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  • Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management by Caitlin Rosenthal by Caitlin Rosenthal
  • Kathleen E.A. Monteith (bio)
Caitlin Rosenthal. Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018, xiv + 295 pp. US$35.00. ISBN 978-0-674-97209-4. Hardcover.

Caitlin Rosenthal's Accounting for Slavery is an analysis of accounting procedures on sugar estates in the West Indies and cotton plantations in the antebellum South in the USA in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based on an assessment of plantation journals kept by their managers and owners. The work successfully establishes how the history of American slavery fits into the larger history of American capitalism, and in so doing, firmly establishes plantation history within the field of American business history. As pointed out by the author, American historians and scholars have long struggled with the idea of seeing production units based on enslaved labour, as capitalistic enterprises. As a result, the history of the plantation slave enterprise in general has remained outside the realm of American business history. To a large extent this also had to do with the way in which business history, and particularly American business history emerged in the early twentieth century, and how it has evolved since then. On the other hand, scholars of Caribbean history, and more specifically, those who specialize in West Indian economic/business history, have long recognized plantation enterprises worked by enslaved labour as capitalistic enterprises. One of the early pioneers in this regard, was Douglas Hall, whose case study of the Grenadian sugar estate Westerhall discussed the problems associated with the calculability of profitability in the West Indian sugar industry using Max Weber's "Formal Rationality of Capital Accounting".1 It is also well established in West Indian historiography that the region was the site of some of the world's first large-scale industrial production units in terms of both capital and labour with the respect to sugar industry, and that beginning in the eighteenth century, a multi-divisional type form of organizational structure was developed, with systems of management and control [End Page 266] being put in place. In addition to the large industrial sugar producing ventures, the region was also the site of small business enterprises both during and after slavery ended. Indeed, by and large Accounting for Slavery covers much of what has already been established within the historiography on plantation management slave systems and enterprise for the British colonial Caribbean, with similar terminology, analyses, and conclusions.2 Nevertheless Accounting for Slavery has much to offer the history of West Indian plantation slavery, as it provides a systematic assessment of plantation records within the framework of the concept, scientific management. Rosenthal, whose background is in management consultancy, has brought fresh interpretations and analysis, and in so doing, placed plantation enterprise based on enslaved labour firmly within the context and framework of American business history, and business history itself.

Rosenthal's book is essentially about the systems of plantation management that were implemented on sugar estates and cotton plantations during slavery, as demonstrated in the records created and maintained by owners and managers of these properties. Five chapters, a conclusion and a postscript make up the book. Chapter one, "Hierarchies of Life and Death: Accounting and Organizational Structure in the British West Indies", begins in Jamaica and Barbados, discussing the organizational structures prevalent on the large scale industrial sugar estates, recognizing the managerial and labour organizations manifest in the industry being similar to the multidivisional or M-form, which was to take root among American industrial enterprise in the early twentieth century. The second chapter, "Forms of Labor: Paper Technologies in Comparative Perspective", discusses the development of pre-printed forms leading to the standardization of record keeping in the journals used in the management of production and labour. Rosenthal notes that planters, overseers and bookkeepers, often became the "vectors for the transmission of plantation technologies, moving methods across the Atlantic, and between the colonies. Through this circulation, knowledge of accounting moved both north to south and south to north, and in both directions across the Atlantic. Information practices crossed boundaries between slave and free and between different regions of slaveholding" (75–75...


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