The compensated emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies (1833-1840) has been used by Thomas DiLorenzo and other libertarians to argue that free labor is inherently superior to slave labor.
This talking point has been thoughtlessly repeated by legions of Rainbow Confederates to argue that slavery could have been peacefully abolished in Dixie in a similar manner.
In reality, the experiment in abolition in Hayti (1794), the British West Indies (1833), and French West Indies (1848) was more commonly cited as the definitive proof that freedom had failed and that abolition would produce an unmitigated social and economic catastrophe in Dixie, which is why the threat posed by “Black Republicanism” had to be resisted at all costs.
The following excerpts about abolition in Jamaica are taken from Emancipation in the British West Indies which appeared in the Southern Quarterly Review in April 1854 and illustrate in vivid detail that Antebellum Southerners were familiar with the concepts of the Black Undertow and the Visible Black Hand of Economics.
The post-apocalyptic nightmare of millions of half-barbarized free negroes unleashed upon our prostrate and demoralized civilization must have weighed heavily on our ancestors when they decided to secede from the United States:
“The Act of Emancipation passed the British Parliament in 1833, and enacted, that on 1st of August, 1834, slavery was to cease throughout the British dominions; and that the then existing slaves were to become apprenticed labourers, the term of their apprenticeship partly ceasing on the first of August, 1838, and partly on the first of August, 1840, when the black and coloured population were to become absolutely free. A sum of twenty million pounds was to be distributed to the planters, in certain proportions, and according to certain conditions, as a compensation for the loss of their slaves.”
In 1833, the British Empire made the foolish decision to abolish slavery (though fortunate for its Spanish and Portuguese competitors) in the British West Indies. The disastrous British experiment in abolition in the West Indies was almost thirty years old when South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860.
“Immediately upon its passage, this act was heralded to the world as the great event of the times, and the great measure of the age. The British nation signalized itself in the eyes of the world by its self-gratulations and boastings upon the passage of this act, as illustrating its wisdom, justice and humanity. Brilliant results were anticipated for it; and a new era in the prosperity of her West India Islands, it was thought, was about to be inaugurated. It was imagined that in its practical operation, it would be a sort of panacea, which would work a cure for all the imperfections of the African race, and restore it to that condition of equality which (according to our modern philanthropists) it must have enjoyed along with the other children of Adam, at some unknown period of time since the beginnings of all things. Its evil tendencies – its habitual carelessness – its ignorance – all its known characteristics were to be washed out, and its nature renewed by this baptism at the fountain of freedom.”
The very same self-congratulations and boastings, the very same pretensions of moral superiority, the very same wildly unrealistic and cocksure expectations of the imminent arrival of negro equality followed Brown vs. Board of Education, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and most recently the election of Barack Hussein Obama as president in 2008.
“Mr. Bigelow thus describes the present condition of Jamaica:
“It is difficult to exaggerate, and yet more difficult to define, the poverty and industrial prostration of Jamaica. The natural wealth and spontaneous productiveness of the island are so great, that no one can starve, and yet it seems as if the faculty of accumulation were suspended. All the productive power of the soil is running to waste; the finest land in the world may be had at any price, and almost for the asking, labor receives no compensation, and the product of labor does not seem to know the way to the market. Families accustomed to wealth and every luxury, have witnessed the decline of their incomes, until now, with undiminished estates, they find themselves wrestling with poverty for the commonest necessities of life.”
If the libertarian economic theories were correct, it would seem to follow that the abolition of slavery and the arrival of freedom in Jamaica would have produced an explosion in agricultural wealth and productivity as ex-slaves responded to free market incentives to improve their material condition, but exactly the opposite happened and the free negro retrograded to subsistence peasant agriculture.
“Since the year 1833, when the British Slave Emancipation Act was passed, the real estate of the island has been rapidly depreciating in value, and its productiveness has been steadily diminishing to its present comparatively ruinous standard.
