‘Everything is wet,’ Martin Benson recorded, after inspecting his cargo. ‘Not a single hogshead that we have yet opened, but has been wet with salt water.’ Benson came from Newport, Rhode Island, and had sailed from there with tobacco, cotton cloths and rum to the British colony of Sierra Leone. A former slave trader, Benson now worked in the service of abolition, and his concern about the wet goods was not simply for his own fortune; he also worried for the cause of ‘legitimate commerce’, one of two key concepts at the heart of Bronwen Everill’s incisive history of political economy and ‘ethical capitalism’ in the age of abolition.
The logic informing the practice of legitimate commerce was complicated. It assumed that African peoples went to war in order to capture enemies whom they could sell as slaves to European merchants, and that they did this because they wanted to acquire European commodities such as cloth, metalwork, alcohol and guns, thereby beginning the cycle of trade all over again. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith ascribed the relative lack of African economic development to the ‘continual danger’ that supposedly confronted the continent’s inhabitants. In a sentence that defined the problem legitimate commerce sought to address, Thomas Malthus went further: ‘The state of Africa, as I have described it, is exactly such as we should expect in a country where the capture of men was considered as a more advantageous employment than agriculture or manufactures.’
But what if abolitionists instead of slave traders supplied commodities to African leaders, and accepted African manufactures as their price? This way, local peoples might be dissuaded from engaging in the process of enslavement. The merchants who supplied the Sierra Leone Company – a British philanthropic corporation founded in 1792 for the resettlement of black soldiers who had served as loyalists in the American War of Independence – used legitimate commerce to weaponise African consumption against the slave trade and slavery. This was the reason Benson was so concerned about his soaked tobacco: if local African merchants refused to buy it, would they deal with slave traders instead?
Sierra Leone was chosen as the site of this commercial experiment because, as Everill observes, ‘it was believed to have particularly fertile soil for the production of tropical staples, and repeated efforts there to grow coffee, cotton and sugar were intended to demonstrate that free African labour could produce these goods more cheaply than enslaved Caribbean labourers could.’ This is the book’s second key concept: ‘free produce’, which was ‘not made by slaves’ and figured as an ethical alternative to exports from the slaveholding colonies of the British West Indies. By choosing to purchase ‘free’ sugar, traders and consumers, both British and American (especially the abolitionist Quakers of the eastern seaboard), could attempt to erode the domestic markets on which slave traders preyed and prospered.
Of the proponents of free produce, none shines brighter than Elizabeth Heyrick. The Quaker daughter of a Leicestershire clothier, Heyrick achieved some celebrity when her polemical Immediate, Not Gradual Emancipation (1824) sped through multiple editions on both sides of the Atlantic. For Heyrick, the cause of free produce was nothing short of a holy war to be prosecuted ‘upon the strongholds, the deep intrenchments of the very powers of darkness’. In her subsequent pamphlet, No British Slavery (1825), Heyrick explained that ‘abstentionism’ alone could destroy the British market for slave-grown crops – in the ten years either side of 1800, the West Indies had produced between £2 and £3.5 million of sugar annually – and thereby weaken the foundations of the slave system. ‘When there is no longer a market for the productions of slave labour,’ she explained, ‘then, and not till then, will the slaves be emancipated.’ It was a simple and beguiling message: if the British housewife could stand in her local grocer’s and choose to buy sugar or coffee made by free labour, the slaveholders who depended on her custom would be ruined, and their ‘property’ freed.
Free produce was not limited to colonial crops. As well as sugar, cotton and rice (both white and ‘red’), British merchants could acquire a range of new and exotic goods from African sellers. Palm oil and peanut oil were lubricants for industrial machinery and were also used in the production of soap and candles; camwood was a brilliant red dye; ivory was already known as a luxury good. But the domestic market for these items was often unpredictable, as many traders discovered to their cost. When the American captain Gideon Young shipped two tonnes of the medicinal sea plants known as ‘squills’ to Brown & Ives in Rhode Island, the merchants could not sell them. Having paid the burdensome tariff levied on all such imports, Brown & Ives re-exported the plants that hadn’t already rotted at a painful loss.
All these goods found a place in Thomas Clarkson’s box, an elaborate mahogany chest that accompanied him on his abolitionist tours of Britain in the 1790s and 1820s. Three of the box’s four ‘divisions’ were filled with African produce – musk, dyes, spices and jewellery – that Clarkson thought would help his audiences in ‘making a proper estimation of the genius and talents of the [African] natives’. The fourth division contained the worst physical evidence of the slave trade: shackles, thumbscrews, iron bits and muzzles. Few contrasted legitimate commerce with the odious kind so clearly and powerfully.
The central actor in Everill’s story is Zachary Macaulay. A stern and uncompromising Scot, Macaulay lost his youth to alcohol and card tables before travelling to Jamaica, where years working as a plantation bookkeeper inured him – at first – to the horrors of slavery. It was only after converting to evangelical Anglicanism that Macaulay became a pillar of the abolitionist movement and, as governor of the Sierra Leone Company from 1794, the man on the spot during much of the colony’s early development. Although evangelical economics are not Everill’s chief focus, her work goes a long way towards explaining how these ideas – which were bouncing around the drawing rooms of Clapham and the pages of the Edinburgh Review – were given real and practical effect in the economic spheres where the abolitionists held most sway.
