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Thesis Statement

The decline thesis of Dr. Eric Williams entails a much more logical cause of the decline of
British West Indian slave system in the 1830s than the Econocide theory of Seymour Drescher.

Introduction
The abolition of slavery was one of the major landmarks of the 19th century. However much
debate has ensued as to the defining factor which caused its eventual accomplishment. There are
two controversial theories which both attempt to shed light on this all important topic. Firstly
there is the Eric Williams Decline Thesis found in his work Capitalism and Slavery in which he
attributes the rise and decline of slavery not as an act of racial and religious control but suggests
that slavery was mainly driven by economics. He continued that any racial sentiments occurred
as a result of this economical system and the main reason why slavery was abolished was
because it was no longer profitable to the British economy.1 Seymour Drescher however suggests
within his work Econocide that the abolition of slavery hinged on the efforts of the abolitionist
mainly the Clapham Sect and the Quakers. He posits that slavery was still very profitable at the
time of its abolition and that Britain suffered many losses due to their humane actions.2 Within
this research this paper the arguments of both scholars will be examined with the intention of
proving that the decline of chattel slavery within the West Indies can be attributed more so to
economical factor rather than the actions of a few humanitarians. This is due to the reality that at
the time of abolition, sugar was quickly becoming a forgotten product in the British Empire, as a
result of the industrial revolution. It is only logical to assume that the metropole would seek
alternative means of acquiring wealth. This then led to the subsequent collapse of the slave
system as the collapse of the sugar industry, the formation of new plantations outside of the West
Indies and various actions taken by the House of Lords and Capitalists in Britain all would have

1 Williams. Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Jamaica: Randle Publishers, (2005). P. 61.
2 Drescher. Seymour. Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. North
Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, (2010). P. 13.

impacted the economic viability of the British West Indian Slave Institution leading to its
eventual collapse.

Historical Background
Before one delves into the analysis of the factors attributing to the decline of slavery within the
British West Indies it is important to first get a basic idea of the social, economical and political
climate in the exterior world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Firstly one must look at the
affairs which existed. It is important to note that during the period preceding emancipation there
was a great deal of social unrest there. The Haitian revolution (1790-1802) essentially placed
hope within the minds of the enslaved for this subsequently facilitated a barrage of rebellions
namely an uprising in Barbados in1816. This rebellion signified a change in the general attitude
of the enslaved towards planters as they were now willing to openly oppose the mistreatment
meted out to them by the whites since Haiti proved that the whited were not invincible and could
be beaten. As Daniel o Conner the Irish leader of the House of Commons stated in (1832)The
planter was dirty and begrimed, over a powder magazine ,from which he would not go away,
and was hourly afraid that the slave would apply a torch to it.3 This highlighted the harsh
reality that planters were slowly losing control over their plantations.
There was also action taking place within the European continent itself as humanitarians
strengthened their efforts in the plight of emancipating the slaves. Groups such as the Clapham
Sect were fundamental in raising awareness of the harsh and inhumane treatment which the
enslaved were subjected to. Abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson worked tirelessly in creating
pamphlets and essays which highlighted the inhumane treatment and conditions which the slaves
endured. As Eric Williams states in his book Capitalism and Slavery Clarkson was an
indefatigable worker, who conducted endless and dangerous researches into the conditions and
consequences of the slave trade, a prolific pamphleteer whose history of the abolition movement
3 Carringtion. Selwyn. The State of the Debate on the Role of Capitalism in Ending
Slavery. Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd Ed.(2000): pg.1031

is still classic4 This highlights the general consensus at the time in Britain where a lot of effort
was being placed into emphasising the extreme conditions which existed in the British West
Indian plantations.
Meanwhile, the British West Indies was in bad shape as sugar production was receiving stiff
competition from plantations in Brazil and Cuba and there was also the dawn of beet sugar which
supplied the European market an alternative to British West Indian cane sugar at cheaper prices.
The industrial revolution ensured that there were cheaper and more efficient means by which the
English monarchy could acquire wealth. As stated in an article entitled the Decline of the
British West Indies the increasing lack of profit of the Caribbean population coincided with its
decreasing lack of importance to the metropolitan countries.5 It can therefore be posited that the
years preceding and after emancipation were trying times for those involved within the Sugar
trade which leads to the purpose of this paper.