Since 1832, out of the six hundred and fifty-three sugar estates then in cultivation, more than one hundred and fifty have been abandoned, and the works broken up. This has thrown out of cultivation over 200,000 acres of rich land, which, in 1832, gave employment to about 30,000 laborers, and yielded over 15,000 hogshead of sugar, and over 6,000 puncheons of rum.
During the same period, over 500 coffee plantations have been abandoned, and their works broken up. This threw out of cultivation over 200,000 acres more of land, which, in 1832, required the labour of over 30,000 men.
From an official return of the exports of the island now lying before me, I am enabled to compare the surplus production of its great staples in the three years previous to the Emancipation Act, with the exports for the three years preceding the month of October, 1848. …
By this contrast it appears, that during the last three years, the island exported less than half the sugar, rum or ginger; less than one-third the coffee; less than one-tenth the molasses; and nearly two millions of pounds less of pimento, than during the three years which preceded the emancipation act.”
We have already seen how plantation agriculture collapsed in Haiti in the aftermath of abolition and independence. Perhaps the results of abolition in Jamaica were supposed to inspire the planters in Dixie with another demonstration of the superiority of the free labor system?
The arrival of free society in Jamaica, too, was followed by the collapse of property values, the collapse of sugar and coffee production, the collapse of agricultural exports, the arrival of hundreds of blighted and abandoned plantations, the ruin of commerce, and the urban prostration of Kingston by the Black Undertow and The Visible Black Hand of Economics.
“Such are the natural resources of this dilapidated and poverty stricken country. Capable as it is of producing almost everything, and actually producing nothing which might not become a staple with proper application of capital and skill, its inhabitants are miserably poor, and daily sinking deeper and deeper into the utter helplessness of abject want.
Magnas inter opes inops.
Shipping has deserted her ports: her magnificent plantations of sugar and coffee are running to weeds; her private dwellings are falling to decay; the comforts and luxuries which belong to industrial prosperity have been cut off, one by one, from her inhabitants; and the day, I think, is at hand when there will be none left to represent the wealth, intelligence and hospitality for which the Jamaica planter was once so distinguished.”
Of Kingston, which is the principal port of the island, he says:
“In the busiest parts of the city, and on every block, may be seen vacant lots, on which are crumbling the foundation walls of houses long in ruins. Rents are exceedingly low, less than half a fair interest on the cost of these buildings alone – while the vacant lots cannot be said to have any market value, there being no sales. There are several fine houses extant here, but they were all built many years ago, when the island was prosperous, and very few of them are ‘in repair.’
“Though Kingston is the principal port of the island, it has but little of the air of a commercial city. One looks and listens in vain for the noise of carts and the bustles of busy men; no one seems to be in a hurry, but few are doing anything, while the mass of the population are lounging about in idleness and rags.”
This is a scene that would be repeated throughout Dixie in Reconstruction and in sub-Saharan Africa countries following independence in the 1960s. This type of blight seems to follow the free negro like his shadow.
“Nor is the evidence afforded by them in reference to all that may be considered as the moral elements of political power, position, and improvement, of a different character.
Mr. Bigelow, in addition to what has already been quoted from his on this point, says (p.77) – “I could not perceive that sixteen years of freedom had advanced the dignity of labour or the labouring classes one particle.” “The operative occupies a decidedly lower social position in Jamaica than he does in South Carolina.”
Even after taking into consideration the destruction in the name of philanthropy of material prosperity in the British West Indies, freedom also failed to improve the moral and religious character of the free negro who quickly relapsed into barbarism in parts of Jamaica and British Guiana.
“From the depredations here spoken of, there is little to be feared, since there will soon be nothing left for them to steal: but the moral condition above described is well worthy of remark. … “These people seem fast retrograding into a savage state, consistent with the wilderness which is growing up among them.”
Freedom proved to be a disaster when it was tried in the British West Indies, but this demonstration of the fruits of liberal economic theories when applied to negroes was just papered over and forgotten like previous examples in Haiti and Liberia.