“[…] The very prosperity that slavery brought to British capital was to eventually make slavery redundant. The capital accumulated throughout slavery led to investments in science, technology and engineering, created the industrial revolution, brought into being productive forces based on machinery, speeded up the process of proletarianisation of the British rural population, changed the social structure of Britain and prepared British capitalism for its task of bringing the whole world into the capitalist market.
“In the process slavery became obsolete, an historical anachronism… The abolition of slavery did not mean an end to the exploitation of labour; it merely changed its form…”
The following column on Labour and Emancipation was shared by Gerry Kangalee of the National Workers Union (NWU):
Emancipation Day should be a day of great significance to people of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean. But it should be of significance not only to Africans in the society; but to all peoples who have known the oppression characteristic of European and North American imperialism, which oppressed, dominated, enslaved and eliminated whole peoples, particularly non-white peoples.
But which also constructed an elaborate ideological justification for its brutality toward non-white people—an ideology, or should I say a demonology of racism, based on the most despicable pseudo-science which reached its highest level in South Africa. It was called apartheid!
Emancipation Day brought an end to 250 years of slavery in the British-controlled Caribbean and opened up a whole new era in Caribbean History, which, instead of leading to the death of racism, only developed and strengthened that ideology with the introduction of Indian indentured labour.
What then is the relationship of emancipation to the labour question?
It is pretty clear that the central question of modern Caribbean History is the question of labour: the need for regimented, captive labour; the shortage of labour; and what ‘Labour’ (in its personified sense) does, feels and thinks.
The question of Labour is inseparable from the question of the sugar/mono-crop economy, and from the question of immigration into the West Indies, intra-migration within the West Indies and migration from the West Indies.
The fundamental statement about Labour in the Caribbean is that Labour has never had the decisive, dominant say in how the society is to be organised, even though labour is the foundation of the economy. Exploitation and repression—instead of freedom and power—have so far been the lot of Labour.
Slavery was about the extreme exploitation of Labour so that Capital could be accumulated and used to colonise the world. The slave as different to the wage slave or modern worker did not sell his labour power for a wage. His labour power was forcibly appropriated.
It was so appropriated that not only did the slave’s labour power belong to the slave owner, the slave himself belonged to the slave owner.
The slave was part of capital. And if it is agreed that capital is accumulated or dead labour, then the dominance of capital over labour reached its most barbaric state with the slave system—where the living worker/slave’s life was absolutely dominated by the frantic scramble of British Capital to accumulate more and more in order to exploit more and more labour so as to accumulate more and more capital in a continually expanding spiral.
There have been many vivid descriptions about the conditions of slaves in the Caribbean, but none more appropriate and gut-wrenching than Kamau Brathwaite’s poems, All God’s Chillun, contained in his major work The Arrivants:
Boss man rates gain:
I am his living vein of sustenance: his corn, his meat, his grain
Boss man lacks pride:
So hides his fear of fear and darkness in the whip
Boss man lacks pride:
I am his hide of darkness. Bide
the black times Lord hide
my heart from the lips
from the hate
the sweating flesh
so wet so red
The quotation brings out two important aspects of slavery. The first deals with the fact that the slave owner was nothing without the slave: the slave owner absolutely depended on the slave in order to survive.
The second is that Labour had to be subject to absolute coercion. Slavery without coercion is a contradiction in terms.
Let’s deal with the first aspect: ‘I am his living vein/of sustenance/his corn, his meal, his grain’.
What is being said is that capital is nothing without labour. It is precisely in the exploitation of labour that capital grows and assumes absolute dominance over the whole of society.
But if we take a look again at the quote ‘l am his living vein of sustenance’, it describes much more than the mode of organisation of labour called slavery. It also describes the relationship between the modern working class and the capitalists.
It is, in fact, a description of the relationship between Capital and Labour. It says that Capital is parasitic; it feeds and grows upon Labour. And, in the process, it emasculates, dominates and alienates Labour which is Capital’s ‘living vein of sustenance’.
While slavery was abolished, the exploitation of Labour by Capital continues under changed and constantly changing forms. The exploitation of labour during slavery’s hey-day could be carried out in no other way than by forcible, physical appropriation and coercion—given the level of the productive forces and the state of evolution of society and the ideologies and philosophies arising therefrom.
But by the time the slaves were emancipated in the l830’s, the British ruling class had gained enough experience in exploiting its own working class to be confident that emancipation would not mean the end of colonial imperialism in the Caribbean, and the domination of Capital over Labour and White over Black.
They also had enough experience to know that if Emancipation did not come from above, it would come from below. And if it did come from below, the status quo would be radically different.
The Haitian Revolution had taught them that the slaves were not going to put up with slavery for much longer and they were determined to be free, whether by petition or by violent means.
Ever since Eric Williams published his book Capitalism and Slavery, reactionary and racist European historians have been forced to recognise that the changing needs of capitalism made the abolition of slavery an historical necessity.
Before the publication of that book, Eurocentric history had postulated that it was the agitation of the so-called humanitarians, the Wilberforces and the Clarksons, that led to Emancipation.
Today, it is generally accepted that it was the changing needs of capitalist, political economy which gave rise to Wilberforce and Clarkson. The humanitarians did not agitate for emancipation because they were against the brutalisation of Africans by Europeans or against man’s inhumanity to man.
