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No, slavery did not make America, or the West, richer

US economic historian Deidre McCloskey debunks the claims – which I see have been given fresh impetus by the New York Times recently – that since the very earliest days of the colonies, slavery has been one of the main things that made America rich. This claim draws on a zero-sum mentality: the only way to raise living standards is squeezing surplus value out of workers against their will (to put it in Marxian terms). In other words, the claim goes against the classical liberal argument that slavery is ultimately not just wicked – which it is – but also economically stupid, because free labour is more productive than unfree labour. The more options people have about where and on what they work, the bigger the pie is. And even those small number of folk who get rich on slavery (but where did they get the guns and the whips and the land to use to jail said slaves?) could and did get even richer had they not been slavers. (There is also the ever-present fear that slavers must have that sooner or later there will be a revolt, in which said slavers get killed.)

The whole article is first class and I strongly recommend it. She takes issue with the “King Cotton” school of history that has gained some recent traction. Bookmark this article for when some apologist for coercion trots out the old line that no “great civilisation” ever existed without slavery. Quite simply, it is bullshit.

Here is another report about the NYT project (the NYT is behind a paywall, and I cannot be arsed to subscribe to a publication likely to damage my blood pressure).

44 comments to No, slavery did not make America, or the West, richer

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    But one argument in favour of slavery was based on the clash of armies- what do you do with the beaten soldiers? If you tried to kill them all, was that better than enslaving them? In the past, men preferred to be slaves instead of corpses, so it could then have been thought of as being morally higher to keep them alive as slaves, than kill them- because if you let them go, they might attack you later, or become brigands. We do not now think in those terms, but they did in the past.
    Also, was serfdom a type of slavery? If so, then English history has slavery at its’ roots.

  • Julie near Chicago

    But, Johnathan! Your language!!! –Oh well. Me too. ;>)

  • Alsadius

    I think you overreach a bit when you say that the slavers would have been wealthier with free employees. Per-capita income in the south, including slaves, fell fairly dramatically at the end of the Civil War. And the slave-owning populace was definitely pretty rich pre-war. Overall economic growth was lower, and obviously the region as a whole was far poorer, but theft is a very efficient tactic for the people who do the thieving.

  • CaptDMO

    I wonder what paying demographic the NYT seeks to replace it’s OLD usual suspects?
    I wonder how much office space in their “extra” floors at the Flagship building in Times Square goes for ft^2?
    I wonder if their crossword puzzle words and phrases will reflect the challenge of trendy, topical “meaning”, culled from their own new coinage and “usage”?
    ALSO SEE: The Week magazine.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Also, was serfdom a type of slavery? If so, then English history has slavery at its’ roots.

    Nope, because much of that came in with the Normans, a bunch of thugs, basically. “The Norman yoke”, etc. Serfdom also declined rapidly after the early Middle Ages. Strongly recommend this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Origins-English-Individualism-Property-Transition/dp/0631127615?SubscriptionId=AKIAILSHYYTFIVPWUY6Q&tag=duc08-21&linkCode=xm2&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0631127615

    I think you overreach a bit when you say that the slavers would have been wealthier with free employees. Per-capita income in the south, including slaves, fell fairly dramatically at the end of the Civil War.

    The slavers, remember, had the substantial state aid to keep this system going, expecting the law enforcement agencies of the free states to return escapees under the Fugitive Act, etc. All that infrastructure to kidnap, collect and confine slaves was often paid for not just by the slavers themselves, but part of the police/law enforcement apparatus paid for by everyone across other parts of the US. The Fugitive Acts federalised the costs of enforcing the system, so in a way Southern slavery pre-Civil War got a sort of state subsidy.

    It is certainly true that it might have taken a lot longer for slavery to end had we just relied on the forces of the global market for cotton/other, rather than what ended up with the Civil War and so on. Not everything is about economics.

  • John B

    @Nicolas (the unlicenced joker) Gray.

    Slavery was commonplace in England until outlawed by the Normans when they arrived.

    Serfdom is a type of slavery connected to the land and feudalism, practiced in England and Europe. Various peasant revolts and the Black Death reduced the practice which was finally abolished in England in the early reign of Elizabeth I.

    There is in fact no Country’s history which does not have slavery at its roots.

    In the USA,White people were also kept as slaves or in endentured servitude, particularly those transported from Britain as convicts.

  • John B


    ‘ Per-capita income in the south, including slaves, fell fairly dramatically at the end of the Civil War.’

    Do you think that might have had anything to do with the war: the neglect and destruction of farms, plantations, manufacturing, whole families killed in battle and all pre-bellum wealth destroyed during the war?

    You know a bit like the per-capita income in Germany in 1945.

  • I confirm John B’s comments above.

    1) The Anglo-Saxons had slavery. The Norman conquest reduced a significantly greater proportion of the population to serfdom than had been slaves, but in doing so eliminated slavery. While the status of a serf varied with country – in Russia, one word for serf (‘rab’ IIRC) simply meant slave – in the west and especially in England, serfs were very significantly freer than slaves. (In past comments, I have spoken of slavery “and its lesser cousin, serfdom”).

