Money  /  Q&A

Slavery Was Crucial for the Development of Capitalism

Historian Robin Blackburn has completed a trilogy of books that provide a comprehensive Marxist account of slavery in the New World.

Owen Dowling

In what critical ways did the “Second Slavery” of the postrevolutionary nineteenth century differ from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century “First Slavery”?

Robin Blackburn

The slaveholders of the First Slavery were colonials, absentees, and émigrés; those of the Second Slavery reveled in their sovereignty and supplied leadership to an armed citizenry. They constituted the Slave Power. They supplied a more far-reaching mobilization of race and capital, a stronger — more perfected — regime of race and capital, and therefore it’s all the more curious that it risked everything by hazarding secession from the United States. The slaveholders were dealt a strong hand but played it badly.

There were also important economic innovations, which I explore in The Reckoning, including a new “Anglo-Saxon” credit regime that answered a problem that all the regimes of slavery encountered: a shortage of credit for the plantations. Any agricultural entrepreneur faces all sorts of problems to do with microbes, pests, fire, flood, and climate extremes. Under the First Slavery, there had been a recurrent credit famine.

Planters needed considerable resources in order to produce the next year’s crop; to buy provisions, equipment, seeds, and manure — also reserves to bridge adversity or to profit from a good opportunity (such as a neighbor’s bankruptcy). So slaveholders often wanted extra loans. One particularly important financial change was the lifting of the so-called Latin or Roman ban on using slaves as collateral. This prohibition had long survived because it enabled the estate owner to survive and prosper, but at the expense of a reduced rate of colonial growth.

The larger merchants, bankers, and creditors lusted over an end to the ban. Dutch entrepreneurs had tried to shake it off in early and mid-seventeenth-century Brazil, but it was not until 1732 that the British government formally ended its own ban. The Colonial Debts Act of that year set the scene for a dramatic century of growth in the British islands and enclaves. It was something that proved to really unlock the credit system under the Second Slavery. The planters of the United States inherited from their former master this key to unlocking the prodigious potential of the slave plantations.