V.G. Kiernan on the high price of poison

  • The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848 by Robin Blackburn
    Verso, 560 pp, £27.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 86091 188 8
  • Pro-Slavery: A History of the Defence of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 by Larry Tise
    Georgia, 501 pp, $40.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 8203 0927 3
  • Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean by Alfred Hunt
    Louisiana State, 196 pp, £23.75, March 1988, ISBN 0 8071 1328 X
  • Thomas Paine by A.J. Ayer
    Secker, 195 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 436 02820 4
  • Paine and Cobbett: The Transatlantic Connection by David Wilson
    McGill-Queen’s University Press, 218 pp, $27.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7735 1013 3

Slavery has been ubiquitous in history, with innumerable forms and functions: something of the truth of human nature is revealed by this fact. Horace saw nothing wrong in it, though himself the son of a freed-man and sensitive about his origins. Debt-bondage has been very widespread in Asia; some Red Indian tribes kept slaves, and were glad to add negroes to their stock. Peer Gynt as slave-dealer was a representative money-making European of the 19th century. White men acquired slaves wherever they went, in India, South Africa, Java: but the Americas were the real New World of slavery, the new Dark Continent. This was servitude geared to the capitalism that was bringing European economies under its sway from the 18th century. A sugar plantation with its mill, and its businesslike organisation and rhythms of work, bore, as Robin Blackburn points out, a clear resemblance to the factory that emerged with the Industrial Revolution; and its labour force was ‘more intensively exploited than any group of this size in history’. By a kind of poetic justice, of the three commodities Europe extracted from its plantations by such atrocious methods – cotton, tobacco, sugar – two have turned out to be semi-poisons. And now the Third World is revenging itself by flooding the West with drugs.

Blackburn’s massive, thoroughly researched, highly intelligent and well-written book is a substantial contribution to Marxist historical literature. It offers ‘a Marxist narrative’ of how abolition was coming about, down to 1848, and an enquiry region by region into how far the motivation of its white supporters rose above the level of bourgeois liberalism. It does not offer any simple unilinear interpretation, as some others have done. So long-lived and widely ramifying an institution could not but generate multiple relations and reactions within societies increasingly complex: Blackburn understands this, and his account is a sophisticated, carefully balanced one, always seeking to identify both material and moral pressures, and rich in insights into their intricate interactions. He pays tribute to Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, but finds its baldly economic reasoning in the end ‘mechanical and unsatisfactory’.

In this story the central event is the French Revolution, one of many reasons why its bicentenary next year deserves to be taken due note of. Directly or indirectly it gave rise to immense dislocations and upheaval in the Americas. Before 1789 the biggest change came with the stormy birth of the United States. Slavery was not a prime issue in that revolution, even if patriots might like to indulge in ‘anti-slavery gestures’, but it did lead to renunciation of further imports from Africa. Jefferson the Virginian slave-holder quite approved of this, realising that farmers and artisans in the Northern States where blacks were few did not want any more to be brought in to compete with them: but he helped to give slavery a wider diffusion in the new nation. In 1776 there were fewer than half a million slaves in North America; by 1790, in spite of the war, there were 700,000.

Another investigator, Larry Tise in Pro-Slavery: A History of the Defence of Slavery in America, 1701-1840, shows how deeply men’s thinking, all over the country, came to be tainted by this vicious survival. Ministers of religion, the most vocal élite in society, ‘wrote almost half of all defences of slavery published in America’; and nearly all its later apologists ‘characterised slavery as a missionary institution’. Modern America’s propensity to humbug and double-think must have deep roots in this long-drawn-out education in whitewashing: the original dichotomy between North and South has continued into the present-day amalgam in the shape of American enthusiasm for human rights and right-wing dictators.

In Spanish America, as Blackburn emphasises, slavery and plantations were not fundamental to the economy. Hence negroes could be treated more humanely, and the codes regulating their condition, even if not always enforced, compared very favourably with anything the French or British had to show in the West Indies. Spaniards and Portuguese were readier than white men further north to employ black or coloured men as soldiers, even against other whites – a thing not to be thought of by the time of the Boer War, after another century of imperialism and racialist indoctrination. It may be added that white men everywhere were remarkably free from any dislike of black concubines, but many of them lived under the shadow of fear of black retaliation in kind. It was an added trauma of the plantation world that, as Blackburn observes, there was often a heavy surplus of young males in the servile population – in 19th-century Cuba, for instance, where proprietors always suspected their slaves of wanting to murder them and seize their women.

