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Webinar: The Economics of Slavery Professor Jeremy Black MBE

Webinar The Economics of Slavery Professor Jeremy Black MBE
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

Jeremy Black MBE is a British historian, writer, and former professor of history at the University of Exeter. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, US. He is the author of over 180 books, principally but not exclusively on 18th-century British politics and international relations, and has been described by one commentator as “the most prolific historical scholar of our age”. He has published on military and political history, including Warfare in the Western World, 1882-1975 (2001) and The World in the Twentieth Century (2002).

Robert Tombs: Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen to what will be the first of a new series of webinars on slavery. Our first series, which some of you will have taken part in, was on the British struggle against slavery and the slave trade. Our second series, beginning today, is going to be on a more general history of slavery over the ages.

While I’m introducing our speaker, who doesn’t really need any introduction, some of you are still joining us, so I’m in a sense giving you a few minutes to do that. Let me begin by welcoming our speaker today, Professor Jeremy Black, who is of course very well known to most of you here, if not all of you who are taking part in this, as one of our leading historians who has written on a remarkable range of topics. But I hope I’m right in saying Jeremy that your real speciality is the 18th century, although you’ve ranged very widely outside it. One of your recent ‘ranges’, as it were, has been the history of slavery and that’s what you are going to bring us into today. So welcome Jeremy and thank you very much for taking part in our webinar.

Jeremy Black: Thank you. What I want to do is first of all welcome everybody to the webinar and also secondly to say what an excellent job I think History Reclaimed does, and how it’s an important part of both the public debate about history and the bridge between the academic world and the wider world, both of which have things to contribute but particularly in relationship to each other.

Now as far as slavery is concerned, what I don’t want to do is simply repeat what I have said in my books. But what I do want to do is to underline that all of the debate about slavery in the Atlantic world, more specifically with reference to Britain but also in general for other Atlantic slaving powers, is most useful if it is understood as part of a general discussion of the history of slavery, what slavery constitutes, and in this case, which I think is a very good topic, you have chosen, Robert, of its economics.

So let’s just start with the last point. The economics of slavery. You might think that that is an easy subject to work out. In fact, far from it.

First of all, there are 2 main categories of slavery. There is what one might call private slavery and public slavery. Private slavery is slavery at the behest of private individuals or institutions. Public slavery is slavery under the authority and control of the State.

One of the problems with the British debate on the slave trade, and slavery as a whole, is that it tends to admit the latter. It tends to assume that private slavery is the only form of slavery, and that therefore the profit motive, as understood by, as it were, commercial capitalism, is the defining feature both of the economics of slavery and of slavery as a whole.

Now that is misleading as an account of slavery as a whole, it’s also incidentally, not completely accurate as far as Britain is concerned. For example, the British State had its own slaves, there are good examples of that in the naval dockyards of the West Indies, for example, English Harbour in Antigua, where the Museum has quite a lot on the State slaves. And of course, there are the economics of that activity to consider but let me just move for a second to the other point I made about public slavery as a whole. Public slavery as a whole means slaves working for the State, and of course, across much of history, a key element in economic activity has not been commercial capitalism, however defined, it’s been state capitalism, if you like, or state authoritarian labour demands.

So we’re the ones thinking of state slaves in the Roman world, or indeed more generally in the classical world, who worked in mines producing raw materials and precious metals for the imperial exchequer, whether one is thinking of imperial soldiers in Islamic armies, slave soldiers, the armies of, for example, Safavid Persia, Ottoman Turkey, the Army of Morocco… Whether one was thinking in more modern terms of slaves at the behest of authoritarian and totalitarian states, slave labour, for example, of the Nazis or the Soviet Union, or you might argue the entire population of North Korea at the moment. These are all categories, groups of slaves which one requires to think about the economics involved.

Thinking about these economics. There are 2 principal economic costings to consider. One, the economic costing of obtaining a slave labour force, and to the economic costing of using that slave of labour force and the benefits that might be accrued thereof.