4 Williams. Eric. Columbus to Castro. Jamaica: Randle Publishers,(2005). Pg. 312.


5 Drescher. Seymour. The Decline Thesis of British Slavery since
EconocideCaribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd ed.(2000): pg. 1044.

Analysis
The Decline Thesis developed by Dr. Eric Williams certainly gives the most logical
explanation of the defining factor which affected the end of slavery and there is a magnitude of
research and work related to the topic to support this done by various historians including
Williams, Ragatz and Selwyn Carrington. They all indicate that the economic frailty of the
British West Indian plantation system was the main cause affecting the decline of the slave
system. Throughout their research they have arrived at defining components which have
influenced my decision in supporting the Decline Thesis of Dr. Eric Williams as they appear
more logical when compared to the works of Seymour Drescher, Stanley Engerman, David Eltis
and Thomas Haskell where its suggest slavery collapsed due to the actions of the humanitarian
movement and was still economically viable at the time of abolition.
Firstly it is important to note that sugar and slavery are continuously linked in terms of West
Indian history. Therefore a decline in the demand of sugar would have led to a decline in the
demand for slaves. This was evident during the late 18th and early 19th century as advancements
in British industry and the expansion of sugar plantations in Brazil and Cuba meant that sugar
was slowly declining and becoming a burden to the British economy. This meant that young and
old entrepreneurs were seeking alternative means of acquiring wealth which as the trade in slaves
was gradually becoming irrelevant as well, since a decline in sugar meant a decline in the
profitability of the slave trade. As Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery correctly states
The Capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery then helped 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 a

first step in the destruction of the West Indian monopoly.6 essentially indicates that slavery was
frankly speaking a means to an end. When West Indian Sugar was profitable the capitalists in
Britain championed its cause however as it slowly became a burden to the British economy the
Capitalists were quick to champion the cause of abolitionists as economically it did not suite the
interests of Great Britain. Drescher in his work Econocide where he explains his theory that
slavery collapsed due to humanitarian means and contradicts the opinion of Williams begs to
differ as he suggests I found no decline in the value of the British Slave system until well after
the slave system7 Drescher is of the opinion that the economic value of the slave trade was not
in decline but was however still very profitable to the British West Indies. As he posited that
using the very statistics Eric Williams employed in his Decline Thesis there was a noted decline
in the profitability of sugar and slavery indicated in the period 1772 to 1822 the rate of British
Trade was equivalent to the rate of British Trade in 1722 which suggested that West Indian Sugar
production was on its way up. However noted historian Brion Davis in his book The Problem
of Slavery in the Age of Revolution most adequately rebuts Dreschers stance as he states
opposition to slavery cannot be divorced from the vast economic changes that contributed to a
larger ideology that ensured stability while initiating social change8 With this statement Davis
essentially points out the major flaws within the Econocide theory as he suggests that it would
be completely illogical to assume that the system of slavery was not in economic upheaval as
while the statistics suggest that sugar accounted for 10% of British long distance trade in 1772
6 Williams. Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Jamaica: Randle Publishers,(2005). Pg. 112.
7 Drescher. Seymour. Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. North
Carolina:University of North Carolina Press, (2010). Pg. 45.
8 Davis. Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution Oxford: Oxford
University Press, (1999) pg. 23.

