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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.

This article previously appeared in Op-Ed News and Portside.


I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery." Marquis de Lafayette, French military leader who was instrumental in enlisting French support for the colonists in the American War of Independence

Historians have long grappled with the contradiction of a revolution under the banner of "all men are created equal" being largely led by slave owners. Once free of England, the U.S. grew over the next 89 years to be the largest slave-owning republic in history.

But the July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence (DI) was in itself a revolutionary document. Never before in history had people asserted the right of revolution--not just to overthrow a specific government that no longer met the needs of the people, but as a general principle for the relationship between the rulers and the ruled: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.--That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government..."

And yes, "all men are created equal" excluded women, black people and the indigenous populations of the continent, and was written by slave-owner Thomas Jefferson with all his personal hypocrisies. But the words themselves have been used many times since to challenge racism and other forms of domination and inequality. Both the 1789 French Revolution and the 1804 Haitian revolution--the only successful slave revolt in human history--drew inspiration from this clarion call. In 1829 black abolitionist David Walker threw the words of the DI back in the face of the slave republic: "See your declarations Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?" The 1848 Seneca Falls women's rights convention issued a Declaration of Sentiments proclaiming that "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal." Vietnam used these very words in declaring independence from France in 1946. And as ML King stated in his 1963 I have a Dream Speech, it was "A promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Americans are taught to see the birth of our country as a gift to the world, even when its original defects are acknowledged. The DI along with the Constitution are pillars of American exceptionalism--the belief that the U.S. is superior and unique from all others, holding the promise of an "Asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty" in the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense. Historian Gary Nash has made a case that upon winning independence, the conditions for at least the gradual abolition of slavery throughout the 13 colonies were present but lacked political leadership. "One of the lessons of history is that in cases where a fundamental change has been accomplished against heavy odds, inspired leadership has been critically important", and "Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were strategically positioned to take the lead on the slavery issue. All three professed a hatred of slavery and a fervent desire to see it ended in their own time." (The Forgotten Fifth, 91, 95.)

For all their lofty rhetoric none of them lifted a finger to bring that about. Perhaps though a different question might be asked: what if the British had won, had defeated the colonists' bid to break from the mother country? Is it possible that the cause of freedom and the ideals of the DI would have been paradoxically better served by that outcome?

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England's Victory Over France Leads to the American War For Independence

It was, ironically, England's victory over France for control of the North American continent in the seven years' war (1756-1763) that laid the basis for their North American colonies to revolt just 13 years later. As the war with France ended, the British 1763 Proclamation prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian mountains in an attempt at detente with Native Americans -- bringing England into conflict with colonists wanting to expand westward. More serious still were the series of taxes England imposed on the colonies to pay off its large war debt: the 1765 Stamp Act, the 1767-1770 Townshend Acts, and the 1773 Tea Acts, among others. As colonial leaders mounted increasingly militant resistance to these measures, so too did British repression ramp up.

And while "No taxation without representation" and opposition to British tyranny are the two most commonly cited causes propelling the colonists' drive for independence, recent scholarship (Slave Nation by Ruth and Alfred Blumrosen, Gerald Horne's The Counter-Revolution of 1776, and Alan Gilbert's Black Patriots and Loyalists in particular) has revealed a heretofore unacknowledged third major motivating force --the preservation and protection of slavery itself. In 1772, the highest British court ruled in the Somerset decision that slave owners had no legal claims to ownership of other humans in England itself, declaring slavery to be "odious". Somerset eliminated any possibility of a de jure defense of slavery in England, further reinforced at the time by Parliament refusing a request by British slave owners to pass such a law. While Somerset did not apply to England's colonies, it was taken by southern colonists as a potential threat to their slave power. Their fear was further reinforced by the 1766 Declaratory Act, which made explicit England's final say over any laws made in the colonies, and the "Repugnancy" clause in each colony's charter. Somerset added fuel to the growing fires uniting the colonies against England in a fight for independence.

"Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down"
Simon Schama, Rough Crossings

Among the list of grievances in the DI is the rarely scrutinized "He [referring to the king] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us." This grievance was motivated by Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore's November 1775 proclamation stating that any person held as a slave by a colonist in rebellion against England would become free by joining the British forces in subduing the revolt. While 5000 mainly free black people from northern colonies joined with the colonists' fight for independence, few of our school books teach that tens of thousands more enslaved black people joined with the British, with an even greater number taking advantage of the war to escape the colonies altogether by running to Canada or Florida. They saw they had a better shot at "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" with the British--than with their colonial slave masters.

To further put these numbers in perspective, the total population of the 13 colonies at the time was 2.5 million, of whom 500,000 were slaves and indentured servants. While there is some debate about the exact numbers, Peter Kolchin in American Slavery points to the "Sharp decline between 1770 and 1790 in the proportion of the population made up of blacks (almost all of whom were slaves) from 60.5% to 43.8% in South Carolina and from 45.2% to 36.1% in Georgia" (73). Other commonly cited figures from historians estimate 25,000 slaves escaped from South Carolina, 30,000 from Virginia, and 5,000 from Georgia. Gilbert in Black Patriots and Loyalists says "Estimates range between twenty thousand and one hundred thousand... if one adds in the thousands of not yet organized blacks who trailed... the major British forces... the number takes on dimensions accurately called 'gigantic'(xii).

