Harriet Martineau's The Economic Case Against Slavery

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The economic case against slavery Despite these considerations, it must be noted that economic change was also used as an argument against slave trade. Adam Smith strongly argued against slavery on economic grounds, stating in 1776 that it was less productive than free labour, as slaves ‘who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible’ . According to him, in the context of developing economies, slavery is in general highly inefficient, as the net product under freedom is 12 times larger than under slavery – and he attributes the persistence of slavery, despite its obvious inefficiency, to the fundamental desire of the elites to dominate others, and to the reluctance of slaveholders…show more content…
Drawing on Adam Smith’s views, Harriet Martineau portrayed slavery as an economically disastrous system, explaining how everyone would profit if the slaves were freed . The advocates of emancipation presented it as furnishing an economic stimulus via market expansion, as the free worker was also a consumer – an abolitionist pamphlet published in Liverpool in 1828 argued that ‘the slaves in our West India islands, by being made free would not only raise more produce, but also consume much more of our manufactures’ . For his part, Thomas Clarkson rode 35,000 miles and boarded hundred of ships to gather evidence against slavery – he collected a lot of material, put in a specially made box (‘the Clarkson box’), in order to demonstrate the horrors of the practice, but also the skills of the Africans and the possibilities that existed for an alternative trading system . However, the Agency Committee refused to make a purely or predominantly economic argument against slavery, instructing its lecturers to make clear that the central objection to slavery was humanitarian and religious…show more content…
Facing this puzzle, some historians have made a distinction between mercantilist and industrial capitalism: the first one being in symbiosis with slavery, the other one being a stimulating context for antislavery . The Dutch case seems to confirm this thesis: in the mid-seventeenth century, at the time of Netherlands’ mercantilist growth, the Dutch West India Company was integrating Afro-Caribbean slavery into Holland’s economic empire and the Dutch industry attained a margin of superiority in the production of fabrics that was maintained until the eighteenth century – but at the time of the abolition campaigns in Britain, the antislavery voices in the Netherlands were ‘anaemic’, which can be read in conjunction with the fact that significant industrialisation came late to the Netherlands, long after industrial capitalist surges in Britain or France

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