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Factories in the Field

Tom Cutterham

Justin Roberts
Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807
Cambridge University Press, 2013
363 pages
ISBN 978-1107025851

Slavery was once known as the peculiar institution, a distinctive moral stain on the peoples who had practised and facilitated it. Yet some modern historians are wary of such moralism. In his review of Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Philip Morgan expressed his disapproval of “the constant piling on of horrors” and the “shock value” of Johnson’s “lurid imagery”. The emphasis on torture, bodily fluids, and sexual violence running through the book was “overdrawn, hyperbolic, and lacking in balance”. Morgan, who was the Harmsworth Professor of American History in Oxford in 2012, is one of the world’s foremost historians of slavery. In the same year that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave confronted audiences with shocking images of slavery’s violence and depravity, Morgan seemed to be asking historians to downplay it.

Justin Roberts was Morgan’s graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, and Slavery and the Enlightenment began as his dissertation. What Roberts has set out to do, then, under Morgan’s guidance, is to take the moral exceptionalism out of slavery; to write about it as one of many ways to organise and control labour. “Slavery,” he writes, “has been fetishized as a subject; the institution has been cast as aberrant”. But it belongs on a spectrum of violence, dependence, and coercion in the early modern world. For Roberts, “the difference between slavery and other forced labor systems is more a matter of degree than kind”. By treating it otherwise, he claims, historians are missing something.

Instead of slave-owners’ cruelty and inhumanity, Roberts emphasises their rationalism. The period he discusses is a different one from that of Johnson’s book and 12 Years a Slave—the eighteenth rather than the nineteenth century. That might account for some of the difference. But in framing his approach as an alternative to “fetishized” accounts, it is clear that Roberts intends to say something more than that slavery differed over time. Because slaves’ work was just another form of labour, it was subject to the same forces and processes that shaped labour practices throughout the British Atlantic world. In short, Roberts argues that slavery was transformed by what he calls “the Enlightenment”.

Through the second half of the eighteenth century, Roberts shows, slave plantations in Britain’s island and mainland American colonies experienced significant growth in productivity, just as England itself was experiencing its own agricultural revolution. What was the cause? According to Roberts, the crucial factor was a series of “Enlightenment-driven” changes to the organisation of work. “Innovative developments in labor management”, inspired by the Enlightenment’s “ruthless rationalism”, were “the key to productivity gains”. Under the rubric of “improvement”, the technologies of the clock and the account-book, and “the modern ethos of industrial work and time discipline”, turned the plantation into “a factory in the field”.

In several places, Roberts cites Joel Mokyr’s 2009 book, The Enlightened Economy [1], and Roberts clearly shares Mokyr’s general outlook. The claim they both make is that economic change, and what Mokyr calls “the beginnings of modern economic growth”, can be traced back to primarily cultural and intellectual developments. Mind first, in other words, and matter after. This is a deeply problematic claim—and in Roberts’s much shorter book, the problem becomes particularly conspicuous. Roberts places the Enlightenment at the causal root of changes in the practice of slavery. But his concept of “the Enlightenment” is antediluvian.

Following Morgan’s lead, Roberts insists on a comparative approach to slavery, emphasising differences across space as well as change over time, and moving back and forth between plantations in Barbados, Jamaica, and Virginia. Yet when it comes to the Enlightenment, Roberts retains the definite article and then some. As well as “ruthless rationalism”, his Enlightenment also meant “pragmatism” and “expediency”. It had an “unbridled faith in the practical and moral utility of progress and the mutually reinforcing nature of the two”. At one point, Roberts admits that Adam Smith’s work on slavery “was full of contradictions and qualifications”. But that doesn’t slow Roberts down much: the unity and clarity of “Enlightenment thought” is never in question.

Moreover, Roberts makes no attempt to historicise the Enlightenment, to tell us where it came from or how it worked. This is important, because in resting his argument on this monolithic, ahistorical Enlightenment, he helps show just how unwieldy the larger apparatus of cultural explanation is. If Roberts was interested in the causes of his Enlightenment, or the structures and processes through which it occurred, he would quickly come face to face with the material conditions of existence. His conclusion tells us that “there was significant economic incentive driving the improvement movement”. What then was the role of the Enlightenment? Was “the modern ethos” cause, or consequence?

Eighteenth-century productivity gains were the result of market competition. Planters did not work their slaves harder—as Roberts makes quite clear, that is what “innovative improvements in labor management” amounts to—because they wanted to, they did it because they had to. As the colonies expanded, competitors entered the fray, overall supply increased, and prices went down. Becoming more productive did not make the planters richer, on the whole. It just made their crops cheaper, the coffee-houses smokier, and the British sweet tooth sweeter. The literature and techniques of improvement that made up Roberts’s Enlightenment emerged out of the choice faced by planters and farmers alike: improve, or lose everything.

What Roberts’s book gives us, then, is an important and useful account of how slave-owners went about achieving that improvement, and the effects it had on the enslaved. Among his many interesting observations is the way complex hierarchies developed in slave communities, partly but never entirely as a result of their masters’ choices, which would help determine, among other things, who got to perform the least unpleasant jobs. As promised, Roberts’s exploration of slave life and plantation regimes places slavery in the context of the same struggles over labour and discipline that were going on elsewhere in the British Atlantic world—that is, in a context of emerging capitalism.

When it comes to the vexed question of slavery’s relationship with capitalism, however, Roberts’s argument proceeds mainly by implication. Plantations did see rapid improvements in technology and discipline, he argues—so slavery should not be understood “as a fundamentally distinct kind of system”. Slavery was immoral but not inefficient. It was “fully consistent with economic progress”. Yet Roberts’s own book provides plenty of evidence that slavery was indeed a distinct system, with its own logic, which was often contradictory to that of capitalism. At the heart of both systems is the relationship between labour and capital; yet for slave-owners, labour is capital, and that makes all the difference.

Much of the technical innovation recorded by Roberts arose from slave-owners striving to get the most value out of their slaves. They imposed more and more intensive work-patterns, governed by the clock. They made sure sick-houses were places people didn’t want to go, so slaves would not feign illness to avoid work. Instead of providing rations, they began to make slaves devote their rest days to growing food for themselves. But there was only so much work to be done on the plantation’s cash crop. To fill the slack time, slave-owners diversified into other crops and industries, making their slaves learn new skills. Plantations became increasingly self-sufficient.

Roberts rightly points out that all of this made plantations more efficient. But it was an efficiency predicated on an inflexible labour supply, the exact opposite of what drove capitalist expansion. English farms were not becoming more diversified in the eighteenth century, but less. As Adam Smith explained, the division of labour—specialisation—was the engine of modern productivity growth. Supplied by an ever more flexible market, English farmers and industrialists sought to buy only the labour they needed, when they needed it. That way, they could invest their resources wherever they would get the best return. It was this flexibility, forced on by the discipline of market competition, that gave capitalism its world-conquering dynamism.

Of course, slave systems could be remarkably profitable within the larger economy. Most British gentlemen, Enlightened or not, were happy to invest in the sugar islands and the slave trade. Only towards the end of the century did accounts begin to circulate more widely of the horrors slavery entailed. Only then did the shocking narratives of its violence and sexual depravity begin to make a public mark. Those horrors should never be dismissed or downplayed in the name of balance. At the same time, Roberts reminds us that work imposes its own tyranny on almost all of us. By situating slavery within the larger category of labour, his book should prompt readers to consider struggles over discipline, time, pay, and workers’ rights around the world—struggles for freedom that are far from finished.

Tom Cutterham [2] is a Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor at the Oxonian Review.