Saturday, February 12, 2005


Antislavery scripts: Part II

This is the belated sequel to Antislavery scripts: Part I, but it will not be the last. As I've thought more about Hochschild's book and interview, as well as Marilynne Robinson's review, I've decided that really explaining my thinking about them requires a brief tour through the last 60 years of British antislavery historiography.

That comes across sounding pretty ambitious, but I intend this to be more like a brief tour than an extensive scholarly review, so take it in that spirit. There will be at least one more installment in this series, and perhaps two more. I think there will be a contemporary pay-off to this series in the end, in the form of some commentary on American patriotism and the relationship between freedom and empire, but I'm not yet sure what this pay-off will be because I'm thinking through these issues as I write. Hopefully that teaser will be enough to get you through, but if not, you could always just tune in at the end for the controversial stuff.

The earliest histories of British antislavery were hagiographies of abolitionists, who were often portrayed as self-sacrificial saints. And praise for abolitionists merged easily with praise for Britannia itself, the glorious empire that had heroically suppressed the Atlantic slave trade and stamped out slavery in its colonies. But these Whiggish scripts for the drama of British abolitionism were provocatively disrupted in 1944 by Eric Williams' seminal book, Capitalism and Slavery.

Williams argued that Caribbean slavery fueled the Industrial Revolution in the British metropolis, but that after the American Revolution, West Indian slavery's profitability and importance in the Atlantic economy declined. Emancipation was driven not by purely humanitarian motives, then, but by economic pressures. British industrialists had grown rich off the wealth of the colonies, said Williams, and only turned against slavery once it no longer served the interests of their economic sector. As the book's title made clear, he attributed the rise and fall of British slavery to the relationship between slavery and capitalism, which undercut the nationalist myths that linked abolition to the progressive unfolding of British liberty.

According to Williams, that narrative of emancipation especially ignored the equivocal positions of British antislavery industrialists after West Indian emancipation. As advocates of free trade, many supporters of abolition in the British colonies opposed tariffs on slave-grown products from Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, where slavery persisted well into the mid- and late-nineteenth century. For Williams, this was further proof that British capitalists had opposed British slavery on opportunistic rather than principled grounds.
The capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery and then helped to destroy it. When British capitalism depended on the West Indies, they ignored slavery or defended it. When British capitalism found the West Indian monopoly a nuisance, they destroyed West Indian slavery as the first step in the destruction of West Indian monopoly. That slavery to them was relative not absolute, and depended on latitude and longitude, is proved after 1833 by their attitude to slavery in Cuba, Brazil and the United States. They taunted their opponents with seeing slavery only where they saw sugar and limiting their observation to the circumference of a hogshead. They refused to frame their tariff on grounds of morality, erect a pulpit in every custom house, and make their landing-waiters enforce anti-slavery doctrines. (p. 169)
British capitalists were really opposed, in other words, to the principle of monopoly, not to the practice of chattel slavery. "The desire for cheap sugar after 1833 overcame all abhorrence of slavery," Williams said, as "Exeter Hall, the center of British humanitarianism, yielded to the Manchester School, the spearhead of British free trade" (p. 192). This idea that "the commercial part of the nation" viewed slavery from the perspective of Manchester counting-houses rather than from the perspective of London pulpits clearly departed from previous histories that had crowned the abolitionist "saints" with haloes of holiness.

Although he acknowledged that abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson were "the spearhead of the onslaught which destroyed the West Indian system and freed the Negro," Williams stressed that "their importance has been seriously misunderstood and grossly exaggerated by men who have sacrificed scholarship to sentimentality and, like the scholastics of old, placed faith before reason and evidence" (p. 178). He especially skewered Sir Reginald Coupland, whom he accused of seeing the abolition movement uncritically through the eyes of his own hero, Wilberforce:
Professor Coupland, in an imaginary interview with Wilberforce, asks him: "What do you think, sir, is the primary significance of your work, the lesson of the abolition of the slave system?" The instant answer is: "It was God's work. It signifies the triumph of His will over human selfishness. It teaches no obstacle of interest or prejudice is irremovable by faith and prayer" (p. 178).
Since Williams understood monopoly to be the aspect of the West Indian slave system that doomed it to death, he clearly could not accept such romantic ideas about abolitionism. The "student of the social sciences" had to avoid such "emotionalism," because "if, as so many have held, slavery falls into the realm of theology, monopoly most emphatically does not." Viewed from Williams' perspective, the idea that British Christianity had turned against slavery was a distraction from the main issue. Indeed, it was the kind of distraction that Williams believed aided British capitalists, for if they could get the British population to watch their song-and-dance on colonial slavery, they could divert attention from the increasingly oppressive consequence of the Industrial Revolution at home. (A similar accusation was directed at British abolitionists by West Indian slaveholders themselves, and one of the most controversial aspects of Williams' book was that he seemed to be endorsing their own view that the abolitionists' charity abroad was spite at home.) "The abolitionists were not radicals," Williams said. "In their attitude to domestic problems they were reactionary. The Methodists offered the English worker Bibles instead of bread and Wesleyan capitalists exhibited open contempt for the working class. Wilberforce was familiar with all that went on in the hold of a slave ship but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft" (p. 181-82).

Thus, whereas historians like Coupland had wreathed abolitionists with laurels, Williams drew attention to the blinders that they wore. He attached particularly withering words to Wilberforce in particular -- who, with his "effeminate face," was "small in stature," whose "smugness" made him "inept," "addicted to moderation, compromise and delay," and reliant on "aristocratic patronage." In Williams' hands the word "saint" became pejorative, a way of marking abolitionists like Wilberforce as soapy and supercilious. (Clarkson made off better in Williams' treatment; from what I've read Hochschild also seems to represent a particular strand in antislavery historiography that pits Clarkson's radicalism against Wilberforce's conservatism.)

To summarize, then, Williams' thesis combined several provocative claims: The primary factors both in the rise and in the demise of slavery were economic. Abolition was a result of the decline of slavery's profitability and the rise of capitalist views on political economy that opposed the monopolies that protected West Indian products. Although there were religious and humanitarian arguments made against slavery, they had limited force and questionable consistency, since many antislavery industrialists later opposed tariffs against slave-grown products from other places. Moreover, while abolitionists claimed the mantle of humanitarian religion, their concern was limited and inconsistent, since they opposed working-class political movements and showed little concern for the workers in the mines and "Satanic mills" of industrial England.

Over the years, almost every aspect of this complex thesis has been overturned or put into serious question by historians of British slavery and abolition. (See British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams, edited by Barbara Solow and Stanley Engerman.) Nonetheless, Williams' book exerted an unparalleled influence on postwar historians of these subjects, and well into the 1980s and 1990s, questions about how British capitalism, slavery, and antislavery were linked dominated the field. Indeed, these questions continue to be at the forefront of scholarship.

In a third installment of this series, however, I will show that as the particular aspects of Williams' thesis have been drawn into question, so too have historians moved away from purely economistic explanations of abolition to more cultural, political and social ones. Because of Williams, historians of antislavery are constantly on guard against a resurrection of Whiggish hagiographies of abolitionists; we are too conscious now of ironies and complexities in the lives and times of figures like Wilberforce. But as Williams' particular accusations against the "saints" have lost their force, different ironies and complexities have moved to center stage in histories of antislavery, which focus less on how abolitionism exalted a particular economic system (capitalism) and more on how abolitionism exalted a particular nation (Britain). I'll turn to that shift next, and eventually end up back with Hochschild.

Collective Improvisation:

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