Antebellum Agriculture and the World Capitalist System

African labor was essential in the growth and expansion of global trade and commercial industries which solidified the dominance of Western Europe and North America

African soldiers in the Union forces during the civil war
African soldiers in the Union forces during the civil war.

By Abayomi Azikiwe

African American History Month Series No. 2

“It was the Black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.” A quote taken from Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois’ book “Black Reconstruction in America” in the chapter entitled “The Black Worker”, published in 1935.

Black Reconstruction in America
Black Reconstruction in America.

Apologists and denialists for the actual historical development of Europe and North America have attempted to distort the legacy of enslavement and colonialism.

In recent years European leaders from Britain and the Netherlands have offered half-hearted statements on their regrets for the centuries-long Atlantic Slave Trade which reaped tremendous profits for the feudal and burgeoning capitalist interests. The advent of European colonies in the Caribbean and North America were only made possible by the Atlantic Slave Trade and the profitability of uncompensated African labor.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, during December 2022, delivered an address where he seemed to be making amends for the destruction, underdevelopment and exploitation fostered by the shipping and commercial interests such as the Dutch West Indies Company that kidnapped and transported untold numbers of Africans for the exclusive purpose of super-exploitation and national oppression. However, the descendants of enslaved Africans rejected his comments saying the only potential acts of reconciliation would have to include reparations for the unpaid labor and social suppression of the people of African descent.

In the United States there has never been any official recognition of the historical crimes committed against the African and Indigenous peoples. This reality exists despite the essential role of African labor in the rise of the U.S. and Western Europe as world powers.

Cotton industry and African enslavement
Cotton industry and African enslavement.

King Cotton and the Economics of the Civil War 

During the period leading up to the Civil War, the U.S. was the largest producer and exporter of cotton in the world. Cotton was indispensable to the burgeoning capitalist and imperialist economies of Europe.

Produced by the enslaved labor of African people, the profitability of the cotton industry enabled the U.S. to borrow substantial sums of money on the global financial markets which further fueled the engines of the industrial factories of the North, the United Kingdom and other European states. U.S. historian Eugene R. Dattel suggested that the political and financial influence of the cotton industry could be compared to the role of petroleum in the 21st century.

With the eruption of the Civil War in April 1861, the Confederate States of America (CSA) would utilize the profits from the cotton industry to fund government operations, to purchase arms for its military efforts against the Union forces and to engage in a series of diplomatic maneuvers targeting Britain and other European states.

In a July 2008 article published by Mississippi History Now, Dattel notes that:

“The diplomatic strategy was designed to coerce Great Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, into an alliance with the Confederacy by cutting off the supply of cotton, Britain’s essential raw material for its dominant textile industry. Before the American Civil War, cotton produced in the American South had accounted for 77 percent of the 800 million pounds of cotton used in Great Britain. After Britain had officially declared its neutrality in the American war in May 1861, the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis – a Mississippi planter, Secretary of War under U.S. President Franklin Pierce, and former U. S. senator – strongly supported what became known as King Cotton diplomacy. Confederate leaders believed an informal embargo on cotton would lead Great Britain into formal recognition of the Confederacy and to diplomatic intervention with other European countries on behalf of the South.”

This attempted diplomatic manipulation of London initially centered around the creation of a cotton shortage in Britain. Some 2.5 million bales of cotton were torched. As a result the volume of exports of cotton to Britain dropped from 3 million bales in 1860 to merely a few thousand during the early phase of the Civil War.

Nonetheless, the southern planters had exported bumper crops of cotton during the late 1850s resulting in a surplus of supply by the British capitalists which lasted until late 1862. By 1863-64, due to the reduction in exports by the planters, cotton prices on the global market rose sharply.

Between 1860 and 1863-64, the price of cotton skyrocketed from 10 cents a pound to $1.89. At the same time, the British turned to other geo-political regions for their cotton supply including India, Egypt and Brazil encouraging these countries to increase their production. Even though this embargo failed, Britain remained a major trading partner with the Confederacy.

Another scheme adopted by the Confederacy was the floating of the Erlanger Bond, a dual currency and commodity stock. Through this financial instrument, named after the French banking company Erlanger & Cie., the planters set out to secure loans up to 3 million pounds sterling (75 million francs) to be repaid over a period of two decades at 7 percent interest. However, the plan never reaped the level of profitability as envisioned by the Confederacy and its French financial backers.

President Lincoln had enacted a naval blockade of the Confederacy in April 1861 to prevent arms from reaching the insurrectionists. However, there were trading company steam vessels which evaded the Union forces to deliver armaments and other goods to the planters. These blockade runners, as they were described, were employed to offload cargo in the British-controlled Caribbean islands of Nassau and Bermuda. The Union blockade covered many of the ports along the Atlantic coast south of Washington, D.C. and extended to other areas along the Gulf near the border with Mexico. Nonetheless, the system was by no means totally effective. It was not until January 1865, that the Union military forces took control of the last major Confederate-controlled port at Wilmington, North Carolina.

Irrespective of these problems, cotton exports were used to barter with British manufacturers for weapons, ammunition and warships. All of these measures by the Confederacy could not bring about its military victory over the Union forces.

The entry of enslaved Africans into the war effort as soldiers, intelligence operatives and workers drained the labor force of the planters while fostering an atmosphere of rebellion among the Black population against the Confederacy. Although the Union forces prevailed over the planters in April 1865, cotton would continue to play an important role in the growth of U.S. capitalism. For a period of 134 years, between 1803 to 1937, the U.S. would remain the world’s largest exporter of cotton.

Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery book cover
Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery book cover.

Slavery and Industrial Capitalism

Dr. Eric Williams (1911-1981), the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, wrote his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University in 1944 on Capitalism and Slavery. His thesis was controversial during this time period and even today in the third decade of the 21st century.

Williams documented the historical links between the Triangular Trade, slave labor, colonialism and the rise of Industrial capitalism. The author advanced the notion that the transition from African enslavement to capitalism was not based upon a moral revulsion against the horrors of human bondage. Williams emphasized that the advent of industrial capitalism was a logical progression to a more efficient method to exploit labor.

He outlines the establishment of the major industries within Britain including banking, shipping, commerce, insurance and mass production tracing their origins to the profits accrued from the Atlantic Slave Trade. At the time of the completion of Williams’ dissertation, he could not find a publisher in Britain and therefore the work was issued in book form in the U.S. An independent publisher marketed the first British edition in 1964, two decades after its completion.

In 2022, a mainstream British publisher, Penguin Books, reprinted Capitalism and Slavery which became a major seller. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper reflected on the significance of this literary event saying:

“While studying at Oxford, Williams, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1911, wrote his thesis on the subject. That formed the basis of Capitalism and Slavery. He took it to Fredric Warburg, a leading publisher of revolutionary texts who had put out all of Stalin’s and Trotsky’s works. Warburg categorically refused. ‘Mr. Williams,’ he said, ‘are you trying to tell me that the slave trade and slavery were abolished for economic and not for humanitarian reasons? I would never publish such a book, for it would be contrary to the British tradition.’”

The historical impact of African enslavement remains well into the present century. It will take the abolition of capitalism and imperialism to bring about the political conditions for the genuine liberation and social emancipation of African people along with the oppressed and working peoples around the globe.

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