equivalent to that which was traded in 1722 this still did not account for external factors which
influenced this rise suggesting that the data has been bent suit the needs of Drescher as it is quite
evident that the decline of West Indian sugar was not steady and there were occasions when a
rise in profitability would have occurred. However these were usually attributed to external
factors such as the Haitian Revolution and had little to do with the efficiency of the British West
Indian Plantation Society.
When America liberated itself from British imperialism in 1763 it economically crippled the
West Indies sugar plantation as America served as the means by which the Caribbean colonies
acquired goods essential for the maintenance of the plantation. As noted historian Dr. Eric
Williams states in his work Capitalism and Slavery thus did the North American colonies
come to have a recognized place in imperial economy, as purveyors of the supplies needed by the
sugar planters and their slaves9 the heavy dependence which British West Indian territories had
on America proved detrimental as when Britain recognised American Independence it essentially
meant that America became subject to the Navigation Acts (1651) which prohibited trade with
countries outside the British Monarchy. This resulted in devastation in the West Indies not only
because they were unable to receive the essentials of survival which they required but they no
longer were able to engage in trade with the American Continent. This meant that the colonies
were not only over producing but had lost a crucial export partner hence crippling the West
Indian Plantation Society10. Drescher strongly disagrees with this point as he posits that whilst
the loss of America was significant in terms of the provision of supplies to the British colonies,
he noted there was no real change in the quantity traded by the British islands when comparing
9 Williams. Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Jamaica: Randle Publishers,(2005) pg. 223.
10 Beckles. Hilary. Liberties Lost. Jamaica: Cambridge University Press ,(2004) pg.
165.

the years 1722 to 177211. However as Selwyn Carrington in his work The State on the Debate
on the Role of Capitalism in the Ending of Slavery provides a logical analysis of both
arguments as he suggests it would have been illogical to assume that the Plantocracy was not in
turmoil at the independence of America as supplies would have been much harder to come by
and much more expensive since it was common knowledge that the islands acquired all their
goods from America making the system of trade highly uneconomical12.
Competition from plantations in Asia and neighbouring Caribbean countries such as Cuba and
Puerto Rico and the development of Beet sugar within Europe all proved to be detrimental to the
West Indian sugar market. This can be attributed to some very simple factors, there was more
land available in Asia and Brazil to commence large scale plantations as well as the fact that the
land within traditional British West Indian sugar colonies had become exhausted via centuries of
overuse The dawn of these cheaper more efficient alternatives to West Indian Sugar meant that
the plantations in the West Indies were at a severe disadvantage as it was cheaper to purchase
sugar from plantations in India and Brazil which produced sugar in greater quantity and of
greater quality13. This essentially led to the collapse of the West Indian Sugar Market and
subsequently the slave trade as plantations in the British West Indies could no longer rely upon
Britain to purchase their produce. Noted historian Eric Williams stated in his book Capitalism
and Slavery The West Indian monopoly was not only unsound in theory, it was unprofitable in

11 Beckles. Hilary. Liberties Lost. Jamaica: Cambridge University Press,(2004) pg.


168.
12 Carrington. Selwyn. The State of the Debate on the Role of Capitalism in Ending
Slavery. Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd ed. (2000): pg. 1036.
13 Ragatz. Lowell. The Fall of The Planter Class in The British West Indies. Oxford: Oxford
University Press,(1929). Pg. 122.

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practice. 14This proves that as far as profitability went the West Indian sugar production simply
was not so. However noted Dreschian supporter David Eltis contradicts this as he is of the
opinion that the competition from the foreign sugar producing countries would only have served
to improve the productivity in the sugar industry and cites the increase in sugar production
during the years 1778-82 where there was a noted increase of 21 %15. In response it should be
noted the work of Lowell J. Ragatz who initially suggested the economic decline of the British
West Indian Plantations in his work The Fall of The Planter Class in The British West
Indies. The point was made that whilst the sugar producing colonies of the West Indies were
producing a vast amount of sugar the amount produced exceeded the amount demanded creating
a surplus, hence there was wastage which would have led to economic turmoil. As simple
economics suggests increased competition would lead to increased productivity but not
necessarily would it lead to an increased profit.16
Capitalists and Capitalism were also fundamental in the downfall of the West Indian slave
system. Capitalists particularly the East India lobby argued that the British Monarch was
spending too much money on the upkeep of the West Indian Islands and that money could have
been better invested in their countries as Britain was making heavy profit off the industries
within India and Australia. The capitalists argued that general hardship could not be inflicted on
the community at large for the sake of affording a partial and unreasonable benefit to a small

14 Williams. Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Jamaica: Randle Publishers,(2005). Pg.


229.
15 Eltis. David. Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. London: Cambridge
University Press,(2000). Pg. 346.
16 Ragatz. Lowell. The Fall of the Planter Class in the West Indies. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, (1929). Pg. 153.