    2) I’ve read estimates that the US Civil War destroyed two-third’s of the south’s assessed wealth, with one third being the wealth bound up in slavery and the other third being the physical destruction of the war. It also killed a much higher proportion of the south’s young white males than it did of the north’s, and fewer of them were replaced by post-war migration. Thus I broadly agree with John B that the south was poor after the civil war for reasons well beyond the voiding of the nominal value represented by over three million slaves.

    3) That the north’s existing police forces could operate to return slaves (when they did not ignore or refrain from doing so) is not substantial state (federal) aid (Johnathan Pearce (London), August 21, 2019 at 10:54 am). The northern US was a lightly-policed country and even before public opinion turned against it, runaway slaves who made it to the north did not usually return. Where southern state governments provided state aid to maintain slavery, it was more effective, helped by their citizens’ willingness to help operate such laws, but even in the south, one sees cities passing ordinances for better control of slaves ignoring the fact that 20 or 30 years earlier the same city had voted some very similar ordinances – and to as little effect, vitiated by the general light-government arrangements of the US.)

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    “Bookmark this article for when some apologist for coercion trots out the old line that no “great civilisation” ever existed without slavery. Quite simply, it is bullshit.”

    Great civilisations certainly have existed without slavery. This timeline of abolitions of slavery shows that it has been abolished many times in many places. Alas, it always came back. I’d like to think that the abolition of slavery in every country of the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will be permanent, but history says that nothing is permanent. It is only given to men to do what they can to fight evil in their own day.

    Nonetheless, the bullshit line that “no great civilisation has ever existed without slavery” should be disambiguated from the similar-sounding but true statement that “throughout history, slavery was the norm”. That fact can be cited against the claim that “slavery has been one of the main things that made America rich.” Slavery was practised worldwide. Why didn’t it make Africa rich? Slavery continued to be openly practised in some Arab countries until the 1960s, but until the oil came these places were impoverished backwaters.

    On my blog many years ago I hosted a series of very erudite comments from people debating whether what I wanted to believe (that free people are inherently more productive) was or was not true. Those arguing that slavery in the Old South was actually fairly productive certainly were not advocating its return. They made some good factual points based on legitimate historical data, although they did not turn me away from my view that in the long run a free society is more prosperous. I’d still want the freedom if the prosperity did not come with it, but it’s very nice that freedom gets you rich too.

  • Natalie (August 21, 2019 at 12:33 pm), it is also worth noting there are real abolitions and phony abolitions. Quite apart from such extreme crudities as e.g. the USSR renaming its concentration camps as forced labour camps after Hitler came to power and never publicly admitting communism had restored slavery, there is e.g. the Spanish ‘abolition’ of slavery in the new world. If you’ve seen the film ‘The Mission’, you may recall the scene where the outspoken jesuit complains of slavery and the government minister demands he apologise for daring to suggest that slavery, abolished by the king, exists in any Spanish colony. Privately, the cardinal asks the more tactful Jesuit if there are slaves: “Oh yes”, he replies calmly. “They buy them from the Portuguese.” (This is historically accurate. First to last, more than twice as many slaves were shipped to South America as to North America.)

    Anyone can proclaim the abolition of slavery. The question is: will you devote a powerful navy to enforcing that? Will you fight a civil war to enforce that? Recent times differ from the past because we meant it; we would fight for it (and also because we possessed the power required). Historically, it could sometimes seem harder in a constitutional country with voting to get slavery abolished than to have an absolute monarch proclaim it abolished, but what the Spanish king’s subjects had not voted for they did not feel much obliged to regard in the Americas, far from his (alas, often ineffectual or indifferent) eye.

    Libertarians above all know that proclaiming a law is not the end of the story.

  • Just as Natalie distinguishes between the absurdity of claiming that all great civilisations had slavery (as if to say their greatness needed it) and the similar-sounding truth that slavery was (until recently) universal (in two senses – no group of any size has not at one time been a major source of slaves and at another time been a major perpetrator of slavery), so we should distinguish between the absurdity of “the west grew rich and powerful because of slavery” and the potentially-similar-sounding truth that the triangular trade was carried on because it was profitable for all three actors involved: British manufacturers, African tribes and American primary producers. It is a classic example of arbitrage (with one interesting addition/exception).

    In rapidly-industrialising long-developed Britain, manufactured goods were relatively cheap and raw materials were relatively expensive. In stone-age western Africa, people were very cheap and manufactured goods were very expensive. That manufactured goods were not just expensive but very expensive relates to my description of Africa as ‘stone-age’ (intended as generally descriptive, not quite literal). That people were very cheap relates to a key difference between the west African/western slave trade and the East African/muslim slave trade.