They recognised that for capitalist economy to stand, pre-dominant remnants of pre-capitalist social formations had to be dealt with; and that slavery as a form of labour organisation was much more wasteful and expensive than the new powerful and gigantic forces of production brought into being by the then ongoing industrial revolution.
The spokesmen of the British Bourgeoisie knew that for British capitalism to really create and dominate the world market, preferential treatment for West Indian sugar had to go, colonial monopolies had to go.
In British capitalism’s development into capitalist imperialism, free trade was an absolute necessity. The West Indian plantocracy was naturally opposed to free trade. They had to be dealt with. They were dealt with by the method of destroying the basis of their power: slavery!
The American bourgeoisie had to go to war 25 years later with the American slave plantocracy in order to clear the way for the expansion and development of American Capitalism. This is pretty much accepted today by right wing historians.
What is frantically hidden is that while it was recognised that the abolition of slavery was a historical necessity for the further expansion of capitalism, the political realisation of that goal did not depend on intellectual understanding, but on the outcome of the clash of class interests both within the UK and in its colonies.
The argument about whether slavery should be abolished or when slavery should be abolished could have gone on for another generation. The decisive push toward Emancipation came from the movement of the slaves themselves.
The objective ‘laws’ of capitalist development can only operate and be discerned in the subjective activity and struggles of the contending class forces in capitalist society.
The intervention of the slaves settled all debate and pushed the ruling classes to hasten the end of slavery. If they had not, the slaves inevitably would have. This perspective is useful in understanding the forces that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa.
The opening shot in the drama of the slaves’ intervention began in 1791 with the great Haitian Revolution which began only two years after the French Revolution. The significant thing about the revolution in Haiti is not so much that the slaves revolted. Slaves had always revolted.
The fundamental dynamic of West Indian history is to be found in the spiral of repression and resistance that continues to this day. The significance of the Haitian Revolution is that it succeeded; and in succeeding, opened a thirst for and an ideology of liberation that spread throughout the Caribbean.
The Haitian Revolution shattered, at least from an historical point of view, the myth of the ‘docile negro’; the myth of the intellectually, physically and morally inferior African.
The myth led to British philosopher David Hume, saying: ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites’. The myth led the third President of the USA Thomas Jefferson, who made so much noise about the rights of man to say: ‘I advance it therefore as a suspicion only that the blacks… are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind’.
After the Haitian revolution, only pseudo-scientists and dishonest intellectuals like Trollope and Froude—who was so devastatingly dealt with by John Jacob Thomas, the Afro-Trinidadian linguist and educator in his book FROUDACITY, published in the 1880’s—could still argue with equanimity that Blacks were an inferior people.
What the revolution in Haiti did was to spawn a series of never ending revolts throughout the Caribbean that convinced the colonial authorities that it was time for slavery to go.
In the words of one historian: ‘Economic change, the decline of the monopolists, the development of capitalism… had now reached their completion in the determination of the slaves themselves to be free’.
Let’s sum up what led to emancipation. In the late 15th and early 16th century, the West Indies became the sugar pots of Britain and Western Europe. Sugar was produced by slave labour which was procured on the coasts of West Africa—in the process destroying many societies and civilisations which were as developed as those of Western Europe.
The trade in slaves, the production of sugar by slave labour and the trade in sugar gave rise to astronomical profits for British capitalists. So invaluable were the West Indian sugar islands to mid-eighteenth century Europe that at the end of the seven years war between Britain and France in 1763, which Britain won, the French were quite content to let the British keep Canada in exchange for Guadeloupe.
The very prosperity that slavery brought to British capital was to eventually make slavery redundant.
The capital accumulated throughout slavery led to investments in science, technology and engineering, created the machine-based industrial revolution, speeded up the process of proletarianisation of the British rural population, changed the social structure of Britain and prepared British capitalism for its task of bringing the whole world into the capitalist market.
In the process slavery became obsolete—an historical anachronism.
But not because a system has become historically unnecessary means it will fall of its own accord. The slave did not wait for it to fall; they battered the slave system with continuous insurrection.
The British Government took readings and instituted Emancipation from above rather than afford more Haitis in the Caribbean. That is how Emancipation came about.
What we must now look at are its lessons. The abolition of slavery did not mean an end to the exploitation of labour; it merely changed its form. When the masses revolted, Emancipation was conceded, but the plantation system survived—and indeed expanded on the basis of indentured labour, which carried forced labour into the twentieth century.
Emancipation did not remove colonialism, did not put power in the hands of the working people. In 1937, when the wage slaves revolted, the colonial authorities conceded limited rights to the people; but the cause of the revolt, the exploitation of labour by capital, continued.
When the people of the Caribbean demanded independence and control over their destinies after the Second World War, we were diverted with political independence under the rule of middle-class professionals who implicitly supported capitalism.
When, in 1970, the working people demanded economic independence, an end to racism and power to the people, the ruling classes in T&T, who are allied with international capitalism, gave us localisation and state capitalism. The exploitation of Labour by Capital remains.
Emancipation, while carrying society to a more advanced level, did not solve the basic contradiction of West Indian history: the capital-labour contradiction. It simply placed it on a new footing.
The resolution of that contradiction lies solely in the hands of the modern working class. That is our historic mission.
Let us make haste and complete the unfinished revolution that our ancestors began.