Now, if you will think about it already, from the categories we’ve mentioned, it is quite clear that it is very difficult to work out how you define a profit. How do you define the profits of Janissary soldiers in the Ottoman army? And how far do you decide that profit changed, or the profit motive changed, or the profit parameters changed between shall we say the fifteenth century and the final ending of Janissary services, I think it’s in 1826? And that’s a relatively, as it were, clear-cut category, because you’re dealing with a state there that in relative terms you know, one doesn’t want to push this too far, became bureaucratised.

You could argue in modern terms. You could argue that Auschwitz 3, the enormous camp of labour running to support the IG Farben works, slave labour administered by the SS, that’s not Auschwitz 2, which was the extermination camp, this is Auschwitz 3 we’re talking about, you can argue that you can relatively easily work out the profit. But actually you can’t because there’s the question of how else IG Farben would have used its factors of production, you could argue that it only went to Auschwitz because of access to slave labour and cheap coal on the Silesian coal field, and you could also the ask questions about how you assess the value of slavery. Indeed slave labour as a whole is a very difficult criteria to assess, particularly if you are using labour that might otherwise be labour available within a capitalist system where you would argue,  in modern terms, in economic terms, that you would use that labour more efficiently whereas you would argue that in an authoritarian society where the factors of production were assessed according to political norms and nostrums, often by highly inefficient as it were bureaucrats, you could argue that the very practice there is highly inefficient.

So let’s go back. Consider for a second the question of the actual cost of obtaining slave labour. We are used to the idea that there may well be shortages of particular areas of labour within the world, a shortage of young people in South Korea or Italy, shortage of medical staff for example in Britain today, but we’re used to the idea that there is no inherent shortage of labour as a whole in the world. We’ve got 8 billion people, there may well be constraints, for political and other reasons on migration but there is essentially a plethora of workers in the world. For most of world history, that has not been the case. Robert referred to the fact that I’m primarily an eighteenth century-ist, we don’t have precise figures for the world population, but we’d be thinking that probably in the first decade of the nineteenth century, it crossed the billion, I didn’t incidentally cross 3 billion till about 1960. So crossing a billion in about 1805, of that billion: roughly a quarter of a billion in China, a quarter of a billion in India. If you add in then Southeast Asia and southwest Asia, you pushed up to two-thirds of a billion.

So the point is that in most of the world, instead of there being a surplus of labour, there’s a shortage of labour. And indeed, I think one could argue that for most of human history, labour shortage has been the problem. And this, of course, has been magnified by the lack of mechanisation, the low efficiency of the prime economic activities which are agriculture, but equally, for example, communications. You need a large crew to man a ship, whether it’s a galley or a sailing ship etc. So, from that perspective, one could argue that until the nineteenth century, when the situation really changed, what you’ve actually got is labour shortages, and you have, if you wanted to take a viewpoint on this, you could say you have a variety of labour systems, some of them, we can define as slavery, some of them we can define a serfdom, some of them we can define as indentured labour, some of them can be defined as convict, labelled or controlled labour of some form, and these provide the ability to recruit and/or control labour in particular areas.

Now that sounds like one is actually almost decategorising slavery. But it’s worth bearing in mind that there is no hard and fast definition of slavery in the 1920s when the League of Nations debated slavery, they found it very difficult to determine whether indentured slavery, or, for that matter, arranged marriages should be considered forms of slavery or not. I mean slavery is, in a sense like war. You might think you know what it is when you see it. But is that the case? I mean, if you’re a Cuban doctor who is only allowed to work abroad, at the behest of the State and they take your passport, are you a slave or not? It’s very difficult to know precisely how we measure these kinds of criteria, and therefore how we assess the profitability of it.

So you’ve got the situation that if we’re looking for most of human history, there is the question: do you need to buy your slave? Which is one cost. Do you seize them through conflict? Which, in fact, is another form of cost. But the cost is, as it were, internalised within military operations. Or do you obtain the slave because they are the children of slaves you already own? There are other forms, the paying off of debt, for example, is an obvious one, but those would be the three main categories.

Each of them has costs. You might think that a slave that is born as the child of slaves that you own is the cheapest, but actually no, because to derive economic benefit from that slave is very difficult, and until such age that they have a degree of physical strength and mental ability to understand instructions, and in the meantime you’re paying them in terms primarily obviously of the mother, you’re having lower female work efficiency because they are actually pregnant, and then mothering the child, and so on, and so forth.

