Slavery and Capitalism


Masahiro Ichioka

<Background and Purpose>

The notion of Capitalism is denied that “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” In this sense, capitalism would be shown that has some evil aspects. With making a profit, private owners monopoly the market in exploiting from workers. Slavery and slave, defined as person who is the property of and wholly subject to anotheris one of the explicit example to show capitalism and how it works.

Owner and slave, Retrieved from

Back to the early centuries in Europe, countries competed each other to accumulate the wealth that was needed to protect from invading and significant to show the power. In this sense, slavery was extremely attractive system for saving labor cost and maximizing the profit. In particular,  African slave was preferred and traded within countries. Planters, then, forced them to work under severe condition and regarded them as commodities. Clearly, thanks to this system, European countries got benefitted and kept placing top in the world.

Nowadays, people might consider that, because of racial reason, African people were captured and traded, and forced to work as slave workers. But, once looking back to the history, it was not. Slavery derived from not racial, but economical reason. Additionally, people might not be able to recognize that they, to some extent, are under similar condition as slaves, which does not mention as physically, but economically. By comparing each thing, slave system can clearly show how capitalism were derived and shifted in this contemporary society. In addition, the reason why capitalism is vital components for freedom will be seen in the process of slave history.

<Origin of the slave system>

Adam Smith, Retrieved from

At first phase of plantation society, Adam Smith noted that prosperity in colony depends on “plenty of good land”, which mentioned that large fertile land was demanded instead of labor force. For European countries, large and fertile land was not feasible to find around, so stepped into the other continent and countries, where we call it as New World in comparison of European countries as Old World.

The first target was American main land and Caribbean countries for producing tobacco, cotton and sugar to export to the European countries. To cultivate and develop, colonists needed plenty of labor force, and sought to find cheaper and endurable workers. Undoubtedly, colonist preferred skilled and motivated labor force, which rarely get and insufficient, and not preferred unskilled labor just because it is not productive even large number, which easily find as a slave. Economically, profit will be calculated by the subtraction of the total revenue from total cost, so colonist needed to have cheaper labor to maximize the profit. In this sense, origin of slavery is not caused by the racial discrimination, but economical context. Colonist did not have any other options without using slave.,d.d2s&psig=AFQjCNFYivFQPmTpQsy-K_hFkcTYFOa4Ag&ust=1460164912112613
Gibbon Wakefield, Retrieved from

According to Gibbon Wakefield, “These are not moral, but economical circumstances: they relates not to be vice and virtue, but to production.” This showed that because of economical competition among European countries, colonists initiated to import labor forces from colonized countries. Moreover, the history showed that the slavery was not born of racism, but was the consequence of the slavery.

The first main slaves were Indian in the New World. But planters realized that the Indian was not profitable and efficient because it was unsuited to the diversified agriculture of these colonies, and begun to focus on the poor white. Basically, these successors came from the European countries as not same as Indian slave, but as temporary workers or convicts. For industrious countries, this was useful because European countries could relief the unemployment domestically and use them as the labor force in colonized country. It would contribute to increase productivity. Despite the number of poor whites growing, planters began to look  at the Negro as most useful appurtenances because of economical reason. The poor white was expensive. The value of the Negro for a life was equivalent to the value of the poor white for ten years. Capitalist gradually preferred Negro to white servants to boost the economy.

Some scholars argued that this replacement of the labor was caused by different reason. Because of the severe climate condition in the Caribbean countries, these white people could not adjust and endure to work. The study, however, showed that some European countries also had similar climate environment as well as the Caribbean countries. In this sense, this replacement was revealed that it was not result of climate reason, but economical reason. The colonist needed more labor force as the economic structure shifted from the tobacco and cotton to sugar production. They strived to maximize the profit due to the situation that mercantilist and mercantilism was widely prevailed over European countries, so people believed that wealth would protect countries from invasion, and countries competed to amass the wealth as the power of the country. Capitalism that appeared after industrial revolution, in fact, is different concept from the mercantilism, but some aspects of the capitalism were seen even in this period.

<Triangular trade>

Triangle trade

In this century, since Portuguese dominated Africa and slave market, Britain and other European countries imported slaves from them and sent to the West Indies where colonists produced the sugar in attempt to export to the owner countries. Triangular trade that the relationship between African, European, and West Indies. In particular, the Britain exported some products to Africa for selling slaves to colonized countries, and the Britain exported slaves for importing the plantation product. Furthermore, the Britain regarded free trade as the fundamental right based on the notion of Laissez Faire, the triangular trade were boosted their economy, and the number of slaves reached two million by the time. As the economy soared, the Britain became the country as not only the center of slave trade, but the exporter to other European countries.

Port in Liverpool, Retrieved from

Liverpool and Bristol prospered as the port to smuggle and tobacco trade. After the War of Spanish Successor, the Britain got almost entire market of African coast and slave trade. As for the Britain gradually dominated the whole market and got benefitted huge profit from plantation and slave trade, other European countries began to set the trade barrier including imposing high tariff and restricting the import. In this sense, Navigation Law that allows the Dutch, Scotland, and Ireland to supply credits, delivered goods, purchase colonial products and transported it to Europe, all at attractive rate than Britain could offer in the open market. Britain capitalism got much benefit from free trade at first phase until other countries opposed, and was then from monopoly of the West Indies and plantation products. Moreover, the history showed fundamental features of capitalism that Britain accumulated the wealth in free trade and plantation business, while exploited profit from not only slaves, but plantation owners.

