- Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management by Caitlin Rosenthal
Over the past two decades, historians have developed narratives around the history of capitalism in which slavery stands at the center of the nineteenth century's economic transformations. Slavery was not rooted in a precapitalist aristocratic mentality, but rather was one of the engines of the industrial revolution. Slaveholders were sharp-dealing, entrepreneurial, and sometimes brutal landlords and labor lords that supplied the raw materials (sugar, tobacco, and cotton) that fueled the rise of transatlantic commerce. Up to this point, economic historians and new historians of capitalism agree. Where the old and new interpretations diverge is on the centrality of slavery to capitalism itself. The new literature invests slavery as the driving force behind technological innovation, modern finance, economic inequality, and modern free labor systems that remains repressive, coercive, and exploitative.
Economic historians, it is fair to say, are deeply skeptical of the new interpretation, partly on ideological grounds, partly on methodological grounds, and partly because cliometricians are convinced that the new history sometimes gets the facts wrong.1 Caitlin Rosenthal's Accounting for Slavery represents a valuable contribution in that it bridges the ideological and methodological divide. Rosenthal is clearly sympathetic to the new history of slavery, but she is also interested in getting the facts right and engaging with business and economic historians. By her own account, her book owes a debt to a conversation she had, while still a graduate student, with Stan Engerman, who handed her Thomas Affleck's Plantation Record and Account Book, which "blew [her] away" (xii).
Rosenthal uses plantation account books and other source documents familiar to business historians to interrogate competing narratives of slavery. Slaveholders left behind thousands of account books, which have been studied by historians but rarely as business records per se. Rosenthal uses [End Page 635] these books to reconstruct the management practices of slaveholders in the West Indies and the United States. Slaveholders kept detailed accounts, and ledgers reveal the plantation as the "great machine" it was (69).
Jamaica's largest sugar plantations, some of which employed more than two thousand slaves, were complex and formidable enterprises that exhibited some of the features of the modern multidivisional firm. These vertically integrated firms did everything from plant the seed to pack the final product, including all the ancillary processes such as cooperage, blacksmithing, and animal husbandry. Because sugar plantations exhibited high mortality rates, Jamaican planters appear to have been most concerned with the size and composition of their labor force. Their account books categorize workers into as many as two dozen occupations and track changes in the size and skill distribution of the labor forces. The deaths of a few key employees such as sugar boilers or coopers, for example, posed a potential threat to the firm's operations. And because they were outnumbered, white planters also kept inventories of tools that might be turned into weapons. Many also recorded punishments designed to terrorize and cow as much as punish their workforces. Account books simultaneously document slaveholders' efforts to control and slaves' efforts to resist. Rosenthal documents how American planters took the Jamaicans' concerns with accounting for their labor force to the next level. It was not enough to keep tabs on births, deaths, sales, and purchases. Beside every name, planters added a dollar value. Newborns might be valued at $25, prime field hands upward of $1,500 or more.
European travelers frequently commented on Americans' fascination with trade and money making, which is apparent in the planters' account books. Planters not only assigned dollar values to everything, but documented everything they could. The 1842 ledger of Mississippian Eli Capell records that his slaves jointly harvested an unprecedented 2,545 pounds of cotton in a single day. Planters kept track not for the sake of keeping track. They used detailed records to assess the productivity of their plantations. They could compare picking rates across slaves, across time, across different plant hybrids, and across different harvesting techniques. Planters were scientific managers before the term was invented...