For many reasons Britain is the country that matters most in the record, and it is rightly given fullest coverage. Feeling there against the slave trade gathered gradually. Scots economists – like Adam Smith in 1776 – agreed with French Physiocrats in arguing that slave labour was unproductive. Quakers, as Blackburn says, and as can be said of Dissenters in general, being debarred from politics could devote time and energy to better things, like the cause of abolition. Radicals and Nonconformists were all the more zealous because ‘West Indian interests were close to the heart of “Old Corruption”,’ the jiggery-pokery that kept the oligarchy in power. So were the ‘Nabobs’ home from India: empire has always had a corrupting effect, obvious or devious, on the metropolis. Condemnation of the slave trade, and calls for Parliamentary reform, reinforced each other.

After its costly failure in North America, the ruling class was driven to consider reforms as a sop to radicalism, and things looked propitious both for abolition of the trade and for constitutional change, until the French Revolution threw the rulers into panic. Their decision to go to war with France in 1793, in alliance with the Continental despots, must have been in good part an escape from reforms that might now lead perilously far. Allowance must be made for an even more discreditable motive. Blackburn cites Wilberforce’s later belief that England would not have gone to war if Pitt had not given way to a temptation dangled before him by his minister Dundas, in charge of Indian and colonial affairs: the prospect of a quick and easy acquisition of the French West Indian islands, to add to Britain’s tropical revenues and furbish its government’s popularity.

Planter string-pulling was as powerful in Paris as in London, so far as the colonies were concerned, and the Revolution opened with a display of only very timid reformism. An early issue was that of mulatto rights, and the ministry sank into ‘craven capitulation to colonial interests’. It was setting a precedent for times nearer our own, and the many surrenders of French and British ministers to settler intransigence in Indo-China or Algeria, Malaya, Kenya or Rhodesia. But the shufflers in Paris were soon being elbowed aside by the more resolute Jacobin party. Estate-owners began demanding autonomy, with the backing of many of the petits blancs. Like the French émigrés in Europe, these patriots were looking for aid to the enemies of their country, Britain and Spain.

A situation of extraordinary complexity was building up in the biggest colony, St Domingue (now Haiti). While the Creoles revolted against France, slaves were breaking into revolt against them, and also against the curiously numerous mulatto owners of estates: between black and half-black a furious conflict of race and class raged. In 1794, France, in a truly revolutionary move, declared complete abolition of slavery throughout the empire. It was thus outflanking its white opponents, and was quite prepared to mobilise black forces against them, including those led by the most remarkable of the black chiefs, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Britain stepped in as upholder of slavery all over the West Indies, where ‘the slave order of the whole region faced a desperately serious threat.’ In much the same way, after 1945 Britain was to be found backing the attempts of the French to restore their power in Indo-China, and the Dutch in Indonesia, besides restoring its own in Malaya. It would have been no more than retribution if Napoleon had succeeded in crossing the Channel. As it was, Toryism made a vicarious atonement by a mass sacrifice of British soldiers and sailors, at least 40,000 of whom perished, mostly from disease, between 1796 and 1800 in the Lesser Antilles alone. Another item in the high cost of cheap sugar.

In summer 1798 the British had to agree to withdraw from St Domingue. Toussaint was moving little by little towards throwing off French rule as well. This erstwhile trusty coachman on a slave estate was now driving the lurching cart of a new republic. Toussaint’s removal to France and death in a dungeon there were followed by Napoleon’s attempt at reconquest. His troops practised ‘wholesale massacre’ on a scale that ‘foreshadowed the colonial wars of a later epoch’: Cromwell had recovered Ireland by similar means, but St Domingue was too far away. French ferocity compelled blacks and mulattos to join hands, and ended in the first and best-deserved defeat of the Corsican bandit, as he was called, sometimes deservedly, by Englishmen. It was also the first successful insurrection of a coloured people against Europe: the next efforts, in Ceylon, Java, and then, in 1857, India, were all failures. It was the combination of slave revolt and French republicanism that ‘changed the history of New World slavery’. Free Haiti was to be ‘a thorn in the flesh of the slave order throughout the western hemisphere’. Alfred Hunt makes it clear, in Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America, that the prowess of Toussaint and his successors ‘did not go unnoticed by American slaves in the South’. In Louisiana, Haitian elements were potent in the black culture: drums and dances ‘conjured up nightmares of slave frenzy and potential rebellion’.