According to this worldview, which has been illuminated by Boyd Hilton and Anthony Waterman, true liberty was spiritual, personal and economic: it depended on hearing the Gospel, accepting salvation through Christ and assuming that the Holy Spirit moved what Adam Smith called the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. Slavery, which inhibited a man’s ability to work as he chose, was economically immoral; so too was monopoly, which deprived the consumer of the freedom to choose their supplier. In a perfectly ‘free’ market, the success or failure of an individual would represent the manifestation of divine will. Equally critical to evangelical economics was the idea, borrowed again from Smith, that enslaved labour was sinfully inefficient and free labour, stimulated by reward, infinitely more productive.
The realisation of these ideals proved difficult. On returning from his spell as governor of the Sierra Leone Company in 1799, Macaulay entered into business with his nephew Thomas Gisborne Babington. Exploiting his experience in the West Indies and West Africa, not to mention his connections among wealthy Quakers and abolitionists, Macaulay’s firm – Macaulay & Babington – quickly became an effective monopsony in Sierra Leone: the predominant buyer in the market, capable of dictating the terms of trade. This success led Robert Thorpe, the former chief justice of the colony, to launch a scathing attack on the company in the London press. By dominating trade in Sierra Leone, he argued, wasn’t Macaulay & Babington acting as a domineering economic agent of the sort that Smith and Ricardo had denounced in recent years? Wasn’t Macaulay exploiting his reputation as an abolitionist to enrich himself at the expense of others?
There was indeed some hypocrisy in Macaulay’s commercial activities, and there is no hint of hagiography in Everill’s assessment of the abolitionists’ economics. Their self-interest is especially evident in her analysis of British debates about sugar duties. Under the system known as imperial preference, sugars grown in the slaveholding West Indies had low tariffs on entry to Britain, and were rewarded with bounties when resold into Europe; conversely, sugars from East India and Mauritius were taxed at a higher rate, thereby protecting British slaveholders from the relative efficiency of free labour cultivation. It was one of the totems of the British anti-slavery campaign that all such tariffs should be equalised and that, under the same market conditions, the free-grown sugar of the East would triumph.
In resisting moves towards a free trade in sugar, the West Indians created a complex and perverse rationale for protectionism: while clothing their ideas in a nebulous economic nationalism, they also argued that costlier sugar was a price worth paying for the strategic and maritime benefits conferred on the empire by the Caribbean. The radical journalist William Cobbett, a rather unexpected ally of the slaveholders, believed that the planters ‘ought to be scrupulously attended to, as if they were farmers in Cornwall or in Yorkshire’ and were ‘entitled to the same protection in their persons and fortunes, as our brethren’ at home. What good would come, he and others asked, if the British sugar market was given over willingly to East Indians? What would happen to the hundreds of thousands of British subjects in Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow whose livelihoods depended on sugar?
It wasn’t lost on West Indians that many leading abolitionists had significant investments in the East India Company and that any swing to the canefields of Bengal would enormously enrich their enemies. James Cropper, the Liverpool merchant who concocted the programme of equalisation of duties in 1822, perceived immediately that he would be accused – even by allies – of working for his own ends: ‘Some friends think,’ he wrote to the Birmingham merchant Joseph Sturge, ‘that my exertions on this subject are to promote my own interests and on that account I have not given the subject impartial consideration.’ Stephen Lushington, the dashing cricketer-jurist who represented the black men Louis Lecesne and John Escoffery after their unlawful deportation from Jamaica, was identified as the son of an East India Company chairman. The planters of Mauritius, which Britain had seized from France in 1810, were also damned as agents of subversion.
When Macaulay & Babington was awarded a silver plate worth fifty guineas for succeeding in the export of white rice from Sierra Leone, Zachary was ‘accused of using his connections to award himself the silver’. The plate had been given to Macaulay by the African Institution, the philanthropic venture that had succeeded the Sierra Leone Company in 1807. The board of the new institution was populated by abolitionists fresh from their parliamentary triumph in outlawing the slave trade, and its first annual report recommitted to legitimate commerce and free produce, as well as announcing a plan ‘to introduce the blessings of civilised society among a people sunk in ignorance and barbarism’. Abolitionism was far from immune to paternalism and chauvinism.
Over the next few decades, the economic fortunes of Sierra Leone were integral to wider debates about slavery and abolition. On the one hand, abolitionists trumpeted the colony as ‘the instrument of imparting to thousands of Africans, raised from the lowest depths of misery and debasement, the blessings of British freedom, and of Christian light’. On the other hand, the West India interest – especially the Glaswegian merchant James MacQueen – derided Sierra Leone as an embarrassment. The Barbadian, a newspaper whose readers were in direct economic competition with free produce, described the colony as ‘Pandaemonium’; a Jamaican cleric, educated at Oxford, damned the West African enterprise as a ‘deadly experiment’. Worst of all – at least as judged by the economic rationale of the day – the introduction of free labour and agricultural production had done nothing to ‘improve’ Britain’s wards in Sierra Leone.