    – The muslims wanted more women than men. They needed adult males for harem guards (more than their numbers as many men died under the operation) and for other purposes, but did not want – indeed could not too safely absorb – huge numbers of captured male warriors. (I omit discussion of the muslim custom of slave soldiers – this comment is long enough already.) That is why the East African slave trade was so often the East African slave raid: the local wars simply did not naturally generate enough of the right proportions of slaves for the tribes to sell willingly. It is also where East African customs like women slitting their lips and inserting huge discs came from – there were times when a woman’s simple binary choice was either to look unutterably hideous or to end up in an Arab harem (where she would be valued well below any Circassians or other more northerly slaves her owner had, since the Arabs had strong prejudices in such matters).

    – The westerners wanted more adult workers because of the other part of the arbitrage. Unskilled workers, so very cheap in Africa, were valuable in America, where populations of both the indigenous stone-age culture and the British settlers were very low, so much land was available to grow primary resources if workers were found for it. And the technological advantage, the relatively higher standard of living even of the slaves (if they survived the voyage) and other factors left the colonists much less concerned about having a sizeable group of adult males as slaves. Therefore the western traders – who in any case had to trade not raid (a scurvy-weakened ship desperate to swap its cargo and leave before African diseases struck was no match for a fleet of war canoes, and Africa’s un-glaciated coastline meant ports were few and controlled by powerful chiefs) – could do so, because they did not merely want to buy in ratios that the tribal wars produced, they wanted disproportionately to buy that drug on the market, captured adult males. Even more than the arabs, the west African tribes dared not amass large numbers of recently-enslaved adult males from rival tribes. A horde of such slaves, at the same technological level as their owners and with a friendly tribe not that far away – can anyone say ‘slave revolt’? The king of Dahomey put them in the murder spectacle. The Bemba gouged the eyes out of any who could sing and kept them as now-harmless entertainers. Other ‘entertaining’ ways of culling them before the next battle were practised by other tribes – and of course the practical solution of cannibalism was widely used but by no means universal. That is why adult male slaves were not just cheap but very cheap.

    Thus creates an unusual exception to the economic analysis. Normally, an increase in demand produces an increase in supply – this certainly happened in east Africa in response to the muslim demand for slaves. It is clear the effect in west Africa of the Americas demand was much less – indeed (to the annoyance of the slave traders) they never managed to persuade the King of Dahomey even to sell them all the slaves he would have sent to the murder spectacle, only being allowed to buy those surplus to the requirement to keep his people entertained. But whether the increase in demand was so much less as to be zero/minimal or was nevertheless a real effect is (unlike so much NYT PC rubbish) validly debatable.

    Thus goods cheap in Britain were exchanged in Africa for people who were either cheap there or so very cheap as to be practically worthless other than to kill entertainingly. As slaves working in America, they produced some of the primary goods that the colonies could provide cheaply relative to the UK. These goods went back to Britain where they were valuable as the input into manufacturing processes which produced advanced goods, relatively cheap there, of which some were put on ships to Africa where they could be exchanged at a favourable rate for more slaves to work in America.

    This was a very small part of the British empire economy in the period, and the example of the northern states (and much else) shows it was a dispensable part. It was profitable for the three groups trading with each other – a classic case of arbitrage.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Niall K.: “First to last, more than twice as many slaves were shipped to South America as to North America”

    I have been reading some of the research on Transatlantic slavery since earlier discussions on this site about the role of slavery in the economic growth of Europe. Much more academic work has been done than I would have expected, given that the observations often do not fit the usual suspects’ preferred narrative.

    The figure most often quoted is about 90% of African slaves transported to the New World went to the Caribbean and South America — particularly the English, French, and Spanish sugar plantations, where life expectancy was short, necessitating the continued importation of fresh slaves. The English slave plantations in North America were relatively unusual, in that the slaves survived, bred and produced substantial numbers of viable offspring.

    We should avoid hair-splitting about terms. The position of a Russian serf who was tied to the land was not that different in kind from a plantation slave. And the treatment of English convicts transported to Australia was probably more brutal than the treatment of most African slaves in the New World.

    Thank Goodness for fossil fuels and industrialization, which largely put an end to the human race’s millenia-long reliance on forced labor.

  • the treatment of English convicts transported to Australia was probably more brutal than the treatment of most African slaves in the New World. (Gavin Longmuir, August 21, 2019 at 4:12 pm)

    True but with scope for debate.

    An Australian convict faced a longer and (perhaps) more dangerous voyage, followed by a very tough time on “the fatal shore”, but if they survived they would in their own lifetimes become ticket-of-leave men and then free men in a land where labour was scarce and so relatively well-rewarded. They could have realistic hopes of their immediate descendants or even themselves becoming independently wealthy – if they survived the brutal early years and managed to have any descendants in a land that (like black populations in the early US) had more men than women.

