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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?

So I came back across this old post after having a discussion today about a counterfactual end (or not) to slavery in the 13 colonies that continued to be British after the 1780s, and a new question popped into my head...just as there were exceptions to the decline of the value of slaves in the West Indies (in Trinidad and British Guiana), so too there would likely be exceptions to the rise in the value of slaves in North America; but if the slave trade is abolished wouldn't this mean that the trade in slaves between what later became the states would be abolished as well?

After all if British policy prevented slaves in declining areas from being sold on to booming places among the West Indian colonies, then the same would apply among the North American colonies too unless they were federated into a proto-dominion/mega-colony no?

How would that affect the dynamics, if slaves from say Maryland or Delaware could not be sold to slave owners in Georgia or the Carolinas? Might that lead to the virtual end of slavery in some of the southern states/colonies if it became uneconomic? Or would it at least have allowed for compensation to be paid as in the West Indies?

And would the unavailability of slaves outside the domestic population due to British policy have pushed up slave prices even further in places where such labour was going to be in high demand like New Orleans (assuming New Orleans becomes and remains British) and other areas of the Deep South?

This is an interesting question! I don't have a prior about the probability of the British stopping the interprovincial slave trade. I do suspect that federating the colonies would have been the sine qua non of re-establish imperial authority after 1775, but I'm not sure of that either. So, for the purposes of argument, let's assume that the colonies remain juridically separate and that the imperial government can enforce the interstate trading ban.

Let's also assume that the British ban transport of slaves, not just sales, so a Delaware landowner can't just pack up and move to western Georgia.

Well, what happens? In this comment, I am only going to discuss DE and MD.

Delaware's slave population peaked around 9,000 in 1790 before plunging to 4,000 in 1810 and 2,000 by 1860. The free black population of the state went from 4,000 to 20,000 over the same period. With no interstate trade, both the free black population and the slave population will be higher. Lower Delaware prices will mean that manumission had less opportunity cost; but it will also mean that slaves who were forcibly transported elsewhere will stay in Delaware.

So a goofball counterfactual would have the black population of British Delaware rise as much as the natural increase among all U.S. slaves in 1810-60. That gives you an 1860 slave population of 15,000. But it would be lower, since Delaware manumission rates were unusually high and would be even higher with low slave prices. So, goofball calculation: 4,000 slaves and 31,000 free black Americans in 1860.

But would those additional free black families stay in British Delaware? I don't know. Either way, the net effect of these changes on Delaware is only to accelerate its transformation into a northern province. The number of additional freedmen is too small to be noticeable in the rest of the South.

British Maryland would be similar, but on a rather larger scale! Its slave population declined from 112,000 in 1810 to 88,000 in 1860, with the free black population growing from 34,000 to 84,000. With no slave exports, the slave population would grow to 390,000 by 1860. (Again, this is a dumb seat-of-the-pant counterfactual) Wow! Provincial slave prices would collapse, although I suspect there will be plenty of people smuggling across the Potomac.

It's been a long time since I read The Price of Freedom, but British Maryland is going to see an explosion in urban slavery. In our world, the owners of urban slaves often motivated slave tradesmen with contracts that promised eventual manumission. Would they need to do that in a world where slave laborers were dirt cheap? Or would they be more motivated to do that in such a world? I suspect the latter.

I found records for P.G. County (page 65) and it looks like manumission peaked at an astounding 37% in the 1810s, before plunging to 15% in the 1820 and near nothing by the 1840s. So, in the spirit of another goofball counterfactual, let's say British Maryland sees a 20% manumission rate decade after decade from 1820 onwards with 35% in 1810-20. That leaves you with 195,000 slaves in 1860, which is more than double than the actual number but not an astounding transformation. If you assume that the 35% manumission rate would hold, then you get only 71,000 slaves left by 1860, less than in the real world.

As with Delaware, the question is whether the somewhere-between195,000 and 319,000 additional free black Americans would stay in Maryland or migrate elsewhere. I suspect that if there are any big slave rebellions elsewhere during this period --- and of course there will be big rebellions, at least as big as in our history --- that Maryland will do its best to make their lives miserable and drive them to Pennsylvania and points west.

I don't see compensated emancipation passing in any of these places. The grounds of a local deal would be tariffs in exchange for emancipation. Assuming that they even have control over tariffs, neither Delaware nor Maryland is likely to have a big enough constituency for protection to make such a deal viable, although you never know.

That said, the numbers in Delaware would be small enough that slavery could collapse entirely, with uncompensated emancipation passing. And while I think it unlikely, it's certainly possible that Maryland could also see the passage of uncompensated emancipation, leading to an additional 405,000 free Americans from both provinces by 1860.

In conclusion, I think that prohibiting the slave trade would lead to very high rates of manumission in MD and DE, freeing somewhere between an additional 221,000 (low manumission in both states) and 405,000 (complete emancipation) free Americans. Maryland, at least potentially, could be a radically different place.

Still, with a total British North American slave population of 4 million by 1860, we are only talking about a difference of 10%. So we have to think about the rest of the South. What happens there?

That's a super interesting (if dumb seat-of-the-pant) counterfactual analysis! I would also assume that the British ban not just the sale, but the transport of slaves.

This would have interesting effects, besides increasing or decreasing the price of slaves in individual provinces (what we call the states now) - it would lead to somewhat genetically distinct populations of slaves in each state (not so distinct as to make a massive difference mark you, but it might make for some quirky regional differences come the 1900s with perhaps some areas showing slightly higher rates sickle cell trait and sickle cell than others than in real life). It may also need to more regional accents and dialects among the black populations.

While slave populations would be higher in MD and DE, would they be slightly lower in places that had received slaves from these provinces from 1803 to 1860? After all in real life there were 22,000 slaves and freed black men in DE in 1860, but in the counterfactual there would be 35,000 slaves and free blacks. So that's 13,000 that would not end up somewhere else. I would imagine that means in a place like Georgia, there would be slightly less slaves and thereby slightly higher prices as slave labour was slightly scarcer.

As for the rest of the South, I'm going to make a few assumptions:

1. the South in such a scenario will consist of the provinces of:

a) Virginia (including what is now West Virginia and Kentucky, the majority of the latter having been opened up for settlement by the shifting of the 1763 proclamation line to the Ohio River by a series of treaties with the Native Americans from 1768 to 1774)

b) North Carolina (including what is now Tennessee)

c) South Carolina (no changes to border)

d) Georgia (which may include what is now northern Mississippi and northern Alabama (the Yazoo lands), unless those areas are maintained as Indian Reserves)

e) West Florida ( what is now southern Mississippi, southern Alabama and westernmost Florida panhandle)

f) East Florida (what is now most of Florida)

It may also include Spanish Louisiana in whole or in part if a French Revolution occurs and leads to wars involving Britain and Spain eventually on opposing sides (in which case the British may conquer New Orleans through the retained American colonies).

But even just restricting the discussion to those six provinces. I would imagine that Georgia, South Carolina and the two Floridas are going to see slave price increases and the booming of slavery.

Virginia may be a mixed bag, slavery would probably decline in what are now W Virginia and Kentucky, but be stable in the rest of Virginia. However slaves could be moved freely in this greater Virginia, so slavery wouldn't collapse in W Virginia and Kentucky, so much as shift towards the rest of Virginia (or be smuggled south).

North Carolina I'm not sure about. I would think it would have a similar dynamic to Virginia.

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