The Myths Behind the Abolition of Slavery

“History tends to glorify and sanitize the past” – nothing demonstrates such a saying as much as slavery. For centuries European colonies have systematically pursued policies that exploited and enslaved people and their land. However, after centuries of rape, mutilation, whipping, shooting and the most horrific forms of subjugation, Europe was overtaken by some form of moral spirit that led to the abolition of enslaved people—or— some suggest that the development of free labor set aside such an inefficient form of labor. Both explanations for the abolition of slavery ignore the constant resistance from day one of enslaved people and deny any form of agency towards the enslaved. But rather see themselves as the cause for the abolition of slavery.

The first hypothesis is clearly illogical, whereby it believes enlightenment added a moral dimension and created the seeds for an abolitionist discourse that turned the tide. It is quite the opposite, where enlightenment added a scientific dimension to racism. David Hume's major enlightenment figure believed that Negroes are between Europeans and apes. Kant views human perfection as achieved only by being in the white race, and examples are many, from Voltaire to John Locke, that justify the domination of other races.

The second hypothesis, the Smithian view of slavery, clearly lacks the numbers to understand the magnitude of slavery's role in the formation of capital accumulation, thus industrialization and modern capitalism. For instance, Guillaume Daudin's studies conclude that, for a period of the 18th-century, the slave trade was more lucrative than domestic investment (15-30% returns). Joseph Inikori showcased that slave ventures where Davenport acted as managing director (British slave trader) yielded an average profit of 50%. Slave trade contributed 8% of the total and 39% of commercial investments. Most of the cotton imported by Great Britain's cotton textile industry to export (-contributed 30-40% of total exports for some time-) was from the colonies.

Furthermore, the control and subjugation of enslaved people allowed colonizers to develop efficient means of industrialist discipline. Such complete domination allowed them to “experiment, gather data and control efficiency and productivity.” There's a reason Marx labelled it as a calculated and calculating system. It helped develop the managerial form of labor subordination, also marked as “free” labor. It seems that there’s a deep relation between slavery, imperialism and modern capitalism.

The previous paragraphs clearly show that neither enlightened discourse nor the inferiority of slavery as a form of labor was the cause for the abolition. Sébastien Rioux and many other writers pointed out that constant resistance played a significant role in abandoning the slave system. If one looks at slavery, it was filled with revolts. Sébastien Rioux highlights three forms of resistance: quotidian-related struggles, running away for a while (petit marronage) and rebellion.  Takeovers were also widely spread.  Rioux mentions, for instance, the 1763 revolution in Dutch Berbice, in St. Jan in the Danish West Indies in 1733, and in the French colony of Grenada in 1795, each of which required military action which was capital intensive. In addition, there were successful cases like the Haitian revolution and the Dutch slave colony of Sint Eustatius. As João José Reis accurately concluded, “By the time slavery was outlawed in 1888, the demise of slavery was largely a fait accompli.”

Of course, it is pretty hard to conclude from such a brief outline of revolts the magnitude of such a factor. However, the bias and inaccuracies of the first two hypotheses regarding the question of slavery, imperialism and modern capitalism are pretty straightforward. Although often ignored, enslaved people were humans, and I can't imagine any human who would just submit to the will and brutal violence of colonialists.