Much of this criticism was coloured by the Scottish Enlightenment theory of stadial progress, which held that all peoples progressed in stages from hunter-gatherers to pastoral farmers, to arable farmers and then to commercial, urban-dwelling traders. The West Indians bastardised this theory by claiming that enslavement to Caribbean planters was an engine of improvement: were not enslaved Africans being taught arable cultivation by European traders? Yet when these same West Indians looked to Sierra Leone, where Macaulay and his allies had attempted to impose legitimate commerce and free produce on the African population, they saw not just failure but regression. MacQueen began a decade-long dispute on this point with Kenneth Macaulay, a cousin of Zachary’s who had taken over the family’s African business. In MacQueen’s opinion, Sierra Leone’s free African people had ‘retrograde[d] in the woods into a state of nature and barbarism, or become vagrants about Freetown’. The colony was ‘a heterogenous mass of ignorance, barbarism, indolence, injustice and oppression’. MacQueen had never visited Sierra Leone, or any part of Africa.
Everill situates her history within an economic historiography pioneered by Eric Williams and Joseph Inikori, but it’s also a complement to J.H. Plumb and Neil McKendrick’s vision of a consumer revolution. In the former tradition, the histories of enslavement and economic development are understood to be inextricable: as Britain exploited African labour, it both underdeveloped Africa and propelled itself into industrialisation; in the latter, the development of a consumer society in the long 18th century is taken to have created the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption, where domestic spending became not only a function of taste but of social and political identities. In her book, Everill emphasises conspicuous ethical consumption. Manufacturers stereotyped the words ‘not made by slaves’ onto ceramic sugar bowls destined to sit on British and American tables as a demonstration to guests of political and commercial support for abolition. The most famous mark of all was Josiah Wedgwood’s cameo of a kneeling slave asking, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ Applied to jasperware, engraved onto medallions and printed on the frontispieces of abolitionist literature, the cameo and the motto ‘not made by slaves’ became intrinsic to ethical advertising campaigns: grocers and wholesalers such as B. Henderson’s China Warehouse in Peckham used such symbols to attract abolitionist customers.
Having announced to the world that they traded only in legitimate produce, and with idealistic shoppers content to pay more for goods made by free hands, merchants on both sides of the Atlantic found establishing the provenance of their wares a vital but often difficult task. With supply chains stretching for thousands of miles across continents and oceans, there was ample opportunity for the dishonest seller to put forward counterfeits in order to gain a higher price. The solution lay in credit, or at least in the personal and social credit that was an essential element of Montesquieu’s doux commerce: grocers bought from trusted merchants like Brown & Ives who subscribed to abolition; in turn, these merchants bought from the Sierra Leone Company. At the same time, African merchants who engaged in legitimate commerce demanded proof that ‘European’ goods were being furnished in the service of abolitionism; accordingly, the initials ‘SLC’ – for the Sierra Leone Company – were burned into the woodwork of rifles sold in West Africa. Nothing, of course, prevented rogue traders from carving the same letters into their wares; again, it came down to trust, to commercial relationships, and to credit.
It is on this last point, relating to African ideas about political economy, that Everill makes the most telling mark. Historians usually situate studies of slavery and abolition within primarily British or American intellectual contexts, but Everill makes plain that ‘Western’ economics were unavoidably entangled with West African ideals. Debt offers a good example. The typical West Indian planter or slave trader was highly leveraged: it took a great deal of money to invest in land in the Caribbean, to install the machinery needed to process sugar and then to buy the labour – enslaved Africans – needed to cultivate it. As Everill notes, the acceptance of debt was suggestive of the economic insouciance – the feckless luxury and desire for self-gratification – that parliamentarians had been deploring for years in East Indian nabobs; it also carried negative connotations for a wider audience horrified by the unprecedented debt that Britain had amassed during two decades of war against France.
Yet, as one trans-Saharan proverb put it, ‘One cannot gain wealth if one does not have trust in people.’ Macaulay was extremely reluctant to trade on debt and credit instead of cash and commodity, but any successful trader in those parts, in those times, required a commercial reputation as much as force or hard cash. Conducting commerce in West Africa in the 19th century, British and American merchants were obliged – in the absence of mutually recognisable currency – to deal in credit, and therefore in debt. It was a compromise of the sort that abolitionists made repeatedly over many decades: first they attacked the slave trade but not slavery itself, then from 1823 they advocated for gradual instead of immediate abolition, and, finally, in 1833, in order to secure the ultimate goal of emancipation, they consented to compensation for British slaveholders and a compulsory period of ‘apprenticeship’ for the enslaved. Abolitionism was a powerful ideology, but in both politics and economics its successes were often reached through bargaining.