So there is a practical disadvantage in that form. The seizure of slaves, for example, you know famous quotes put in antiquity by figures writing about Roman generals, Julius Caesar or Scipio Africanus, that they seized so many slaves at such as such a point. That of course is another way of gaining slaves, because it doesn’t always work, and there are practical problems. It wasn’t a terribly efficient system. That’s a major problem, because you need to win a war, and because your slaves are often gained at a point which is nowhere near where physically, you might need to use them, and the actual movement of slaves is a matter of great inefficiency and cost, and many deaths along the way.

But then there is also the question that often evasion, avoidance, running away, other such practices made it very hard to obtain slaves in that fashion. So, for example, if you’re looking at the Brazilians, the Brazilians did take part in slaving raids into the interior of Brazil, but they found that they were difficult, and they found that they were increasingly inefficient because of the distances they had to go, the extent of resistance they encountered, and the ability of the indigenous population to evade capture. Of course, more generally in the Atlantic world, as far as the Americas are concerned, for all the colonial powers, there were the problems that the diseases that they brought with killed a lot of the native population, and very rapidly in places like Hispaniola and Cuba. And that also the original population in many of these areas, the eastern seaboard of North America, for example, was very modest, and on top of that, the population was able to fight and actually proved to adapt well to Western technology. So eventually, firearms and horses spread to native Americans.

So the easiest way to obtain slaves in the Atlantic world was in some respects a costly way, but, on the other hand, it was a relatively expeditious way within the constraints of what we’re talking about or what I’m going to talk about, and that is by buying them from African rulers. Now there are some cases of slave raiding by Europeans on the African coast. Initially, the Portuguese found it very difficult, very ineffective. And indeed, as John Thornton’s work on Portuguese warfare in Angola has pointed out, European methods of warfare in Africa did not prove particularly effective, and one could take that to stage further and point out that the Europeans only really became militarily proficient in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century, which, of course, is the very period that they have either already ceased slaving, or are ceasing saving. And that’s a very interesting point to make. We could talk about that on another occasion.

But if we go back, so in other words, the slave trade in the Atlantic world is dependent on cooperation. There’s a very good work on this by Miller, again, on Angola, because Portuguese records are pretty good, on cooperation with African rulers. There are networks, if you like, that produce the slaves with best benefit and cost spread around the system, which again means that you’re trying to share productivity and profitability. And of course, the slave trade is another part in terms of moving the actual slaves across the Atlantic, which is only part of the process, is another form of both profit and cost. Profit because the slave captains expect to be paid, cost because there is cost both in terms of the death of the slaves and the death of the non-slave crew, and also because, by the nature of things, you can have glut or shortage in terms of the availability of slaves on the Atlantic coastlines, the African-Atlantic Coastlines.

Again, what you then do with the slaves, affects the possibility of a profit and cost, and there are interesting examples in terms of the actual pricing of slaves which is an indication of profitability.

Now we’re talking now in terms of generalisation, and, as I said, right at the outset, we ought to be aware that pretty well every generalisation couldn’t be endlessly contextualised. But, for example, slaves in Constantinople, the main Islamic slave market, there are many other Islamic slave market, but the main Islamic slave market in the Ottoman period, slaves there tended to have the case that Women were more expensive than men.

Simple reason for that was the use of slaves. I’ve already mentioned earlier massive use of slaves for the army, and actually, there are Janissaries also who are in the navy and also in court service, but those Janissaries are not bought through the slave market. They’re obtained by a rota system. In other words, each Christian household, each ten Christian households have to produce a certain number of slaves. So you don’t actually have to buy those. From that point of view, the Ottoman Empire is a more efficient slave producer than any of the European empires because the State is, as it were, obtaining its slaves from a subject and subjected population.