    A black slave in the old south enjoyed a standard of living above the world average, indeed above that of an Irish peasant (admittedly the poorest part of the UK), never mind Africa’s average, and a better life expectancy than the Australian convict, but he had no such certain expectation of himself or his descendants being free, let alone prosperous. If he was more than 100 miles from a free state and not in a southern city, his chance of succeeding in an escape attempt was not good. If he was not a Virginian and/or in domestic service, his chance of being freed by a kind or principled master was not good either. And when he was finally freed, his skin colour alone would, for a further century, be some obstacle to its being as easy for him as for the Australian to prosper and join the upper crust. So while the Australian convict may have suffered equally or worse as regards the risk of the voyage and maybe more in his early years as a convict, his prospects were brighter if he lived. Some of us might risk reincarnation as an Oz convict rather than a US significantly-ante-bellum slave for the sake of that nearer hope of freedom.

    Just my 0.02p of reflection FWIW.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    What you say is true, Niall. With the proviso that life pretty much sucked for most ordinary people in the days before fossil fuels and industrialization, whether free or serf or slave. Freedom has always included the freedom to starve — but the prospect of starvation was much closer only a few hundred years ago.

    It seems that a lot of the usual suspects imagine the Africans enslaved by other Africans would otherwise have been living in their African homeland in a nice suburb with indoor plumbing, electric power, and free health care. And the usual suspects generally are ignorant of your wise remark:
    “no group of any size has not at one time been a major source of slaves and at another time been a major perpetrator of slavery”.
    Historical truths can be so inconvenient for the narrative!

  • Nico

    There was a time when people read Alexis de Tocqueville, and then a time when people read work by people who had read Alexis de Tocqueville, and so then everyone knew that indeed, the slave-holding States were much poorer than the Northern States.

    But our individual and collective memories have gotten real short. No one knows about Alexis de Tocqueville anymore.

    Er, wait, what were we talking about?

  • neonsnake

    Johnathan, it is indeed an excellent article, and very well-balanced.

    I particularly like this paragraph:

    The virtue of liberty did matter. The magic world is liberalism, the liberalism of Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft and Henry David Thoreau. The explosion of ingenuity after 1800 came from the gradual inspiriting of millions of liberated people to have a go. Thoreau ran his father’s pencil factory, and made it flourish. Liberalism liberated first poor white men, then, yes, former slaves, then women, then immigrants, then colonial people, then gays. Liberation and innovation dance together.

    Which notes that progress and innovation require liberty, and that both are desirable things.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Every post on Samizdata is worth reading, but this thread is exceptionally well-informed. In an unusually humble mood, i’d like to contribute my 0.02p … well, make that 0.20p.

    The issue of slavery cannot be disentangled from something that i discussed in another thread a short while ago: the issue of arbitrary power of coercion.
    The Romans, and the Greeks with perhaps less clarity, understood the difference between the slave and the free as just that: whether anyone has power of coercion over you, or not. Thus, they saw people living under “oriental despotisms” as slaves, except perhaps for the royal family, because the despot had arbitrary power over all subjects.
    That the despot did not, and could not, use this power to the full without the sort of bureaucracy existing in the Soviet Union, did not matter to the Romans.

    Some more historical notes — though i am by no means an expert on this, so you’ll have to take them with a pinch of salt.

    It has been suggested that slavery disappeared in Viking Iceland with the introduction of Christianity. Not because Christianity prohibited slavery, but because it prohibited exposing babies: when slave-holders became responsible for the upbringing of all children born to their slaves, they decided to turn their slaves into wage-slaves.
    This has implications for the economic rationale of slavery, or lack thereof, mentioned in the OP, and the comments.

    In his description of the Scythians, Herodotus wrote that they blinded their slaves, presumably to prevent them from jumping on a horse and galloping away. The Mongols seem to have been kind by comparison: their modus operandi with fellow nomadic herders was to kill all the men taller than the axle of a cart and marry all the women, and adopt all the children (thank Tengri for polygamy!)
    This seems related to Jonathan Grey’s first comment, about what to do with POWs in ancient times.

  • Snorri Godhi (August 21, 2019 at 6:26 pm), I think Herodotus means the Scythians blinded their adult male slaves (as the Bemba did) whereas the Mongols (kind is not the word one usually associates with Mongols 🙂 ) killed the adult males and kept the women and children, as was done in Dahomey.

    While blinding will indeed prevent escape, it also massively reduces the utility of the blinded slave. I believe it was more usually done (to males captured as adults, and thus not likely to prove docile slaves) less to prevent occasional escapes than to avoid the significant danger of slave revolt of such adult, warrior-trained undomesticated slaves if held in numbers.

    Natalie’s point above – that as well as the moral objections, slavery is uneconomic – is particularly illustrated by such gross degradation of the slave’s ability to function. Many less horrific examples could be given of how the need to control slaves, and the obstacles to motivating them when the task was not very easy to supervise in real-time, lost economic utility.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Niall: you are probably right that the Scythians did not blind women and children, because they did not have to … but still, they were less “kind” than the Mongols if they kept the women and children in slavery, instead of assimilating them. I’d have to check whether Herodotus said anything about that.

    In any case, Genghis Khan seems to compare favorably to Mohammed, who iirc had all the adult male Jews of Medina killed, AND reduced the women and children to slavery.

    Fully agree with the rest of your comment.

