Aug 20, 2016 - Slavery Worldwide    Comments Off on French and British Slave Profits

French and British Slave Profits

The existence of African slaves in the western hemisphere was the result of British and French colonial economic policy [as well as Spanish and Portuguese] and the promise of immense profits, with the two countries engaging in heated competition to outperform the other. Rather than promote emancipation for the Negro out of humanitarian concern, the British used it to injure France after the loss of the American colonies. John C. Calhoun wrote United States Ambassador to France, William R. King on August 20, 1844:  “It is too late in the day to contend that humanity or philanthropy is the great object of the policy of England in attempting to abolish slavery on this continent.”

Bernhard Thuersam,


French and British Slave Profits

“In 1664, the French government, in accordance with the custom of those days, handed over the rights of trade with San Domingo. Agents received from the company the exclusive grant of the African trade, in return for supplying San Domingo with 2,000 Negroes every year. But by 1720 the colonists were needing 8,000 slaves a year . . .

The slave-trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution.  “Sad irony of human history,” comments Jaures. “The fortunes created at Bordeaux, at Nantes, by the slave-trade, gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to human emancipation.”

Nantes was the centre of the slave-trade. As early as 1666, 108 ships went to the coast of Guinea and took on board 37,430 slaves, to a total value of more than 37 millions, giving the Nantes bourgeoisie 15 to 20 percent on their money. In 1700 Nantes was sending 50 ships a year to the West Indies with Irish salt beef, linen for the household and for clothing the slaves, and machinery for sugar-mills.

Nearly all the industries which developed in France during the eighteenth century had their origin in goods or commodities destined either for the coast of Guinea or for America. The capital of the slave-trade fertilized them.

The British bourgeoisie, most successful of slave-traders, sold thousands of smuggled slaves every year to the French colonists and particularly to San Domingo. But even while they sold the slaves to San Domingo, the British were watching the progress of this colony with alarm and with envy.

After the independence of America in 1783, this amazing French colony suddenly made such a leap as almost to double its production between 1783 and 1789.  The British bourgeoisie investigated the new situation in the West Indies, and on the basis of what it saw, prepared a bombshell for its rivals. Without slaves San Domingo was doomed.

The British colonies had enough slaves for all the trade they were ever likely to do. With the tears running down their cheeks for the poor suffering blacks, those British bourgeoisie who had no West Indian interests set up a great howl for the abolition of the slave-trade.

A venal race of scholars, profiteering panderers to national vanity, have conspired to obscure the truth about [British] abolition. In 1773 and again in 1774, the Jamaica Assembly, afraid of insurrection and seeking to raise revenue, taxed the importation of slaves. In great wrath the British Board of Trade disallowed the measures and told the Governor that he would be sacked if he gave his sanction to any similar Bill.

But the [British] West Indian vested interests were strong, statesmen do not act merely upon speculation, and [the idea of abolition] would not have accounted for any sudden change in British policy. It was the miraculous growth of San Domingo that was decisive.

[British Prime Minister] William Pitt found that some 50 percent of the slaves imported into the British islands were sold to the French colonies. It was the British slave-trade, therefore, which was increasing French colonial produce and putting the European market into French hands. Britain was cutting its own throat. The French, seeking to provide their own slaves, were encroaching in Africa and increasing their share of the trade every year. Why should they continue to buy from Britain?

Pitt was in a hurry — it was important to bring the [slave] trade to a complete stop quickly and suddenly. The French had neither the capital nor the organization to make good the deficiency at once and he would ruin San Domingo at a stroke.

In 1787 he warned [the British abolitionist] Wilberforce that if he did not bring the motion (to Parliament) in, somebody else would . . . Pitt was fairly certain of success in England. With truly British nerve he tried to persuade the European governments to abolish the [slave] trade on the score of inhumanity.

[A] great stroke of luck befell Pitt. France was then stirring with pre-revolutionary attacks on all obvious abuses, and one year after the Abolitionist Society had been formed in Britain, a group of Liberals in France . . . followed the British example and formed a society, The Friends of the Negro.

This suited the British down to the ground. Clarkson went to Paris to stimulate the “slumbering energies” of the society, gave it money, [and] supplied France with anti-slavery propaganda . . . the powerful British government [was] determined to wreck French commerce in the Antilles, agitating at home and intriguing in France among men who, unbeknown to themselves, would soon have power in their hands.

How could anyone seriously fear for such a wonderful colony? Slavery seemed eternal and the profits mounted. The enormous increase of slaves was filling the colony with native Africans, more resentful, more intractable, more ready for rebellion than the creole Negro. This was the San Domingo of 1789, the most profitable colony the world had ever known . . .”

(The Black Jacobins, Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, C.L.R. James, Vintage Books, 1963, excerpts, pp. 46-57)

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