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number of its members.17 This essentially reflects the ideals of the East India Lobby who
believed that the Monopoly which the British West Indies had established in the sugar market
was collapsing and that the British Monarchy should aim to invest in alternative means of
acquiring wealth. The capitalists also argued that the system of slavery was flawed as 19th
century economist William Dickson wrote it is a historical fact that slaves could not be bought
at the full value, without ultimate loss18 which suggested that it was more feasible to pay a free
man wages than to clothe and feed a slave throughout his entire life. Invariably it suggests that
the entire West Indian economy was operating at a loss and was quintessentially a burden to the
British Monarchy. In his work The Decline Thesis of British Slavery since Econocide
Drescher states it would appear that capital investment was increasing at a more rapid rate
between 1790-1805 than between 1750-70.The capital value of the British slave empire more
than doubled between 1785 and 181519he goes on to suggest that there was in fact notable
growth within the slave system and it is this increased growth which would have spurred on the
efforts of the abolitionists in England. It is important to note certain key faults in Dreschers
Econocide argument as on the assumption that there was a statistical increase investment when
comparing the periods of 1750-70 to 1785-1815 we must account for the wider Caribbean and
events which would have transpired. Most importantly the Haitian Revolution which undeniably
would have led to an increase in investment in the non- French colonies which accounts for the
shortage that was created after 1804. However it should be noted that this still did not account for
17 Williams. Eric. Columbus to Castro. Jamaica: Randle Publishers, (2005). Pg. 422.
18 Whyte. Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery. Glasgow: Edinburgh
University Press,(2006). Pg. 12.
19 Drescher. Seymour. The Decline Thesis of British Slavery since Econocide
Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd ed.(2000): pg. 1047.

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the over production of the colonies and the depreciating value of sugar on the global market two
key issues which capitalists would have taken into consideration.
Acclaimed economist Adam Smith also performed a crucial role in facilitating the collapse of
slavery within the West Indies by his statement in order to make slave labour cheaper than free,
it is necessary for the master to dismiss from his mind every generous sentiment, every notion of
justice and to consider the Negro only exclusively as a machine for production which, with a
minimum of subsistence, can function for four or five years at most. 20 In his work Wealth of
Nations, he cited a revelation that there was nothing to be derived from the colonies and
according to noted historian Selwyn Carrington Hence the view of the West Indies changed from
islands of great economic value to colonies that drained the British Treasury21 This essentially
supports The Eric Williams Decline Thesis as it suggests that the entire slave system was merely
an economic convenience to the British and when it no longer became economically profitable
there was no need to persist with such a system. Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations cited
various issues which pointed to the fact that slavery was no longer an economically efficient
means of acquiring wealth from the West Indies and led to the general consensus among the
British Monarchy that the slave system no longer proved beneficial to the English crown. In
response to this noted Dreshcian supporters Stanley Engerman and David Elits 22 pointed out that
there are various flaws which have been noted in both the works of Adam Smith and Eric
Williams which would discount much of the integrity which they hold in scholastic debate.
20 Smith. Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
London: Bantam Classics,(2003). Pg. 1098.
21 Carrington. Selwyn. The State of the Debate on the Role of Capitalism in Ending
Slavery. Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd ed. (2000): pg. 1040.
22 Engerman. Stanley. The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press,(2011) pg. 65