  • Snorri Godhi


    Africa’s un-glaciated coastline meant ports were few and controlled by powerful chiefs

    I have it on good authority that Africa’s coastline has a low fractal dimension because it was not Slartibartfast who designed it.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Niall K, paraphrasing Natalie: “… as well as the moral objections, slavery is uneconomic …”

    Too general a statement. No argument on the moral objections, but if slavery was inherently uneconomic, why did almost every society throughout history practice it?

    Slavery became uneconomic world-wide during the 19th Century with the spread of fossil fuel powered industrialization and mechanization. Always-scarce capital was then much better invested in fuel-driven machinery instead of in living organisms, whether human or horse. Required human inputs could be rented via wage instead of being bought. Economically, it is simply the old lease-versus-buy analysis with which most of us are familiar.

    Slavery was (like many other things) economic only under certain conditions. Prior to the development of the diesel engine, if one needed to build a pyramid or grow sugar on a vast plantation for the burgeoning European market, slavery was effective. On the other hand, for small-scale agriculture, the self-supervised “free” farmer made more sense. This can explain, for example, why English colonists from similar backgrounds established slavery in the plantations of what is now the southern US, but not in New England where the terrain suited small farms.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I wonder what two cluster maps would look like, with one on a film overlaying the other:

    One map would show the slave states of the U.S., the Caribbean Islands, and Central America. The other would show (in various colors) the ethnicity of clusters of plantation slavemasters.

    It would be interesting, for instance, to see the relative density of Scots or Scots-Irish, of English, of Welsh, of Spanish, and of French slaveholders in the various areas.

    (Obviously, this could do no more than give one the roughest impression of probable cultural origins of slaveholders in the various areas. And, of course, marriage would muddy the historical waters. I vote that no intermarriage should be allowed. Thus, Illinoisans must marry persons from Illinois, and Cornwallians must restrict themselves to others from Cornwall. There’s too much “diversity” already. And it would make statistical studies so much easier.)

    Basically, I’m wondering if the culture-of-origin was any sort of predictor of, say, an American Southerner’s likelihood of becoming a slaveholder.

  • Chester Draws

    Too general a statement. No argument on the moral objections, but if slavery was inherently uneconomic, why did almost every society throughout history practice it?

    Because if a person becomes rich by impoverishing ten other people they personally are gaining, even though society as a whole is not.

    There’s plenty of practices that have only just recently become uncommon, despite being bad for society as a whole, because they bring short term gain for some person at the top of the tree while causing long term misery elsewhere — excessive intermarriage among royalty leading to useless monarchs, the endless destructive wars between dynasties, appointing favourites of no merit to important positions, diluting the currency (oops, haven’t stopped that one yet).

  • Gavin Longmuir (August 21, 2019 at 11:10 pm), you have the order of events reversed. England became a society without slavery, and then a society without even serfdom, centuries before it invented the steam engine – which is why it was where the steam engine was invented.

    In Roman-empire Antioch, a food shortage caused the authorities to set maximum prices for bread and punish the bakers for seeking to evade them. Eventually the punishments became so severe that all the Antioch bakers fled the city. Writing of the incident, a historian well versed in how the Romans thought quite naturally says, “When force failed, other expedients were tried” – i.e. only when force failed did the force-oriented Romans resort to what we would see as economic measures.

    No more than slavery was this done because, in the days before modern inventions, it was economic to impose maximum prices, or punish evaders to the point where the famine was exacerbated by mass flight of all bakers. Slavery is one of the “degenerate, tricking shortcuts” that Burke writes about. Force does not need the steam engine to become uneconomic, relative to the alternatives, but force is always obvious – as obvious as socialism, as obvious as hate speech laws. Why bargain with people when you can force them? Why impose limits on your authority when you are obviously so entitled to be in charge? Long before usable steam engines were invented, the world’s wiser cultures had made some progress towards answering these questions – and so became the kind of places where inventions could happen. As for the pyramids, were they built by slaves working under the lash or by workers relatively well paid out of Egypt’s considerable agricultural surplus? Historians still discuss it.

    There is a legitimate discussion about circumstances where force may be the right answer or the only option, but such discussions are very independent of whether steam engines, diesel engines or electricity are available or not.

  • Snorri Godhi


    Gavin Longmuir (August 21, 2019 at 11:10 pm), you have the order of events reversed. England became a society without slavery, and then a society without even serfdom, centuries before it invented the steam engine – which is why it was where the steam engine was invented.

    Maybe a bit oversimplified, since other countries had abolished slavery and serfdom too, but a good point all the same.

    The other thing is that the steam engine did not replace human agricultural labor: the Anglo-Dutch Agricultural Revolution did — only in the Mother Country, i suppose, but it seems likely that the increased welfare in Britain would make people more sensitive to the condition of slaves in the colonies.

    Edited to add: and then there was the Haitian Revolution: the British must have noticed that slaves can successfully revolt, after all.

