3 minute read


Economic Ideas

Although religious ideas were important to abolitionism in the United States and Great Britain and for colonization, they were not as significant in South American, Latin American, and Caribbean abolitionism, which contained more economic and political ideas. This could be due to the fact that abolitionism operated in these regions within the colonial framework, and abolitionists were often fighting on several fronts—to achieve independence, achieve freedom for the slaves, and achieve citizenship and other rights for free people of African descent. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, abolitionism in Cuba and Puerto Rico was hampered by the civil war and the revolution in Spain. Abolitionists had to contend with the economic interests of Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico—mainly wealthy slave owners who were vehemently opposed to the abolition of slavery, especially in Cuba, which had a large slave population vital to its sugar industry in the western part of the island. Puerto Rico had a much smaller slave population, and by 1835 slavery was virtually nonexistent. In addition, the United States had significant economic investments that it wanted to protect in Cuba and Puerto Rico. But at the same time, there were American abolitionists who demanded an end to slavery in colonies controlled by Spain.

The debate among modern historians between the role of economics and the role of humanitarianism in abolishing slavery in British slaveholding colonies in the Caribbean was sparked by Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1944). According to Williams, capitalism, and not Christian humanitarianism, was the driving force to end slavery because the emerging capitalist system that evolved from the Industrial Revolution demanded free trade and more productive labor than slaves provided. Rational business practices were needed, including a literate workforce. The failing British West Indian plantation economies could not compete with industrial capitalism. This deviated sharply from the British imperial historiography that placed moral humanitarianism as the catalyst for abolitionism. However, Williams's analysis of abolitionism was subsequently rejected by several historians, most notably Roger Anstey and Seymour Drescher, who argued that slavery continued to be economically viable in the United States and Brazil, along with capitalism. They contended that in the late eighteenth century slavery and the slave trade were important to the British economy at the same time that abolitionism began. Still others have contended that abolitionism was a social movement that involved a variety of actors and organizations all grounded in the popular culture and trends of the time in their respective societies. Within the American context, this changing historiography over time includes: historians who supported the humanitarian view of abolitionists (that is, the belief that they were guided by moral and religious values); historians who downplayed the moral aspect and emphasized economic factors; historians who viewed abolitionists as one-sided fanatics who led the country into a needless civil war; and, during the 1960s, historians who again portrayed abolitionists in a more positive light as people who were committed to a just and social cause. Additionally, other scholars—most prominently W. E. B. Du Bois, Eugene Genovese, and Herbert Aptheker—have given agency to the slaves themselves in bringing about emancipation.

The idea of free labor was another economic idea behind abolitionism in the Caribbean, South America, and Latin America, primarily the commercialization of agriculture, which made slave labor economically outdated. The urban-based abolitionist movement in Brazil responded to economic changes that included greater integration into the global economy, an increase in the urban population, expansion of its infrastructure, and creation of new industries and businesses in both rural and urban areas. As a result of these changes, a more liberal form of economics developed that supported free labor instead of slave labor. Moreover, as people became urbanized, traveled outside the country, and learned more about world developments, the institution of slavery seemed backward and made Brazilians appear uncivilized and out of step with a world that was developing new ideas based on science and rationality. Abolitionism in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands did not mean immediate emancipation accompanied by full citizenship rights; rather, as outlined above, the practice of apprenticeships was employed to compensate slave owners. It was feared that ex-slaves would not be willing to work for wages, the economies would plummet, and a race war would ensue. The aim was to make a gradual transition from slavery to freedom that would not destabilize society.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: 1,2-dibromoethane to AdrenergicAbolitionism - Political Ideas, Colonization, Religious Ideas, Economic Ideas, Tactics, Organizations, And Individuals In The Americas