Women, Constantinople, well, a prime reason is the significance in the Islamic world of women for households and sexual duties, task, suppression, brutality. However, we wish to discuss it and define it, and the whole host of reasons for that. We can discuss shortage of women due to polygamy. We can discuss a whole host of reasons for this, but this is different to what you’d be looking at if you were looking at the pricing of slaves in, say, Charleston, South Carolina, or Havana or the major slave markets of all in the New World. Of course, as people will know, the major slave markets in the New World were not the British ones. The Major slave markets were the Brazilian ones, the biggest slave colony was the Portuguese colony in Brazil, and there the overwhelming usage of slaves is for physical labour. And the overwhelming usage is for quite hard physical labour. Cotton but even more sugar are really quite arduous to work on, and of course, we were talking about, as far as the mechanisation of field tasks are concerned, although there’s mechanisation of processing by the nineteenth century most field tasks we’re not talking about mechanisation until the twentieth century.

And so you’ve got really a quite arduous use, which requires strong labour, and which, therefore, puts a premium on male labour of late adolescents young adulthood. Then you have the differential nature of the particular crop. The particular crop environment. And I say crop environment because other factors are involved in just the crop itself and the economics that produces. So in essence. For example, tobacco, the major plantation good from the Chesapeake, from Virginia, or in Maryland, requires less physical labour than sugar does, and the result of that is the death rate among slaves is lower, and therefore you get an ability to, first of all get slave society producing its labour force internally from its own children earlier. And you need to buy in fewer slaves every year from Africa, and therefore the profitability is higher, looked at differently, that is also, of course, in part to do with the fact that the Chesapeake is a less arduous in terms of its climates and disease environment situation than shall we say the areas around [unclear] in Brazil. Classic sugar country, much tougher soils, tougher climate, tougher disease, yellow Fever of course, and again, if you could then go down on in Brazil, it becomes in the areas around Rio, where coffee production increases dramatically in the late eighteenth century. That is less arduous than the production of sugar.

So part of the issue is, what you’re actually expecting your slaves to do, whether that means that you’re going to have a replacement rate problem, and indeed also linked to that, the issues involved in replacing your slaves.

So, for example, if you’re let’s just say a French or Spanish colony and you’re then at war with Britain. Let’s just say Louisiana in 1759, or Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1758, then you’re in trouble, because if you need more slaves and the Royal Navy is the dominant force in the Atlantic at that period, and is also incidentally attacking your slaving stations in West Africa, than you’re in difficulty, and as it were, you have a problem in terms of the pricing of slaves. The price of slaves rises, the internal slave market within the colony rises, the profitability of plantation goods falls because you can’t actually export them readily.

Secondly and linked to that, once you have the slave trade stopped, that doesn’t mean that slave trade does necessarily stop, I’ve done several books on slavery, one of them is on the Atlantic slave trade, as you’ll be aware, the slave trade continues illegally or with collusion in countries after it’s officially ended, but the real cost of it is risen, and of course you’re encountering British, in particular, naval action, determined to try and enforce international laws and international agreements. And due to all of that, the cost of slavery is rising.

So this is a significant issue in the largest slave colony of all which is, I’ve already mentioned, Brazil, because slaving becomes really after 1850, when British action has increased very greatly, slave trade becomes much harder, and the real price of slaves is rising, at the same time, the economic system in Brazil is moving towards an interest in different goods. The government in particular is more interested in what we would call the sort of transfer of activity towards manufacturing, they want to more educated labour force, they want a free labour force, and that free labour force is primarily Italian and German immigrants, which they’re greatly encouraging by the second half of the nineteenth century, and that provides one of the contexts for a lower economic rationale for slavery which of course ceases in the 1880s. But then again, instead of just adopting some quasi-Marxist analysis, one needs to note that profitability and everything else was encoded in terms of political and social values.

So in the case of Brazil, the move from an empire to republic is linked to a move of ruling groups towards, if you like, a new elite which likes the idea that Brazil is a non-slave society, likes the idea that they are attracting more European immigrants, and is not really terribly interested in the old Imperial links with surviving Portuguese colonies, particularly Angola, but also Portuguese Guinea, and therefore the relative pricing of slavery has to be seen within the political context.