  • other countries had abolished slavery and serfdom too (Snorri Godhi, August 22, 2019 at 8:42 am

    I’m not sure whom you’d name as earlier than England. Holland parallels us – and were our rivals in inventiveness in the 1600s and early 1700s (Scots spinning machines in the earlier decades of the 1700s were pirated from industrial espionaged/smuggled Dutch machines). Switzerland invented milk chocolate – and I’ve a notion Swiss are sometime found in early inventiveness in neighbouring nations.

    In 1776, Adam Smith noted that slavery was still almost universal, having been eliminated from western and parts of central Europe only.

    Remind me: what nations abolished slavery and serfdom earlier than England.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Niall — I understand you are proud of your English heritage, but let’s not be obtuse. English Royalty’s attitude to global warming (while riding on private jets) seems to have come from the same roots as English pride about ending slavery.

    Yes, a solitary English judge (not a representative English parliament) abolished slavery in England. But for many decades afterwards, English shippers continued to grow wealthy transporting slaves from Africa to the New World, and English plantation owners grew profitable sugar on Caribbean slave plantations. And even after the Royal Navy had been charged with disrupting the Transatlantic slave trade (in part to undermine the economy of enemy France), English industrialists continued knowingly to buy slave-grown cotton to feed the dark Satanic mills of Manchester.

    The textbooks say that Denmark was the first European country to abolish slavery. And the serf-like “tied cottage” was a feature of English life well into the 20th Century.

    All of these things happened in the past. We are not responsible for them, and we cannot change them. We should look at the past, “warts and all”, and learn from it, so that we all can do better in the future.

  • neonsnake

    I’ve been re-reading Ralph Waldo Emerson (prompted by, of all things, a videogame).

    This quote comes to mind:

    “If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own.”

    It speaks both to the economics of slave-ownership, and, much more importantly, to the morals of it.

    I think the point, both of the essay and my quote, is to provide a pithy response, a “Do behave yourself, sunshine.” to those who would advocate for slavery, in any form, as a necessary evil, whether that be what we “normally” term as slavery, or as slavery to the state, or to an intolerant majority of “non-state” actors.

  • Snorri Godhi


    Remind me: what nations abolished slavery and serfdom earlier than England.

    Following Natalie’s helpful link, you can find that Bologna abolished both slavery and serfdom in 1256. (There is an irony in the fact that Bologna voted Communist through the Cold War.)

    Catalonia is the only other country mentioned in the Wikipedia article where serfdom was formally abolished before it was abolished in England. But i think it likely that, as you note, at least the Netherlands and Switzerland, and probably other parts of Europe with city-state traditions, abolished serfdom well before the French Revolution — if it had not disappeared due to economic forces.

    I think it likely that there were additional factors behind Britain achieving economic and cultural leadership of the West:
    * the size of the country, and therefore of the free-trade area, even without the colonies;
    * the protection provided by the English Channel, meaning that not much tax needed to be raised for defense;
    * the English revolutions of the 17th century, leading to constitutional government.

    David Landes, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, mentions another factor: in England, unlike in continental city-republics, the King provided a check+balance to the power of the guilds.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Snorri G: “the protection provided by the English Channel, meaning that not much tax needed to be raised for defense;”

    Maybe not. I am in the middle of reading Ben Wilson’s book “The Empire of the Deep; the rise & fall of the British Navy”. It is astonishing how much the Navy cost, and the continued challenges of raising the money required. When Parliament was being its often unhelpful self, the Navy at times even borrowed money directly. Once the objective became having a British Navy that was as large as the Spanish & French navies combined, it certainly cost a lot!

    One might as well argue that the key to England’s success was importing their Kings from Scotland, Holland, and Germany. 🙂

  • And the slave-owning populace was definitely pretty rich pre-war.

    One of the things Frederick Douglass writes about in his autobiography is that he’d thought that as bad as slavery was, he consoled himself under it that at least it had a purpose—making slaveowners lives better. When he escaped to the north, even that consolation was shattered. Free blacks in the north, he writes, lived better than slaveowners in the south.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very interesting, Jerry. I’ll have to look into that. Thanks.

  • Julie, you can find it in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (available on archive.org, among other places):

    I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed in the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south… I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement. And upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of southern slave-holders…

    …But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland…

  • Julie near Chicago


    Thank you very much. I’ve been wanting to read Mr. Douglass’s autobiography for years, and I think now’ sthe time. 🙂

  • Niall — I understand you are proud of your English heritage, but let’s not be obtuse. (Gavin Longmuir, August 22, 2019 at 2:00 pm)

    Gavin, I am Scottish (northern Scottish by ancestry), not English – A hae guid reason tae think there’s nae a drap o’ sassenach bluid in ma veins. 🙂 Some French huguenots in a very blown-off-course ship arrived in the neighbourhood centuries back and were among our ancestors, and I have collaterals who attribute their musical talent to their being collaterals of the Norwegian composer Grieg, but there isn’t an Englishman or woman in the lot of them as far back as one can trace.

