- The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1775–1810
Caribbean historian Selwyn H. H. Carrington's painstaking and exhaustive archival research in the Caribbean and England over the last 30 years has finally culminated in the publication of his new book. In it he discusses the critical decline of the sugar plantation economy in the British West Indies followed by the outbreak of the American Revolution. In the foreword, Colin Palmer discusses the importance of Carrington's work in Caribbean historiography. Lowell J. Ragatz's The Fall of the Planter Class, 1763-1833 (1929 ) first argued that the economic decline of the British Caribbean preceded the abolition of the slave trade (1807 ). Ragatz's thesis was elaborated further by Eric Williams in his classic Capitalism and Slavery (1944 ). Indeed, Carrington's book has been written largely as a reaffirmation of this "decline-and-abolition thesis," which was challenged and opposed by our contemporaries, most notably Seymour Drescher in his Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (1977 ).
The book's first four chapters discuss external factors of the West Indian sugar plantation economy from the pre-American Revolutionary period until after 1775. The author first discusses the establishment of the agro-export monoculture economy in the British Caribbean. The region depended on the metropolis, which imported most of their superior sugar, as well as on the British colonial mainland, which imported their rum and secondary crops while supplying them with foodstuffs and lumber. The outbreak of the American Revolution ended the seemingly well-balanced trade between the West Indes and the former British mainland, and the British government's increasingly restrictive policy for the regulation of the West Indes trade further deteriorated the plantation economy of the Caribbean colonies. The middle part of the book is "chiefly concerned with internal issues" (p. 7 ); Carrington assesses the continued growth of planters' debts at the end of the eighteenth century, despite their efforts at amelioration on individual plantations. The last four chapters analyze the continued decline in the colonial Caribbean economy between 1789 and 1810 ; the author demonstrates that the economy was in [End Page 525] constant decline despite the seeming adjustments during and after the Haitian Revolution. Carrington accordingly concludes that the abolition of the slave trade was by no means the cause of the decline in the Caribbean sugar plantation economy.
Carrington successfully presents a complex series of historical events in which important historical actors, both external and internal, took distinctive actions for their economic self-interests. Externally, England, after having lost its mainland colony, did not protect the sugar economy of her Caribbean colonies. Internally, the colonial elite continued to lose their economic power, and the colonial societies began to observe new problems. The steam engine and other technological innovations were not introduced in the West Indies until the sugar economy was in decline. Whereas Caribbean planters tried to resolve their financial problems by importing more female slaves for reproduction and by hiring their slaves out for wage earning, slaves themselves took advantage of the shaky plantation economy to find and create new and better socioeconomic opportunities. Some even managed to purchase their freedom. Their decisions and actions clearly illuminate the breakdown of slave society from inside, through the personal negotiations of power between the powerful (the absentee planters) and the powerless (the enslaved). This reader wonders if these middle chapters might have been developed into a separate monograph, which could appeal to a wide range of scholars and students of slavery and emancipation in the Americas.
It should also be noted that the author tends to be repetitive in his arguments, and he does not discuss the abolition of the slave trade to any great extent. Furthermore, despite his statement that his study "has been fertilized by modern scholarship through historical investigation" (p. 10 ), his bibliography includes only a handful secondary works published after 1990. One wonders if that merely reflects a lack of interest in the topics...