As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. Demands for institutional divestiture of morally suspect assets, boycotts of goods from Goya beans to “blood diamonds,” and movements to promote ethically sourced consumer products from dolphin-safe tuna to fair-trade coffee, all have a long pedigree. Among the earliest expressions of American national identity was the 1765 nonimportation agreement among Boston merchants in response to British revenue acts, supported by boycotts of British goods by local households. And, starting in the late 18th century, antislavery activists in the Atlantic world urged consumers to refuse to buy products made with slave labor—primarily cotton cloth and sugar—to hasten the end of the international slave trade and ultimately slavery itself. Conscientious consumers flocked to free-labor goods and to such virtue-signaling items as emblazoned sugar bowls assuring guests that the content was “East India Sugar not made by Slaves.”
In “Not Made by Slaves,” Bronwen Everill, a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge, terms this movement “ethical capitalism” and places it in the context of the 18th-century global consumer revolution that put luxury goods in the hands of the many. The book offers an important contribution by emphasizing West Africa’s role in the trade network that linked producers, merchants and consumers around the world. Just as Western economies traded for tropical luxuries such as tea, coffee and sugar, sophisticated African markets exchanged a highly valued commodity—unfree labor—for French wines, East Indian cottons and British firearms. It was this complex global trading community that the abolitionists sought to reform and that they disrupted in ways both foreseen and unforeseen.
Ms. Everill’s account rests on a chain of related events. In the late 1700s, opposition to the slave trade grew as the world came to appreciate the horrors of the Middle Passage between Africa and America. In their efforts to suppress the trade, antislavery activists asked Atlantic consumers to boycott goods associated with slave labor. But for the boycott to be effective, consumers needed to be certain the goods they bought were ethically produced. Antislavery traders thus began to source free-labor goods and, in early branding efforts, to identify them with labels such as “made by escaped slaves,” spawning an ethical-goods economy. In a parallel development, West African Islamic jihadists attacked local consumption of luxury goods and the international slave trade that supported those tastes, eventually banning the sale of slaves to non-Islamic traders and organizing boycotts of European goods such as tobacco and alcohol.
Ms. Everill’s story is full of ironies and unintended consequences. Abolitionists attempted to broaden the boycott by persuading consumers that they would not have to give up luxuries such as sugar to express their antislavery commitment—that, in effect, they could have their cake and eat it too. The key was establishing public awareness that free labor was cheaper than slave labor, and that free-labor goods could be purchased at a price comparable to the same item produced by slave labor. To ensure profitablilty, “ethical” traders turned a blind eye to the conditions of labor and began to outsource production to regions where “free” workers were, in fact, indentured, enserfed or otherwise compelled. They ignored the indentured status of West Indian sugar workers, claimed that African slavery was more benign than New World slavery, and assumed there would be a virtuous cycle in which “free” laborers could buy the cheaper goods circulating in the world economy, eliminating the need for higher wages.
Not Made by Slaves
By Bronwen Everill
Harvard, 318 pages, $39.95
Echoing current critiques of globalization, Ms. Everill argues that Western capitalism’s search for the cheapest producer weakened local economies through overspecialization, disrupting regional manufacturing and labor markets. Political power within African states became unsettled and this, in turn, paved the way for European colonialism. In the United States, concern about overdependence on foreign products led to what Ms. Everill terms “ethnic economic nationalism.” New tariffs caused abolitionists to channel their purchases to free domestic sources, primarily white Southern farmers. American blacks strove to promote black economic interests by buying from black producers throughout the African diaspora.
As relevant as it may seem to today’s controversies, this is not a book for the nonspecialist. For one thing, it assumes a fair amount of background knowledge. For example, despite its reliance on the trading records of the abolitionist colonies in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the book provides little of their history and what it does provide is scattered throughout the text. Further, the book sometimes loses its way in a level of economic detail that might overwhelm the generalist. Before monetized currency, Ms. Everill tell us, African trade was effected in standard units called bars, trade ounces and ackies; these were translated into trade goods at fixed rates. The reader learns that the late-18th-century price for a slave girl in Accra was 4 ounces, 7 ackies, which translated into “1 anker Liquor, 1 Chintz, 14 Bll powder, 8on knives, 2on peter, 2 cases, 2 Romals, 1 Gun, 1 Brawl, 1on Tankard; Dashed 1 cotton”—but the author glosses none of these terms. Pages later, it turns out that a ton of rice in Freetown cost 100 bars, or “12 manchester bafts, 8 niccanees, 8 romals, 8 cushtoes, 4 photaes, 40 cloths, 100 pounds of tobacco” plus some iron and assorted gewgaws—more than 100 times the girl, who cost less than a bar, a fact left unremarked upon amid the welter of detail.
Impressive scholarship aside, the book is a difficult read. Sentences abound in appositional clauses, and verbs wander far afield from subjects. Paragraphs are studded with jargon and quotations from academics known only to other academics: “ ‘Reciprocal comparison,’ outlined by Kenneth Pomeranz and developed further by Gareth Austin, argues that we will decenter our understanding of the processes of modernity in the West by framing comparisons that do not assume Western experiences to be the standard against which other countries and regions are assessed.” Decentered or not, the patient reader of “Not Made by Slaves” will be rewarded with greater understanding of historical developments that changed the relationship between consumers and producers in a global economy in ways that reverberate to this day.
Ms. Arkin is a professor at Fordham University School of Law.
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