Tag Archives: Slavery

The Messy Link Between Slave Owners and Business Management

Today’s article deals with the relationship between slavery and capitalism. The article, “The Messy Link Between Slave Owners and Business Management,” explores how contemporary business practices draw on the tactics of slave labor discipline regimes. The article highlights the research of Caitlin C. Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School. In her upcoming book, “From Slavery to Scientific Management: Capitalism and Control in America, 1754-1911,” Rosenthal analyzes the reports plantation owners in the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Jamaica used to document the productivity of slave labor. “Using the account books, slave owners could see how many pounds of cotton each slave picked and compare it to their output from previous years—and then create minimum picking requirements based on these calculations.”

When I read the article, I was reminded of a passage in Chapter 2 of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution. In this section, Hobsbawm discusses the advent of industrial labor that arose in Britain some time around the 1780s with the rise of cotton manufacture and colonial expansion.

Simple and cheap to produce, new inventions such as the spinning-jenny, the water-frame, the mule in spinning and the power-loom in weaving made it possible for the bourgeoisie to create monopolies and drive industrial expansion beyond the shores of Lancashire and Glasgow. These profit-making forays into cotton manufacture were quite successful. With a windfall of profits at their disposal, the bourgeoisie sought ways to spend and invest the capital they had accumulated. One solution was foreign investments. But as governments defaulted on the loans English investors granted with alacrity, the bourgeoisie turned to home investments in railways instead (pg. 47).

But what I want to underscore centers on the proletarianization of the peasantry and the petty-bourgeoisie.  While the massive uprooting of the peasantry from the countryside to the towns and later to urban centers like New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century was still in the making, capitalist forces were stronger in Britain than anywhere else at the time. “Had they not been,” notes Hobsbawm, “British industrial development might have been as hampered as that of France was by the stability and relative comfort of its peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie, which deprived industry of the required intake of labour” (pg. 49).

After tracing what he calls the “impetus for industrialization,” Hobsbawm probes how labor was deployed to carry the Industrial Revolution to its logical conclusion: the social and political transformation of society.

“In the first place all labour had to learn how to work in a manner suited to industry, i.e. in a rhythm of regular unbroken daily work which is entirely different from the seasonal ups and downs of the farm, or the self-controlled patchiness of the independent craftsman. It had also to learn to be responsive to monetary incentives. British employers then, like South African ones now, constantly complained about the ‘laziness of labour or its tendency to work until it had earned a traditional week’s living wage and then to stop. The answer was found in a draconian labour discipline (fines, a ‘Master and Servant’ code mobilizing the law on the side of the employer, etc.), but above all in the practice where possible of paying labour so little that it would have to work steadily all through the week in order to make a minimum income (cf.pp. 198-9). In the factories, where the problem of labour discipline was more urgent, it was often found more convenient to employ the tractable (and cheaper) women and children: out of all workers in the English cotton mills in 1834-47 about one-quarter were adult men, over half women and girls and the balance, boys below the age of eighteen. Another common way of ensuring labour discipline, which reflected the small-scale, piece-meal process of industrialization in this early phase, was sub-contract or the practice of making skilled workers the actual employers of their unskilled helpers. In the cotton industry, for instance, about two-thirds of boys and one-third of girls were thus ‘in direct employ of operatives’ and hence more closely watched, and outside the factories proper such arrangements were even more widespread. The sub-employer, of course, had a direct financial incentive to see that this hired help did not slack(pg. 49-51)

Rosenthal’s research focuses on the years between 1754 and 1911. I wonder how the management of slave labor in the colonies influenced the process Hobsbawm describes during the early years of industrialization in Britain. In contrast to the petty-bourgeoisie and the peasantry in Europe, how did emergent industrial capitalism play out in the colonial periphery? How did it affect relations between masters and slaves? How do we understand the formation of the working class in Britain in a colonial context in which England emerged in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo as the uncontested imperial power?

Note: Emilia Viotti da Costa’s excellent Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 stands as a formidable response to these questions. So does Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. I will return to these books at another time.