The same if you’re looking at totalitarian regimes over the last 100 years, one’s not really looking for an economic rationale when one is looking at the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, other Communist States which used slave labour, for example Romania building the Danube Canal, across the Dobrudja region. Large numbers of people died, who were slaves in effect. Most of the people listening to this would have been put in labour camps, and would have been worked to death in this context. And you know the regime was not really interested in somebody saying to it, “well, in economic terms, I’m not sure we would agree with that”. And you know, “we’re all Fabian Socialists now, and why don’t you take our economic advice, and can we give you an honorary degree at the university of LSE”. That would not have necessarily been the right rationale that meant many meant much in Bucharest or Berlin or Moscow. And indeed, if you’re thinking about the situation in the most populous state of the last 100 years in China, and you’re looking at economic decisions like the great leap forward between 1958 and 1962, in which, depending on estimates, anything between 20 and 45 million people died. In effect, everybody then was a slave of decisions that had relatively little economic sense in that they assumed a triumph of the will. I was interested, Mao combined Marxist economics with a sort of fascistic triumph of the will principle, and the idea that you could will modernisation and that linked to that, you didn’t need to rely on established practices of agricultural provision.

Now in those cases it doesn’t really help to think of a cost-benefit analysis. And I want to close by one or 2 remarks on reparations. I think I’ve helped to make it clear why reparations are a foolish idea. Leave aside the notion of inherited guilt, which is an absurdity, and morally very dubious. Leave aside the absolute absurdity of, for example, an octoroon to get an eighth of compensation. Or are people who are refugees here, Ukrainian refugees here, that have arrived in the last year. Are they guilty of some kind of white privilege? Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

But leave aside those points. If you just want to look at the economics rationale, how do you actually assess these economic exchanges? And how do you assess the beneficiaries given that most of the time empires worked as a whole on the basis of a kind of shared, complicit, if you wish to use that term, but a shared cooperation. African rulers and merchants, European rulers and merchants, African rulers and merchants, Arab rulers and merchants, how are we to distinguish that kind of compensation? Are the descendants of Africans, living in Britain supposed to pay compensation to the descendants of West Indians living in Britain? And so on, and so forth. It’s not really going to make much sense to take this forward unless one wishes to deal in endless sentences of grievance and anger.

And of course there is the last point to be those familiar with my work will know, I’ve argued that the factor that distinguishes Britain from, let’s say, Portugal, which actually had a larger slave society in the Americas than Britain did, but the factor that distinguishes that is that Britain had a whole range of criteria from law of contract, a nature of the governmental system which elicits a widespread not universal, it wasn’t a democracy, cooperation, but crucially lots of coal. Portugal didn’t have any of those. And it seems rather absurd to put an emphasis on sugar when one is looking for economic development when one really should be putting the emphasis on coal.

Thank you very much.

Robert Tombs: Thank you very much, Jeremy. That was very stimulating, and in some ways provocative. At least, I hope our audience will think that. Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please use the Q&A command that you should see at the bottom of the screen, and I will translate your questions into questions for Professor Black.

Now, I’m going to start with one on the question of reparations. Your argument was pretty unanswerable that there is no way in which one can assess in any rational way the profits of slavery and the possibility of reparations based on those profits. Indeed, Portugal, despite its huge numbers of slaves, is poorer than Britain, and has been for a long time. So this is partly a question, did slavery tend to impoverish the slavers in the long run, by shutting off better forms of economic activity? But what I was wondering is, recently the Church of England decided it would it would pay reparations and other people have made gestures of reparations, they seem not to be based on any kind of rational economic basis, in the sense of saying we as an institution, or even we as a family, actually made all this money out of slavery, and therefore we should pay some of it back. It seems to be purely one of moral or virtue, if you like, sort of moralistic sense that “well, our ancestors did something that wasn’t very good, and therefore we should pay something back even if we can’t have a rational assessment of what we might be thought to owe”. Do you think, perhaps this isn’t really a historical question, but is it reasonable for people to make such moral gestures? In your view, if they wish to.

Jeremy Black: Well, I’m a libertarian people. People in my view can do whatever they like, but I think they ought to be wary of telling others what priorities they ought to have, particularly in terms of the complexity of history and the way in which many people who are taking part in this discussion aren’t aware of context, aren’t aware of comparison, and seem almost to be beating up on themselves.

I’d like to talk about more than just reparations but if one’s talking about reparations, as I said, coercive labour systems were very widespread. Internationally of course, there is also the extensive slave trade in the Indian Ocean, there are slaving out of Europe to the Arab world, etc. But there’s also a lot of slavery within countries.

