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Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

I had high hopes for Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean for a couple of reasons. It might help me develop a deeper understanding of the genocidal tendencies of Dutch and British colonialism I reviewed in a CounterPunch article about the ethnic cleansing of Munsee Indians from New York State in the 17thcentury. While Horne’s history is focused on slavery, there are frequent allusions to what he calls the “indigenes” or native peoples. Just as importantly, I expected it to be in line with his provocatively titled “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” that was a timely debunking of our Founding Father myths. Turning the clock back a century, this time around Horne zeros in on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that was glorious only to the slave-trading merchants of England and their colonial cohorts. For the indigenes or slaves who were victimized throughout the 17thcentury, there was no glory in being shot down by a musket.

My hopes were not only met, they were exceeded. Horne has written both a scholarly treatment enriched by primary sources excavated from archives three hundred years old but also a fierce polemic that hearkens back to those of CLR James and WEB Dubois. The end notes of “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” support some astonishing insights into the social reality of the emerging “revolutionary” North America. For example, in the penultimate chapter titled “The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688” (scare quotes were never more appropriate), Horne refers to a French Protestant exile remarking in 1687 that “there is not a house in Boston however small be its means that has not one or two” enslaved Africans, and even some that have five or six. The endnote reveals that this report originated in Box 19 of the Daniel Parrish Slavery Transcripts in the New York Historical Society. There are hundreds of such notations in Horne’s book, which attest to his perseverance in making the cruelty of the 17thcentury palpable. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, scholarship is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Buckets of sweat were probably accumulated in countless libraries and museums in the years it took to put together this groundbreaking text.

Horne’s debunking of the bourgeois-democratic revolution goes against the grain of 175 years of Marxist thinking. For many theorists overly influenced by the bourgeois historians that preceded Marx and Engels, there is a tendency to repeat the “stagist” conceptions that saw human history as an escalator leading upward to advanced civilizations. For Hegel, this was the Prussian state. For Marxists, especially those who read too much Darwin, the stages of past history always gave way to a more “enlightened” society with feudalism giving way to capitalism and capitalism giving way to socialism. Naturally, Great Britain and the United States were considered exemplars of such unimpeded progress, so much so that Communist Party leader Earl Browder proclaimed that Communism was Twentieth Century Americanism”. It took Howard Zinn and other revisionist historians of the 1960s to critically examine such a claim and Gerald Horne to put the final nail in its coffin.

Trotsky epitomized this facile understanding of 17thcentury history when he wrote: “If Lenin can be juxtaposed to anyone then it is not to Napoleon nor even less to Mussolini but to Cromwell and Robespierre. It can be with some justice said that Lenin is the proletarian twentieth-century Cromwell. Such a definition would at the same time be the highest compliment to the petty-bourgeois seventeenth-century Cromwell.”

Horne’s take on Cromwell is much more accurate. In overthrowing the crown, he helped to foster the growth of slavery and colonialism. While many historians have pointed out the scorched earth attack on Ireland carried out by Cromwell’s Roundheads, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism shines a light on the depravities visited on African slaves who were never entitled to “whiteness”. This was a gift to the Irish in a world where race would replace religion as a dividing line between the blessed and the damned.

Under Cromwell, England engaged in one war after another to dislodge the Spanish and Dutch from the Caribbean. If Barbados and Jamaica evoke ocean cruise commercials today, these islands were sources of capital in the 17th century, especially through the sugar plantations that had a symbiotic relationship to English colonies in the north. Like cotton’s role in the industrial revolution a hundred years later, sugar was essential to the mercantile capitalism of the 17th century. In the Cromwellian era, lasting from 1640 to 1660, British ships poured into the ports of Barbados and Jamaica to deliver slaves while the sugar cane they harvested was being turned into the commodities, including rum, so marketable in Boston, New York, and London.

To exploit the riches of the sugar colonies and the slave trade that made it possible, a trading monopoly called (without any irony) the Royal Adventurers of England was formed. As the East India Company was to the plunder of Asia, so was this intended to pick Africa apart like a vulture. Despite the Roundhead “revolution” against the Crown, royalist merchants were eager to rely on Cromwell’s military to dispose of Dutch and Spanish rivals in the Caribbean.