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However as noted Historian Selwyn Carrington posited whilst there may be discrepancies in the
statistical data which was quoted by both Smith and Williams the theories which they presented
are quite logical and hold a great deal of scholastic acclaim and support.
The Reform Bill 1832 placed the nail in the coffin for the British West Indian chattel slavery
system. The bill limited the number of seats which the planters of West India Lobby held in the
House of Lords and signified that the British Monarchy recognised the fact that the sugar crop
and slave trade were no longer beneficial to Britain economically. As Merivale an Oxford
undergraduate (1839) stated the West Indians however, could not see this and acted as all vested
interests do. They put up a desperate fight struggling by the aid of their accumulated wealth
against the encroaching principle of decay23 essentially suggesting that the Reform Bill
signalled the end of West Indian dominance of the British Treasury. Britain had acquired what
wealth they could have from the West Indies and as the colonies became economically futile they
left them to suffer. Thomas Haskell a noted supporter of Drescher and the author of Capitalism
and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility tried to abdicate the role of humanitarians in the
collapse of slavery by suggesting that the Reform Bill of 1832 was not an attempt to side-line the
planters but an attempt to improve the productivity and innovation among British colonies as it
encouraged the growth of the laissez faire style of leadership and a shift away from the
mercantilist system. As he posits, this also occurred in the Dutch colonies and was responsible
for breaking the monopoly on trade which the Dutch had.24 It should however be noted whilst
this may be true a shift away from the mercantilist system was essentially the same as ending the
British West Indian plantation society as its entire foundation was heavily mercantile and relied
23 Williams. Eric. Columbus to Castro. Jamaica: Randle Publishers,(2005) pg.332
24 Haskell. Thomas. Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility. Michigan: Oxford
University Press, (1985) pg. 339.

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on the planters providing for the mother country which was no longer possible due to economic
frailties.

Conclusion
Seymour Dreschers Econocide Theory based the decline of the British West Indian Slavery on
the concerted efforts of the humanitarian movements which occurred during the period of
industrial revolution within Britain. However from the arguments given above it is clear to see
that although the humanitarian movements did perform a vital role in achieving the collapse of
slavery it was not the major factor which attributed its decline Williams states within his work
Capitalism and Slavery the humanitarians were the spearhead of the onslaught which destroyed
the West Indian system and freed the Negro, but their importance is misunderstood and grossly
exaggerated by men who have sacrificed scholarship to sentimentality and like the scholars of
old, placed faith before reason and evidence.25 The statement suggests that while humanitarians
did inform the public of the terrors of slavery ultimately slavery collapsed via the same means
25 Williams. Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Jamaica: Randle Publishers, (2005). Pg.
12.

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from which it was birthed, economic principles. As noted humanitarian Thomas Buxton once
said slavery will never be abolished it will decline, it will expire, it will as it were burn itself
down into its sockets and go outwe shall leave it to decay, slowly, silently, almost
imperceptibly to die away and be forgotten.26 Buxton like most humanitarians had come to the
knowledge that their efforts as valiant as they may have been would never have fully
championed the cause of abolition. The only means by which slavery was truly to be abolished
was if it no longer economically satisfied the British Treasury. As noted poet R. R. Madden an
ex- slave wrote With twenty hours of remitting toil/ twelve in the field eight indoors to boil, or
grind the cane-believe me few grow old, but life is cheap and sugar Sir!-is gold27

Bibliography
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University Press, (1999).
3. Drescher. Seymour. Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. North Carolina:
University of North Carolina Press, (2010).
4. Eltis. David. Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. London: Cambridge University
Press,(2000).
5. Engerman. Stanley. The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press,(2011).
6. Haskell. Thomas. Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility. Michigan: Oxford
University Press, (1985).
7. Ragatz. Lowell. The Fall of The Planter Class in The British West Indies. Oxford: Oxford University
Press,(1929).
8. Smith. Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
London: Bantam Classics,(2003). Pg. 1098.
9. Williams. Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Jamaica: Randle Publishers, (2005).
10. Williams. Eric. Columbus to Castro. Jamaica: Randle Publishers, (2005).
11. Whyte. Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery. Glasgow: Edinburgh
University Press,(2006).

26 Williams. Eric. Columbus to Castro. Jamaica: Randle Publishers, (2005) pg. 334.
27 Carrington. Selwyn. The State of the Debate on the Role of Capitalism in Ending
Slavery. Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd ed. (2000): pg. 1038.

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ARTICLES:
1. Carringtion. Selwyn. The State of the Debate on the Role of Capitalism in Ending
Slavery. Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd Ed.(2000.
2. Drescher. Seymour. The Decline Thesis of British Slavery since EconocideCaribbean
Slavery in the Atlantic World 2nd ed.(2000).