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READ: Capitalism and Slavery

Plantation slavery and capitalism rose in the same period.  Were they systems that supported each other, or did capitalism help to end plantation slavery? Or Both?
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why does the author argue that the relationship between capitalism and slavery has meaning today?
  2. Why, according to some theories cited by the author, does capitalism theoretically promote free rather than enslaved labor?
  3. What evidence, from the United States, is cited to support the argument that enslaved labor was an inefficient system for the owners of businesses?
  4. How does the author connect abolitionism to industrialists?
  5. What evidence does the author present that the Atlantic slave trade may have helped to stimulate industrialization and capitalism?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. One side of the debate in this article argues that capitalism and slavery were tied together in this era. But in the era following this one, slavery was abolished, while capitalism continued to grow. Does this point provide evidence that the two were not really related to each other? Why or why not?
  2. This article makes some surprising connections between slavery and capitalism. What are some ways that capitalism influences your daily life?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Capitalism and Slavery

By Trevor R. Getz
Plantation slavery and capitalism rose in the same period. Were they systems that supported each other, or did capitalism help to end plantation slavery? Or Both?

Siblings or rivals?

Between about the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, networks of production and distribution became larger and more complex than ever before. Maritime empires and large corporations like the Dutch East India Company helped to spread practices like bonds and joint-stock companies. This set the stage for the modern economic system of capitalism. The proponents of capitalism believed that free markets in goods and labor and the ability to invest money for profit would make the world a better place.
This same period also saw the development of a widespread system of chattel slavery. In the Atlantic world, large numbers of people—mainly from Africa—were enslaved. European and colonial American societies considered them property, rather than people. These enslaved people were part of a capitalist economic system we call the plantation system, in which they were forced to work, without pay, in terrible conditions, in order to generate profits for people who legally owned them.
These two systems—plantations and capitalism—developed and became widespread at about the same time, in about the same regions of the world. But by the late nineteenth century, slavery was criminalized across much of this region, while capitalism remains not only legal, but the dominant economic system in the world today. What was the relationship of slavery to capitalism through this period of human history? Did slavery and capitalism depend on each other for success, as some people argue? Or did capitalism help to end slavery, as others suggest?
Buyers waiting to bid on enslaved humans. St. Louis, Missouri, about 160 years ago. Thomas Martin Easterly, Missouri History Museum, Public domain.
Historians have struggled to answer these questions in part because they have meaning for debates we have today. For example, if slavery helped to support capitalism in this early period, then it arguably contributed to the wealth that many people and companies have today, and the descendants of enslaved people have reason to demand some of that wealth back. Similarly, if capitalism helped to end slavery, then we have to give this system credit for helping to liberate people. But both of these ideas are still debated.

Rival systems

Let's begin by exploring the idea that capitalism and slavery were rival systems. In this view of history, plantation slavery was part of an older way of organizing labor. Then capitalism came along and defeated it. For much of the early twentieth century, almost all historians believed this to be the case. But is this an accurate narrative of the past?
In theory, capitalism promotes labor done by free people, rather than slavery. One of its central principles is free markets. The idea is that without interference, a buyer and a seller will negotiate. The seller wants a high price for the goods she is selling. The buyer wants to spend as little as possible. In the end, they will come to a fair price that works for both of them. Capitalism suggests that the same is true for labor. A person should be free to ask for as much money as they can for their labor. An employer will want to pay as little as possible. Between them, they will come to a fair wage for a person's work.
Slavery in the Atlantic model, of course, is not a free market. There is no pay to negotiate. The enslaved get nothing, except perhaps a poor bed, bad food, and a pittance—none of which is negotiable. This is not how capitalism is supposed to work. More to the point, historians who argue that capitalism helped end slavery note that this system makes the enslaved person unmotivated. Why work hard, offer your good ideas, or do anything to impress a boss who "owns" you and will never pay you? That's why many historians have argued that slavery was inefficient compared to a system where workers were paid wages and could negotiate for better pay or move up the ranks. In particular, U.S. historians such as Eugene Genovese and Mary Beard argued that wage workers in the industrial north of the country were more efficient than enslaved workers in the plantation south. For some of these historians, the U.S. Civil War represented a victory of capitalism over slavery.
The Anti-slavery Society convention of 1840. Many British abolitionists were businessmen. Public domain.
Other historians have similarly seen the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade as a victory of capitalism over slavery. They argued that many of the owners of slave-worked plantations in the Caribbean were in fact connected to old European leadership groups, to aristocrats or nobles. Many abolitionists, by contrast, were connected to new industry. They argued that wage labor was both more efficient and morally better than slave labor. So, historians have used these two arguments to support the idea that capitalism ended slavery: First, they say wage labor was a better system and made free societies stronger than those that used enslaved labor. Second, they argue that people in capitalist, industrial societies were natural opponents of slavery.

Sibling systems

But it may have been that capitalism and slavery were more compatible than this evidence suggests.
In addition to free markets, proponents of capitalism argue that it is important to make a profit. If people are investing money, they expect a return on their investment. Many historians have pointed out that the Atlantic slave trade was, in fact, immensely profitable. People in Britain and elsewhere invested in shares in slave trading companies and made a fortune. As historian Eric Williams and others have collectively argued, they may have used these profits to start other companies and underwrite many of the scientific and technical advances that made industrialization and the rapid spread of capitalism possible.
Highly-organized, industrial-style slave labor on the island of Antigua, 1823. Public domain.
Plantations that depended on the forced labor of enslaved people were also very profitable at times. A group of historians writing in the last decade, including Walter Johnson and Ed Baptist, have argued that, contrary to what earlier historians argued, slave plantations in fact helped create the modern capitalist world. Johnson focuses on cotton, one of the leading crops produced by enslaved labor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He reminds us that cotton fed the textile machines that were among the world's leading capitalist industries in the nineteenth century. Since most of that cotton was produced by slave labor, it was slavery that made this major chunk of industrialization possible.
Ed Baptist goes even further. He says that plantations growing cotton developed many of the innovations of modern industrial capitalism. These included productivity "targets" for enslaved people similar to the quotas of many modern factory workers. He also argued that enslavers developed technologies—especially punishments—that made enslaved workers productive, perhaps more productive and efficient than factory workers who were paid wages.
When you add it all up, these historians argue that capitalism and slavery worked hand-in-hand, like siblings supporting each other rather than rivals. The slave trade and the plantation system created profits for capitalists and the plantation system even helped develop and inspire new industrial techniques for later capitalists.

So, what to think?

So, who should be believed? Clearly, there is still broad disagreement about the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Right now, more historians who work on this subject see the two as intertwined and mutually supporting each other. But this wasn't always the case, and historians in the future may not agree. Already, there are some historians who question the conclusions of scholars like Baptist and Johnson. Two economists, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, suggest that some of their evidence is a little thin, that they rely too much on narrative rather than big sets of data. Unfortunately, big sets of data are difficult to find for many issues, especially before modern recording and computing technology.
Whatever their precise relationship, clearly slavery and capitalism existed together in the years that set the stage for the industrial world economy we have today. Both contributed to the world we live in right now. It is worth discussing and trying to understand how they each shaped our modern global economy.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user indominusbat
    hm. personally i would say slavery gave birth to capitalism. my reason being slavery has been around for ages. and with slavery people were able to sell way more goods which led to more people buying slaves. but if anyone wants to debate this please let me know.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user