In 1807 Parliament consented to suppress the slave trade. Pitt’s disastrous adventure in the West Indies had weakened the reactionaries; and, as Blackburn says, the Tory war in Europe was increasingly unpopular, and concessions were wanted to sweeten the pill. For progressives, abolition was now the line of least resistance. It need not involve any great sacrifice on the part of the planters: like the Virginians, they saw that stopping the traffic could be a means of preventing competitors from gaining supplies. It would be part of a grand design to halt the trade, and Britain during the war was mistress of the seas. A standstill would perpetuate her superiority in slave-ownership in the West Indies.

After the war agitation revived, in favour now of abolition of slavery itself in British colonies. A point of interest here is the way the abolition movement learned to organise and secure publicity, which must have supplied ideas for later movements as well. Another is that women were prominent among those arguing for immediate instead of gradual emancipation: they may have been thinking of their own chains, besides those of the blacks. On the plantations unrest was always smouldering, and from time to time flaring up into risings that were put down with merciless brutality. Blackburn has no doubt that Nonconformist chapels, even if missionaries were obliged to exhort their hearers to work hard for their masters, in the long run tended to undermine the system: one may compare this judgment with the arguments about Methodism and the Industrial Revolution. Chapel deacons were to the fore in the Demerara revolt in 1823; after the Jamaica rising of 1831 numerous chapels were burned down by furious whites. In 1831 the ‘Captain Swing’ disorders in rural England ‘strangely paralleled the uprisings in the West Indies’; and during the loud hubbub of 1830-32 abolition was a theme second only to Parliamentary reform. Blackburn unravels their interplay with his customary skill. Success came to them together. In the granting of freedom, and the over-generous compensation allowed to planters, a similarity may be observable to the buying-out of Irish landlords at the end of the century.

Leaders of the Spanish American wars of independence were for the most part willing to contemplate emancipation as something to be achieved by stages in a not too far away future: the hero Bolivar, at one point in his fortunes, was not above applying for help to President Petion of Haiti. But in Spain’s chief remaining possession, Cuba, a big expansion of plantation slavery took place in the 19th century, and new slaves were wanted in large numbers: they were smuggled in in defiance of treaties. There was an avid market also in Brazil, or its coffee-plantation areas, and the three colonies of Portuguese Africa existed mainly to satisfy it. One piece of information in a book rich in facts and figures as well as in ideas is that the value of their export of slaves came to be ‘considerably in excess of the Portuguese national budget’. Other countries might want colonies to settle their people in, Portugal wanted them in order to remove people.

In France the restored monarchy was under pressure to restore France’s colonial greatness. Slave-trading only ended after the revolution of 1830; slavery ended with the revolution of 1848, and with insurrection about to break out in the West Indies. Napoleon III lost no time in taking measures to restore labour discipline on behalf of the planters. He must have recollected his uncle’s debacle in Haiti, and wanted to get in a return blow. Use of a poll tax to compel blacks to work was a device which was often to be adopted in colonial Africa.

A striking letter by Tomas Mosquera, President of Colombia in 1830, is quoted. He had opposed abolition, but when it came he felt, he told a friend, that a heavy burden had been lifted from him, and he gave away or sold cheap to his ex-slaves their dwellings and tools. One must wonder how many others experienced a similar liberation, and how many of our own more squalid capitalists – arms-dealers, City sharpers, privatisers – will feel that they have been set free from their baser selves when they are relieved of their ill-gotten gains.

Theoretical conclusions are scattered through the work, and brought together in a final chapter. One is that abolitionism seems to have had a special appeal for societies moving from earlier, more primitive forms of protest into modern industrial capitalism. It provided restless discontents, that is, with a visible, tangible target. There were no abolitionist movements, we are reminded, in Spain, Holland, Denmark, where industrialism was retarded. Anti-slavery might harmonise with some strands of capitalist thinking, but ‘it appealed to an idealistic minority rather than to the mass of capitalists.’ A good example of an idealist is Victor Schloecher, son of a rich porcelain manufacturer, whom we hear of in the later stages of France’s move towards emancipation. Capitalism could make use of, or could do without, ‘colonialism, monarchism, racism and slavery itself’: a far-reaching proposition, suggesting that Marxists must allow for a great deal of flexibility or indeterminacy in the superstructure of their modes of production. Slavery came to an end, not because economically unviable, ‘but where it became politically untenable’.