After Cromwell’s death, the monarchy was restored and fully committed to the mercantile capitalist agenda of the politicians it had once considered mortal enemies. In a partnership with the Royal Adventurers, King Charles II promised thirty acres to any aspiring colonist to help “settle” Barbados and Jamaica—a promise that was never kept to freed slaves in the South two hundred years later. New Englanders flocked to Barbados and Jamaica to take advantage of the offer. Between the two islands, Jamaica was much more attractive since Barbados had been wracked by slave uprisings small and large for decades. Some whites fled Barbados for the more tightly garrisoned Jamaica while others went to the mainland, especially South Carolina.

South Carolina epitomized the contradictions of the 17th century in which exemplars of the capitalist democratic republic regarded slavery as a property right won through Cromwell’s “revolution”. The Royal Adventurers of England had been transformed into the Royal African Company that retained its worst features. It was led by the Duke of York, whose name was bequeathed to the island called New Amsterdam seized from the Dutch earlier in the century. Among the chief investors in this trade monopoly was John Locke who served as the secretary to the board of governors in South Carolina.

He has been attributed as the author of the South Carolina constitution that stipulated: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.” Most scholars believe that Locke only served as a stenographer but there is no doubt that he considered chattel slavery to be permissible despite the case he made against slavery in the Second Treatise on Government, which was likely directed against the Ottoman Turks who were in the habit of enslaving whites. The late Ellen Meiksins Wood once described Locke as the quintessential philosopher of capitalism, a system she defined as based on free wage labor rather than forced labor. The evidence gathered together in “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” indicates that the 17thcentury was not exactly the great leap forward an escalator version of history is predicated on.

For Horne, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 was nothing less than the consolidation of a mercantile capitalism that allowed the United Kingdom to rule the world. Even if Parliament was preferable to absolutist rule by family dynasties, the costs imposed on Africans made the notion of unqualified “progress” sound hollow. In a century where the state power swung back and forth like a pendulum between merchant traders and the Crown, this was a moment when the pendulum was stuck in the middle. William and Mary became the monarchs but only as the first of the constitutional monarchies that have ruled until the present day.

From 1688, conflicts grew between the British slave-owners in Parliament and their counterparts in the New World until 1776 erupted. The slave traders in the colonies resented the power of the Royal African Company to dictate the terms of trade. These “free traders” were for open markets even if the commodity being bought and sold was unfree. In his characteristically biting prose, Horne describes the hardly glorious stakes being fought over:

Both sides could agree on the importance of enslaving Africans and the prosperity (for some) thereby generated; they just quarreled about who should be in control. One London propagandist in 1687 was gloating about the “growing greatness” of “distant colonies”; these territories had “already arrived” at a stature “so considerable” that it could easily “attract the emulation of the Neighbouring potentates. The “Golden Peru,” the pacesetter by some measures, was “hardly affording so great a treasure to the Catholick Crown, as these most flourishing plantations”—Barbados and Jamaica particularly—“produce to the Crown of England.”

That is, London had taken Jamaica in 1655 at a time when sugar began to boom, meaning a need for more Africans. By 1672 the Royal African Company had been organized to fill the breach, but in the following decade it was seen as inadequate to the task at hand. This meant deregulation of this hateful business, which meant reducing the powers of the Crown, which dominated the RAC. This blatant power and money grab by merchants was then dressed in the finery of liberty and freedom, as the bourgeois revolution was conceived in a crass and crude act of staggering hypocrisy, which nevertheless bamboozled generations to follow, including those who styled themselves as radical.

I am not exactly sure who Horne is referring to as bamboozled radicals but I will state that if you read The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean, you will be guaranteed to treat the term “bourgeois-democratic revolution” with the skepticism it deserves. As we plunge deeper into the netherworld of capitalism in its death throes, it will become clear that the only genuine revolution in human history will be the one we carry out to end class society and create a new one based on genuine respect for all human beings whatever their skin color, gender, sexual preference or ethnicity. The alternative is ruin.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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