    (Admittedly, this means I am as white as a northern Scot usually is, so IIUC my personal ancestry would hardy matter to Mr Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

    Historical veracity, not ancestral pride, obliges me to consider England, but most emphatically not Scotland, a candidate for “earliest society whose citizens were none of them legally slaves or serfs” – centuries before Lord Mansfield ruled that this also applied (and had always, for centuries, applied) to a few arrivals who had been slaves elsewhere. It is an empirical question whether the claims of the Swiss or the Dutch (or the Danes, of whose internal society I know relatively little during the long later-middle-ages unimportance that separates the viking age from Scandinavia in the 1600s) can wholly preempt this claim. That the Dutch can maybe somewhat parallel it, I know – and they too were early an inventive society.

  • Jerry Stratton (August 23, 2019 at 2:14 am) that is an excellent and interesting quote.

    I feel the unconscious humour in Douglass’ adjective ‘Spartan-like simplicity’ (i.e poverty) – entirely in accord with standard usage of his time and ours – when of course the Spartans were the most ruthless slavers of the classical Greek world and had the highest ratio of slaves to free citizens of any Greek city-state. The Spartans organised their whole society around the need to dominate unusual numbers of slaves – and paid a price for it.

    One thing causing Mr Douglass’ misapprehension could be that the US was such a rich society in world terms that even its poorer regions (e.g. the south) and even its poorer citizens of those regions (e.g. slaves in the south) had a high standard of living in world terms. Is it possible that some ancestral memory conveyed from first-generation slaves meant they knew this? Less debatably, the wealth and technology of free men in the US would surely have struck first-generation slaves compared with what they had known. And it may be I am being oversubtle and neither of these hypotheses are needful. Frederick Douglass, when a slave, would see the great contrast in living standards between master and slave, and the obvious connection between slave work in the cotton fields and their owners’ annual profit, so the leap to assuming this was how great wealth was created, and there could be no greater, maybe needs no further explanation.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Following Niall’s mention of the Danes, i checked my Outline History of Denmark, because my recollection was that serfdom in Denmark was abolished as late as 1848. It turns out that i was wrong: serfdom was abolished in 1788, according to my book. Wikipedia says between 1784 and 1815; but, more importantly, it also says that serfdom was only instituted in 1733. That is not the end of the story, however, because it seems that an earlier form of serfdom had been abolished in 1702. It’s all very complicated.

    The Wikipedia pages on the histories of the other Nordic countries say that they never had serfdom.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Snorri — Remember that Wikipedia pages are written by fallible human beings — too often by the kind of person whose mental processes have been corrupted by credentialism at one of today’s Institutes of Indoctrination. Not a reliable source!

    Wikipedia can be useful if one has a sudden need to know, say, the precise date of the Battle of Zama. But statements on Wikipedia should always be taken with a rather large grain of salt. As President Reagan said in a different context: “Trust … and Verify”.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Gavin: i did verify, on the Outline History of Denmark by Helge Seidelin Jacobsen. The re-introduction of serfdom under Christian VI is ‘verified’ in the book, and there is a hint about the previous abolition under his father Frederick IV, though that is not spelt out.

    BTW i happened to find an extended quote from David Hume that is of interest in this context.

    More relevant to the OP is a book review that i read recently. A primary reason for the transatlantic slave trade was that the American natives were dying off from European diseases … but once the slave trade started, the Europeans started dying from African diseases!
    Poetic justice, in a way; except that it probably was not the slave-owners who died in large numbers: it was the lower-class indentured Europeans.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Julie wisely observed in a recent post that there is a big difference between passing a law (easy) and enforcing it (difficult). Ben Wilson (“Empire of the Deep”) gives some color to that statement with respect to the English 1807 law banning transportation of slaves – which coincidentally was the same year the US banned the importation of slaves. Of course, that US law had only a minor effect on the African slave trade, since most slaves were being shipped to European colonies in the Caribbean and South America.

    Wilson describes the many problems in enforcing the English law.

    A primary issue in the early 19th Century was that the slave trade was then still highly profitable, which made it attractive to traders, English and other nationalities, to flout the law.

    One of the problems faced by the Royal Navy was that it could legally stop & board only ships flying an English flag, since boarding a foreign ship was an Act of War (one of the causes of the War of 1812 with the United States). It was also common in those days to fly false flags – something which Admiral Cochrane used to his advantage in European wars. It took about a quarter of a century before other countries were persuaded through bribery and coercion to allow the Royal Navy to check their ships.

    Not all Royal Naval officers were pro-Abolition. Since naval officers generally came from the upper crust of English society, many of them had families who benefitted from slavery or hoped to marry into wealthy slave-owning families. Because the anti-slavery action took place far away mainly on the coasts of Africa & South America in a world where communications travelled at the speed of a sailing ship, lack of motivation on the part of Navy captains was difficult to deal with.

    Another issue was that in the early 1800s slave ships were generally faster & better armed than existing Royal Navy ships. A new class of naval ships had to be built. There were never enough – from a mere 5 ships in 1819 to 21 in 1844 to cover the entire Atlantic.