There was a time when a historian after 550 careful pages on any subject might feel that, for a comfortable length of time, he had said the last word. Blackburn is realistic as well as modest in submitting his ideas as only ‘partial and tentative’, because research is advancing so rapidly. And whereas most scholars would be content to rest on their oars, he is already planning a sequel.

Blackburn’s book is concerned with physical bondage, though this always carried with it fetters of the mind as well: Professor Ayer’s is concerned very much with mental fetters, and some of mankind’s attempts to shake them off, but his subject brings him, too, in contact with the history of slavery. He cites a late writing of Paine, denouncing Louisiana’s wish to be allowed to import slaves, and asking whether its citizens wanted to see the horrors of the Haiti conflict repeated on their soil. Of the small handful of mourners at Paine’s funeral, two are said to have been black men.

Paine has been voluminously written about. Ayer feels that he has something novel to add, with a combined survey of Paine’s life and study of his ideas. In a time when too much professional philosophy seems – to the vulgar eye at least – to have run to seed in scholastic hair-splitting, it is heartening to see a leading exponent applying his mind to real and serious problems of man’s social existence. Ayer does not fall into the error of supposing that history has been made by philosophy, though he may be said to overstate at times the importance of individuals in moulding it. The course of the French Revolution was determined by class conflict, not by the personal shortcomings, the ‘legalistic’ outlook and ‘inflexibility’, of Robespierre and his faction. Ayer is interested in the present as well as the past, and has some eminently sensible comments to make on it. Britain’s electoral system he finds ‘so ridiculous that the deplorable Conservative government maintains itself in power with less than one third of the electorate voting for its candidates’. He notes that under what Mrs Thatcher calls her regime, ‘the power of the police “has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished”,’ and he is ‘unmoved by the rubbish that politicians talk about national security’.

Paine emigrated to America in 1774, with radical views ready-made, in time to give a vigorous push to public opinion in favour of revolution and independence with his pamphlet ‘Common Sense’, which had a huge success. Ayer might have noticed as a curious illustration of how notions of state and citizen in those days differed from ours, that when in 1791 Paine was invited to England, where he wrote the second part of The Rights of Man, nothing was said about his treasonable conduct in the American struggle, and his vituperation of King George, though English law did not recognise, in principle, a subject’s right to divest himself of his allegiance. When he had to make a hasty getaway to France it was because Part One of The Rights was deemed subversive. In Revolutionary France his activities got him into prison, and it may have been only the fall of Robespierre and the Terror that saved him from something worse.

Ayer is in agreement with others in considering him a journalist with a very effective style rather than a thinker with original ideas. He devotes his second chapter to a review of political theorists in the background – Hobbes, Locke (a Royal Africa Company shareholder), Hume, Rousseau – and has interesting things to say about them all. How far their doctrines are really relevant to Paine is queried in another recent book, by David Wilson, and it may be safer to look to the general tradition of English radicalism and dissent stemming from the 17th century: one writer drawn on by Paine is Milton. Paine had scientific interests, and took great pride in his design for an iron bridge: he might be called a bridge-builder between his epoch and ours, which have so many problems in common.

In youth he ran away to sea and served a year in a privateer: in later years he was a firm opponent of war, on grounds both practical and moral. His ‘deepest illusion’, Ayer thinks, was a belief that humanity was on the threshold of an era of peace: an explanation is implied in the remark that he was oddly oblivious of the motives that capitalism might have for provoking wars. Where he was well ahead of most contemporary radicalism was in his awareness that political reform or republicanism was not enough: he wanted social welfare as well, beginning with grants to all young people starting life, and old-age pensions at 50. It seems strange that he showed no appreciation of the pioneer socialist and socialist martyr of the French Revolution, Babeuf. Ayer ends by reflecting that nearly everybody today professes to believe in democracy, but that it is scarcely anywhere put in practice. It has indeed become, what Christianity used to be, the religion or ideology of capitalism.