Barclay is the one established at this time in London, Retrieved from

Slave trade, in fact, promoted to emerge several new business in the Britain. In particular, merchants who were owner of slaves and planters contributed development of commerce of Britain in the 18s century. As wealth accumulated,merchants leveraged their possessions by investing and lending, which was similar as current banking system. In addition, insurance business appeared to protect profit in case of capsizing vessels on the process of slave trade. Expansion of these business resulted in promoting presence of Britain and leading to the industrial revolution later century.

<American Revolution and Industrial Revolution>

Cotton mill

While Britain had been getting large benefit from slave trade, France gradually started producing sugar as Britain did and competing. Increased production caused oversupplying beyond demand, the price of sugar declined and French succeeded selling the product much cheaper than Britain. Relatively, Jamaica that was dominated by Britain and produced sugar was not as fertile soil as the Saint Domingo owned by French. French sugar cost one fifth less than British, the average yield in Sint Domingo and Jamaica was five to one. Britain, however, did not change in respond to the competition, French dominated this market, and this growth of sugar industry in West Indian countries undermined British presence. After American Revolution happened, this tendency was stretched and eventually America succeeded in independent from Britain. Slave trade, however, still existed after independence because trade had become necessary for almost every nation in Europe. By this time, Britain found a new way to thrive and stepped in another phase. To make production more efficient, mechanization was encouraged in Europe, and Britain was center of industrial revolution. Cotton and iron industry thrived in Manchester, and both were appeared as major part of trade instead of the sugar and slaves.

At this point, Britain realized that the sugar monopoly and plantation was no longer profitable. Moreover, in fact, because Jamaica that owned by Britain was less fertile and more exhausted than Saint Domingo that owned by French, slavery was no longer for Britain, but French. French gradually dominated the market and benefitted from slavery instead of Britain. On the other hand, Britain was still center of the slave trade, so almost all slave worked in Saint Domingo shipped from Liverpool. In this sense, the only way to compete with French and undermine the presence of French in Caribbean was abolition of slave trade. After abolition of slave trade, Britain shifted its production center of sugar from West Indian to East Indian Company. The British West Indian Colonies were therefore forgotten.


Slave system started by Britain with the purpose to get benefit and monopoly the market in  the New World. Consequently, success of monopoly resulted in prosper and development of economy in Britain, being center of slave trade in Europe. But, once realized that plantation of sugar in Caribbean is less profitable than French, Britain stopped the slave trade and shifted to focus on other sectors. Interestingly, history of slave trade started and ended up with the economical reason and purpose. Slavery was, again, not discrimination, but as a result of the Capitalism. In this sense, slaves were the way to make the profit by exploiting on the process. This image showed that how the society made up and evil side of the capitalism. Until the abolition, slaves placed under individuals and regarded as the labor force for European countries. Profit made by slaves were exploited by the plantation owners, in turn, profit for planters were exploited by the European countries. Clearly, there is distinctive difference between slave and individual in terms of freedom, but some similarities can be seen in terms of the system of the capitalism as a whole.

These days, people would pay close attention to the disparities of wealth, in particular, the difference between top 1% and 99%. Financial crisis revealed that top 1% can geometrically multiply the capital in investment and rent seeking. On the other hand, rest of 99% can hardly accumulate the capital because of exploitation from 1%. Moreover, this tendency will continue endlessly because 1% would inherit for the next generation as owner forced slaves to work. To oppose the capitalism, people occupied Wall Street and insisted their right. This evil aspect showed that people cannot avoid the exploitation as far as believes in the society based on the capitalism.

Moreover, this problem can be seen from world point of view. Even now, most developed countries are located in Europe, North America, and part of Asia. Conversely, most developing countries are located in Africa, South America, Caribbean, and part of Asia. The main components of export in developing countries are first and second sector, which is less profitable than third sector that most developed countries get benefitted. Because of its lower wage, people in developing countries are used as the labor force and export product to developed countries. Final product is much more profitable than components, developed countries can accumulate the capital. In this sense, the relationship between them are similar as triangular trade when slavery was still existence. Under capitalism, there are winner and looser, and competition is inevitable. The notion of free trade in 18s century in Europe are still existence, and developed countries attempt to expand their commercial presence by tie the contract with developing countries.

In short, slavery is abolished, but influence of slavery still remain in changing its shape based on capitalism. What Milton Friedman mentioned in the conversation is helpful to consider the evil aspect of capitalism.

YouTube / LibertyPen – via Iframely

In the speech, he mentioned that Capitalism is not sufficient condition of freedom, but necessary condition of freedom. In other word, people who want to live with freedom need to follow the capitalism without exception. Capitalism, in fact, contains evil aspect exploiting profit from the labor, but can also say that only way to be free from the dominance of the owner.(In the sense that people equally have a chance to step up the upper class under enough conditions such as free access to the information, right to get sufficient education and so on ). Finally, the shift of slavery from past to modern society, more or less, has influenced shaping different form of slavery in today’s society.



-Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944)

-Eric Williams, British Capitalism and British Slavery, Retrieved from – via Iframely