    When Navy ships did advance to the point where they could catch up with slave ships, the slavers would see the Navy coming and throw the slaves overboard in manacles, where they would be released from slavery by drowning. If a slaver was captured, the Navy ship had spend weeks off-station taking it to Sierra Leone to try to make a case in front of often unsympathetic magistrates.

    Overall impact — between 1810 and 1849, it is estimated that well over a million African slaves were transported across the Atlantic. The Royal Navy managed to free 116,000 – about 10%. [As a side comment, it is not clear to me what happened to the freed slaves. Were they were returned to Africa, to the very place where they had originally been enslaved by other Africans? Were some of them enslaved again?].

    Without taking anything away from the moral stance that led to the Royal Navy being tasked with stopping the slave trade, or from the hard duty by at least some of the Royal Navy crews, it seems reasonable to conclude that the more important factor in ending slavery was the declining demand for slave labor rather than any reduced supply. Key factors in that declining demand were the advances during the 19th Century in technology and in the growing use of machinery (capital) and coal to make human labor more productive.

  • An important episode in the war against the transatlantic slave trade was the Royal Navy’s undeclared war against Brazil at the start of the 1850s. As the RN made shipping slaves dangerous, slavers responded on average not so much by attempting to use faster ships (such ships made especially attractive prizes) as by using older cheaper ships, less costly to lose. However their main response (as Gavin says above), was to flee to registries of countries where slave trading was still legal.

    By 1849, UK diplomatic pressure and threats had reduced the effective list to Brazil. However the Royal Navy were well aware that while any slave-trader’s ship could adopt Brazilian registry, there was a huge gap in the blockade. So in 1850, tired of waiting for the foreign office to persuade the Brazilians, they began a war against Brazil without the tedious formalities of legal declaration by the civilian political process. (Both Queen Victoria at the head of British society and the mass of people at its base had two prejudices:

    – they disliked slavery;

    – they liked the Royal Navy beating up foreigners.

    It could have been career-limiting for any politician or civil servant to try to discipline the navy.)

    Not content with seizing Brazilian ships on the high seas, the RN raided right into Brazil’s ports, pointedly humiliating that country and demonstrating to Brazil’s coastal population their inability to defend themselves against the foremost naval power of the time. Eventually the angry but hamstrung Brazilians gave up and sulkily agreed that the Royal Navy could legally do on the high seas what it was casually doing both there and in Brazilian coastal waters.

    After that, there was no safe way to trade slaves across the Atlantic. The Africans continued their slave-taking activities – back in 1807, the King of Dahomey had pointedly informed Pitt that “If you do not permit me to sell you my slaves, their fate will be a great deal worse” – and remained eager to sell slaves to anyone who evaded the blockade and turned up to buy, but few, and then fewer, did.

    The Royal Navy shared the two attitudes I mention above. From very early in the business, many navy captains were on record as disliking the slave-trade – the more so the more they saw of it – and happy to put it down. There were others – Robert Fitzroy, Darwin’s captain, was one – who could not see what was so wrong with Brazilian landowners buying slaves, but such captains tended to be at least as ready as their fellows to attack foreign ships and take prizes. (I assume Fitzroy’s surveys of the south American coast during the Beagle expedition came in handy when the undeclared war started.)

    So, while some Royal Navy motives were more high-minded than others, they were pretty committed to the campaign and pretty successful overall. And while the industrial revolution had a lot to do with how Britain was so strong it could end the slave trade and then slavery in large parts of the world, it had little to do with why: at each step in its abolition, slavery was still profitable.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Linked today by Instapundit:
    correct questions about poverty and slavery.
    Mostly a summary of Thomas Sowell’s views of the matter.

  • Paul Marks

    “Slavery made the West rich” is (of course) part of the general false Marxist “exploitation” doctrine that the New York Times and co FALSELY claim is “liberalism”.

    It is not liberalism – it is the opposite of liberalism. Sadly Big Business is now saturated with people who have been educated in Marxist doctrines (normally Frankfurt School Marxism – but other types of Marxism as well). “Lenin” said that businessmen would sell the Marxists the rope with which the Marxists would hang them – but he was mistaken. The “capitalists” will GIVE the Marxists the rope and chant “Hang us! Hang us! Hang us! Our wealth comes from enslaving black people in the past and all workers today!”.

    If anyone tries to defend the “capitalists” (although these corporate types rarely actually own any capital – they are university educated bureaucrats in business, little different from government bureaucrats) they spit at their defenders – and scream “Racist!”, “Sexist!” “Homophobe!” and rush off to organise another “Pride” event or “Reparations” rally.

    “Death to the West!” had become the unofficial motto of most Western institutions – the New York Times is not the exception, it is the norm.

  • Jacob

    The idea that slavery made the US rich is particularly ridiculous.

    Slavery caused the most destructive and terrible conflict and war of the US history, to this day – the civil war. It caused a tremendous loss of life and property.
    Some slave owners probably did profit from slavery – else slavery would not have existed.
    But for the US as a whole – slavery was a terrible loss and tragedy. To this day and for the foreseeable future the US struggles with the consequences of slavery.