I’ve always thought that present-day institutions and individuals who are concerned, as indeed we should be, about the wrongs of slavery should stop beating up on the past and talk about the present situation. I mentioned North Korea. Within the last 15 years there’s been extensive slave-like exploitation within Sudan of the population, both of Dhofar and of the south by Islamicists from the north. There’s slavery in Mauritania, there’s slavery in Niger, and you could argue that, you know, within 10 miles of where you sit, and I sit. I’m absolutely certain that there are people being held against their will who were trafficked into this country and are being abused. Most of them are white. They’ve come from Albania. And you know Theresa May when she was Home Secretary did her utmost with modern slavery, legislation, to try and stop this and to encourage police forces to do something about it.

Now, it would be much better if those people who are so concerned about slavery did something about the present situation rather than getting angry about something that happened 300 years ago, which we are in no position to do anything about.

One last point. There is a tendency to argue that in some way there was an original sin visited upon Africa by the West. This is rubbish. Africa like Europe, like Asia, insofar as those categories can be used for a whole range of societies, didn’t need external pressure in order to take part in conflict. It didn’t need external pressure to take part in slavery. There was slavery in this country before the Romans. We’ve got manacles surviving from that period. There was slavery in Africa before the Europeans arrived. And, what a surprise, over the last 100 years you’ve seen slave-like brutality and treatment in Europe. Think of the slave component of the concentration camps, and you’ve seen it in Africa. And the Europeans, by and large, cease to be colonial rulers in Africa in 1975, 76, which is when the Portuguese and Spanish surviving colonies went, and you have had massive losses of life and brutalisation of people in countries such as Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, we can go on. We ought to be mature about this. There are faults within our species as to how we treat each other without trying to assess or establish some original sin on some basis of a crude anti-white racism.

Robert Tombs: I want to ask you what is a fundamental question that one of our participants raises. We’re talking about the economics of slavery. Could you tell us your view of the Eric Williams thesis? Or could you say something about that? I mean two questions, I suppose. To what extent was slavery responsible for the wealth and economic development of Britain in particular. I think you’ve answered that already but maybe you could say it again in a little more detail. The other one, of course, is the idea that slavery was really only abolished when it ceased to be economically valuable.

Jeremy Black: Okay. Let’s take the last one first. It’s generally agreed that in the case of the Confederate States of the United States, slavery was still economically beneficial. There was massive demand for cotton in the 1850s and 1860s, cotton production had grown enormously in the first half of the century which incidentally fed an internal slave market in the sense that tobacco cultivation was less profitable than hitherto, so slaves were being sold from Virginia and Maryland down into the cotton states like Alabama, so that in the sense the end of slavery in the Southern States in the United States was not one of economic necessity. The absolute opposite of that.

As far as Britain is concerned. Williams, I think, came out in 1944, and it’s ludicrous that penguin has re-edited him as if it’s an up to date observation on the situation. I think it’s fair to say that it does not reflect current scholarship. I think that’s being polite, and that now the argument would be that the major reasons for the end of the slave trade and slavery in the British world reflected ideological and political developments within Britain rather than an economic law. And indeed, you can take it further than that. Once slavery was abolished, the West Indies colonies became relatively un-useful, let’s just put it like that, to the British Empire, which was a hell of a lot of capital asset to write off.

Robert Tombs: One of our participants asks about the amount of money paid to slave owners by the taxpayer, effectively. That was a huge amount of money. Do you have any sense of how that compared with the profits made previously from or indeed at the time from slavery? Was this a very generous, if that’s the word, payment to slave owners for giving up slavery? Or did it sort of compensate them for the economic loss of their workforce, at least the partial loss of their workforce?