Among them were 30 of Thomas Jefferson's slaves, 20 of George Washington's, and good ole "Give me liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry also lost his slave Ralph Henry to the Brits. It was the first mass emancipation in American history. Evidently "domestic insurrection" was legitimate when led by slave owners against England but not when enslaved people rose up for their freedom--against the rebelling slave owners!

Before There Was Harriet Tubman There was Colonel Tye

click here

Crispus Attucks is often hailed as the first martyr of the American revolution, a free black man killed defying British authority in the 1770 Boston Massacre. But few have heard of Titus, who just 5 years later was among those thousands of slaves who escaped to the British lines. He became known as Colonel Tye for his military prowess in leading black and white guerrilla fighters in numerous raids throughout Monmouth County, New Jersey, taking reprisals against slave owners, freeing their slaves, destroying their weaponry and creating an atmosphere of fear among the rebel colonists--and hope among their slaves. Other black regiments under the British fought with ribbons emblazoned across their chests saying "Liberty to Slaves".

One might compare Col. Tye to Attucks but if Attucks is a hero, what does that make Tye, who freed hundreds of slaves? Perhaps a more apt comparison is with Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery in 1849 and returned to the south numerous times to also free hundreds of her brothers and sisters held in bondage.

So What if the British had won?

At no point though did the British declare the end of slavery to be a war goal; it was always just a military tactic. But if the Brits had won, as they came close to doing, it might have set off a series of events that went well beyond their control. Would England have been able to restore slavery in the 13 colonies in the face of certain anti-slavery resistance by the tens of thousands of now free ex-slaves, joined by growing anti-slavery forces in the northern colonies? As Gilbert puts it, "Class and race forged ties of solidarity in opposition to both the slave holders and the colonial elites." (10) Another sure ally would have been the abolitionist movement in England, which had been further emboldened by the 1772 Somerset decision. And if England had to abolish slavery in the 13 colonies, would that not have led to a wave of emancipations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America?

And just what was the cost of the victorious independence struggle to the black population? To the indigenous populations who were described in that same DI grievance as "The merciless Indian Savages"? Might it have been better for the cause of freedom if the colonists lost? And if the colonists had lost, wouldn't the ideals of the DI have carried just as much if not more weight?

"The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation." Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduction to Slave Nation

We do know, however, the cost of the colonists' victory: once independence was won, while the northern states gradually abolished slavery, slavery BOOMED in the south. The first federal census in 1790 counted 700,000 slaves. By 1810, 2 years after the end of the slave trade, there were 1.2 million slaves, a 70% increase. England ended slavery in all its colonies in 1833, when there were 2 million enslaved people in the U.S. Slavery in the U.S. continued for another 33 years, during which time the slave population doubled to 4 million human beings. The U.S abolished slavery in 1865; only Cuba and Brazil ended slavery at a later date. And the colonists' victory also further opened the gates to the attempted genocide of the indigenous peoples over the next 125 years.

The foregoing is not meant to romanticize and project England as some kind of abolitionist savior had they kept control of the colonies. Dunmore himself was a slave owner. England was the center of the international slave trade. Despite losing the 13 colonies, England maintained its position as the most powerful and rapacious empire in the world till the mid-20th century. As England did away with chattel slavery, it replaced it with the capitalist wage slavery of the industrial revolution. It used food as a weapon to starve the Irish, conquered and colonized large swaths of Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

We often see the outcomes of history as predetermined, as inevitabilities, and think there were no other outcomes possible. We look back 240 years later and for most it seems unquestionable that the American revolution was good for the world, a step, perhaps somewhat tortured, towards progress and freedom. But for historian Gerald Horne, "Simply because Euro-American colonists prevailed in their establishing of the U.S., it should not be assumed that this result was inevitable. History points to other possibilities... I do not view the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for humanity" (Counter-Revolution of 1776, ix).

The American revolution was not just a war for independence from England. It was also a battle for freedom against the very leaders of that rebellion by hundreds of thousands of enslaved black people, a class struggle of poor white tenant farmers in many cases also against that same white colonial elite, and a fight for survival of the indigenous populations. But the colonists' unlikely victory was to lead to the creation of the largest slave nation in history, the near genocide of the indigenous populations and a continent-wide expansion gained by invading and taking over half of Mexico. The U.S. went on to become an empire unparalleled in history, its wealth origins rooted largely in slave labor. The struggles for equality and justice for all that the DI promised continues of course, a task that remains undone, ML King's promissory note unfulfilled to this day.

The late Chinese Premier Chou en Lai was once asked his assessment as to whether the French revolution was a step forward in history. His response was, "It's too soon to tell". Was the founding of the United States a step forward in history? Or is it still too soon to tell?


Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen Slave Nation

Alan Gilbert Black Patriots and Loyalists

Gerald Horne the Counter-Revolution of 1776

Peter Kolchin American Slavery

Gary Nash The Forgotten Fifth

Simon Schama Rough Crossings

Bio: Keith Brooks is a long time political activist and organizer and recently retired NYC high school educator. He also taught at Richmond College and at Alternate U. This essay is from a chapter, "the Hidden History of the American Revolution", in MythAmerica, a book Keith is writing. He has been published in the Nation, Baltimore Sun, Amsterdam News, and other progressive and mainstream venues.

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