reform Act had removed the rotten boroughs (some planters purchased rotten boroughs to represent their interest in parliament).

So, the political context was a government with a long list of reforms that was definitely feeling its oats and prepared to put some stick about, with the opposition on its knees and the planter class seemingly permanently out of power.

That doesn't exclude your economic/financial considerations, of course, but there was plenty of political capital to spend.

Two thoughts on this:

1) Dunmore's Proclamation was not followed through on in 1775 and 1776. Had it been more successful, things could have been different. But the British willingness to arm and use black slaves correlated with how well they were doing. And, I mean, we're talking about an army with Banastre Tarlton, an adamant supporter of the slave trade. Abolitionists the British were not.

2) I'm not sure how you abolish slavery in the *Northern* colonies in the aftermath of the Revolution. So to the extent you care about Americans held in bondage north of Virginia, they're going to be worse off.

Frankly, I think it'd be easier to finangle more abolition in America after the Revolution than it would be to get early abolition in British North America.

This is a great, great post and helps challenge a lot of what I had just taken as conventional wisdom on a British North America timeline.

I think there are some other questions, already raised in the comments, on how Britain deals with the settlement of North America and the spread of slavery. How the British deal with the tribes of the Southeast, for example, can impact the degree to which there is a booming cotton market, and when.

Let's assume a pessimistic scenario and settlement occurs as OTL. A benign neglect of the colonies likely means that the areas of the Old Northwest allow for slavery, there's no one in London who cares enough to not allow it.

What is the end game here? The slavery-cotton complex looks pretty damn powerful between the agrarian South and industrial Britain. I wonder if the knock off is the fear of any example of compensated emancipation kills off abolition in the West Indies ...

This brings me to another question that I had wondered about on and off - when would slave prices have declined (if ever) in the South had the CSA become independent (either with war or without war)?

I've thought that it would definitely survive economically until at least the mid-1910s into the 1920s by which time the boll weevil had begun to really impact the cotton growing areas (after which point I think the productivity/output and value of cotton declined). Could this have lead to a decline in slave prices to the point where slavery would not really be economical especially as working class whites would not be in favour of slaves taking up the kind of work they were doing? So you would have economic pressure from environmental factors and political pressure from working class, non-slave owning whites squeezing slavery by the 1920s?

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