Jeremy Black: Well, I think we to this day would regard it as reprehensible and wrong. Okay, just as I hope every listener to this, I think without question, every listener to this would regard slavery as reprehensible and wrong. There’s no two ways about that. If you’re looking back to the nature of the 1820s, 1830s British state, what you’re talking about is state-driven policies. And this is by no means the only one. You can see other examples of that in the tithe appropriation, the changes of ecclesiastical revenue as they were nationalised, and, as it were, then redistributed through the Church Commissioners. The idea of trying to get some sort of relationship between the rights of pre-existing asset holders, and it’s not nice to say this, but human labour was regarded as an asset, and the wish to actually get a peaceful and legal means of getting through this problem. After all, the last thing the British State wanted was to have to use force in creating an imposition. In other words, facing a white settler rising, they really didn’t want that. Whether that would have happened or not, I simply don’t know. But their view was that this was the best way to move through the situation, and I’m not sure that it really is terribly helpful. I think we can register our moral disapproval. That’s fine. Whether it was prudential for them to do it, I think, is an interesting question. My own view is that it was probably the easiest and quickest way to get political consent to it. It sticks in the core for us, but I think one can understand why they did it.

Robert Tombs: It was often argued at the time by abolitionists, and this argument has been taken up in some ways with a different motivation to say, “well slave labour was not efficient and therefore the argument for evolution was essentially one of economic efficiency”. Now in a way you have argued well, as you said very clearly, that the cotton cultivation in the Southern States of the United States was very profitable, and there was a high demand for slaves still but in broader terms. Do you have a sense of whether, as we’re talking of a very long period is slave labour inherently inefficient?

Jeremy Black: It is inherently inefficient if you’ve got an alternative, and if the alternative is a free labour force, which is one which is willing to do the job. But if you don’t have a free labour force which is willing to do the job, and you need this carried out, then there are practical issues as to addressing it. Now, one of the things I was suggesting is that the terms of the trade altered in the nineteenth century, partly ideological spread of a different attitude towards human values, what we might call human rights in some countries, spreading different attitudes towards what we would call proto democracy or democracy, or proto nationalism or nationalism and economic factors to do with the greater availability of labour and mechanisation and I think one of the difficulties of economic accounts is they try, and, as it were, quantify all of those. I don’t think you can readily quantify all of those. But I think those changed the situation in the nineteenth century. And obviously, if you’re looking at the situation today, where much of the labour force is highly skilled, then if you’re dealing with highly skilled labour force, then it’s best to deal with a cooperative labour force.

But obviously, if you’re in an area of the modern world where the State or others cannot afford the labour force it requires, but has access to coercive control, then it’s not surprising that they may still use aspects of what we would call slavery or enslavement.

My voice is starting to go, so I’ll take one more if I may.

Robert Tombs: Okay. This is from me. And I think we’ve covered the questions raised, most of the questions raised by others. I sometimes think, comparatively, of the emancipation of Russian serfs, which is roughly speaking, at the same time, and although we know serfs and slaves are not quite the same thing, there are similarities, anyway. And yet Russian Serfs were in effect made to pay for their own emancipation, at least they were made to pay for land that they were given and made to pay very heavily for it, and were still paying it by the time of the Revolution.

So I wonder if one should not perhaps think in those terms, and we’re thinking of the mechanism of emancipation in the British Empire, which was, after all, not loaded onto the slaves themselves. It’s conceivable that one might in another circumstances, have said “Well, you know we’re willing to free slaves, but they’ve got to pay. They’ve got to pay something”. Okay, there’s a period of apprenticeship, but there’s no, there’s no attempt to make them pay. I don’t know if that was ever suggested in Russia.

Jeremy Black: The apprenticeship is the only thing they really can offer, because it’s a low-monetarised society, slave society. Some slaves do have actually significant amounts of money by the end, which is why, in some context, people are able to buy their freedom. But on the whole, they don’t.

What’s interesting, if you want to think about something that’s interesting and odd about the British system, and more generally about if you like Western slavery is, although there are exceptions, 1790s, both the British and the French in the West Indies, we don’t tend to go the route of Islamic societies, of having slave armies, and that’s very interesting. And that might be something that it’s worth thinking about. But it actually, and this is my very last point, it actually underlines the problem of compensation and reparation. How do you give somebody compensation for the fact that their great great great grandfather might have had to do 20 years compulsory military service? I simply don’t know.

Thank you very much. Everybody. Bye.

Robert Tombs: Thank you very much, Jeremy, and thank you, everyone for your participation, and to those who ask questions: thank you for your questions.

Jeremy Black: Thank you.

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).