How do the economic texts on slavery differ from the narratives on slavery, and why is it important to analyse this?

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Claire Wyatt


Pam Shaw

No. of words approx: 1300

How do the economic texts on slavery differ from the narratives on slavery, and why is it important to analyse this?

In the introduction to his book Did Slavery Pay? (1971: xii), a collection of readings on the economic effects of slavery, Hugh G. J. Aitken discusses what we can learn from these texts. He says they ‘have much to tell us about slavery, and about the plantation economy, and the South, but they have little to tell us about the black man’ (1971: xii). To get a fuller understanding of the subject the narratives on slavery are extremely useful. They paint a vivid picture of what life was like for black men, women and children at the time. However it is important to keep in mind the differences between and the limitations of both these kinds of sources. Both types raise questions of bias and reliability. Everyone who gives an account of history does so with a purpose. We must carefully analyse each source and make clear what we can and cannot learn from it.

The economic accounts of slavery are presented as objective. ‘Facts’ and figures are used to analyse the profitability of slavery. Ernest Williams, for example in From Columbus to Castro: the history of the Caribbean, 1492-1969 (1970) provides a lot of numerical data detailing the rise and fall of slavery. How accurate these figures are is an important question. The reader needs to consider how they were constructed and for what purpose. Aitken suggests that historians often picked up unexamined assertions and used them as facts. They based their arguments on ‘stereotypes of the negro and of plantation slavery they found in earlier writings’ (1971: 2). If true, this means the conclusions of these arguments are of little value.

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In Capitalism and Slavery (1944) Williams discusses the ‘origins of Negro slavery’. He stresses the idea that black slavery was ‘an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather racism was a consequence of slavery’ (1944: 7). Williams supports this by telling how ‘unfree labour in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan’ (1944: 7). It is true that many indentured white servants were taken to the Americas to work, however there were distinct differences between these white servants and the black slaves. White labour was bought for a temporary period; their freedom ...

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