In their introduction to Slavery’s Capitalism, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman write that the accumulation of scholarship about early American economic development necessitates “a fundamental rethinking of American history itself” (2). And, for someone who works on the seventeenth-century Caribbean, those words nonetheless resonated with debates very current in my own field of research. In 2011 – the same year that the conference that resulted in Slavery’s Capitalism was held – Latin Americanist John Tutino declared that, “We face a fundamental rethinking of the rise of capitalism” in response to the work of individuals like Dennis Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and Kenneth Pomeranz. For Tutino, a global perspective on the development of capitalism amends the “enduring presumptions … that capitalism was Europe’s gift to the world,” and “historically antithetical” to places like Spanish America and the Caribbean. Beckert and Rockman recognize in their description of Dale Tomich’s “Second Slavery” the importance of new scholarship in “weaving together transnational and imperial frameworks, the history of capitalism, and the study of slavery as a profit-seeking enterprise” (11).
It was with this anticipation for the global and hemispheric implications of Slavery’s Capitalism that I read the book’s first part, “Plantation Technologies.” On the whole, the three chapters in this section justified my excitement going into them. Edward E. Baptist’s first chapter explores what he calls the “pushing system” on Southern cotton plantations, in which the application of “calibrated torture” on enslaved people explains the dramatic increase in cotton-picking efficiency in the first half of the nineteenth century. Caitlin Rosenthal’s contribution picks up on the same productivity increase, however she examines the practice of bookkeeping through pre-printed plantation account books to show how, “accounting practices knit innovation and violence together” (74). And Daniel B. Rood concludes the first part of the book with an essay that explores the Virginia McCormick reaper as “a Creole artifact, a tropical technology, and, more than anything, a product of Atlantic slavery,” despite the tendency to see that machinery as emblematic of American mid-western farmers and northern inventiveness in the second half of the century (87).
All three chapters have clear implications for scholars of slavery and capitalism beyond the borders of the United States, however historians interested in the global and the hemispheric will have to connect the dots themselves. In some respects this is completely understandable – after all the purpose of Slavery’s Capitalism is a rewriting of the economic history of the United States in the nineteenth century. However, each of these chapters hints at the ways in which the stories they tell are hemispheric in nature. Baptist compares the ability of enslaved people to negotiate spaces of autonomy in the task system of South Carolina to work in the boiling houses of Caribbean sugar plantations, while claiming that, “torture is not a word we use often in the study of slavery’s history…” (56). This despite the fact that some of best scholarship on slavery in the Caribbean, especially the work of Malick Ghachem, centers on the systematic application of torture on enslaved people. Even Rood’s chapter, which discusses the “counterintuitive connections between faraway places that shared a dedication to bondage: Richmond, Virginia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” through the exchange of flour from the former to the latter, spends little time explaining how Rio de Janeiro’s large enslaved population had any bearing on the practice of wheat farming in Virginia. After all, the high-quality wheat demanded in Rio fed the city’s wealthiest residents, which begs the question of why the economic connections Rood describes should be thought of as “counterintuitive” at all.
My Junto colleague, Tom Cutterham, opened this roundtable asking whether Slavery’s Capitalism should be seen as the beginning or the end of a long-standing conversation about the relationship between slavery and capitalism. I, for one, hope that this marks the opening salvo of scholarship that builds on these excellent chapters by making the hemispheric and global implications the center of analysis.
 John Tutino, Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
I really enjoy the broader connections… between Rio and Richmond for example. The United States does not develop in a vacuum…and it is refreshing to see the scholarship connect the world… history is the benefactor.
I agree and sincerely hope that more scholars will pick up on this work and make those connections more substantive.
I thought it was really interesting how the editors, in their introduction, do a lot to acknowledge this wider continental and hemispheric scholarship, including John Tutino’s work (pp. 8-9), but that they also make a clear argument for framing the book around the United States a few pages later.
“Writing the history of the United States, and writing the history of slavery into the center of the national narrative and not, as previously, relegating it to its margins, does not signify that global perspectives do not matter. Quite the contrary: both capitalism and slavery can be understood properly only from a global perspective. Yet their histories also unfolded within particular national spaces and were shaped by the specific distributions of social power and politics therein… States forged national political economies and provided the stage on which political conflicts unfolded. Slavery’s history, and thus slavery’s capitalism, rested on institutional arrangements, the outcome of political struggles and bureaucratic, administrative, legal, and infrastructural capacities that were defined, negotiated, and constructed within national political spaces” (p. 12).
Tom, I’m curious what you think about the ways in which the opening chapters (especially chapter three) then try to place the enslaved experience in a comparative and transnational frame.
You’re totally right, Daniel Rood’s chapter especially emphasises this “new Atlantic political economy linking slavery, mechanization, and middle-class consumption.” But I agree with your critiques — and ultimately, I think, we can see this chapter as more in a classic history of technology tradition than anything else. It does a great job of showing how “capitalist intensification” could apply under slavery (where in the old view, historians often emphasised extensive rather than intensive development). I think it makes that point more fully than the point about hemispheric connections.
I’m curious as to whether there’s a working definition of capitalism underlying this scholarship?
I think what we are seeing is the creation of a new historiographical paradigm concerning the relationship between capitalism and slavery. There have been attempts in the past to push the institution of slavery to center of United States history. I think this one will be more successful because of the institutional affiliations of the editors and authors. Beckert is at Harvard, Rockman is at Brown, and Baptist is at Cornell. Half of all tenured professors come from a handful of institutions, so it appears that their viewpoints will have a foothold among the upcoming historians
“I think what we are seeing is the creation of a new historiographical paradigm concerning the relationship between capitalism and slavery…I think this one will be more successful because of the institutional affiliations of the editors and authors.”
I’m not a specialist on this stuff, but I try to keep as informed as I can. I’ve given Baptist’s and Beckert’s books quick reads, as well as followed the debates and reviews here and elsewhere (for example, here: http://www.cliometrics.org/pdf/2016-assa/Olmstead-Rhode.pdf and here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-economic-history/article/the-half-has-never-been-told-slavery-and-the-making-of-american-capitalism-by-baptist-edward-e-new-york-basic-books-2014-pp-xxvii-498-3500-cloth/427A1036B912359C1B5B53A5E7273CC0).
To your point about a paradigm shift: to the extent that you are correct, it seems from my outsider’s perspective that the “New History of Capitalism” historians mostly decline to answer their critics head-on. And many non-specialists seem to simply choose the “New History” over the alternatives because they like how it can be deployed, not because they disagree with, or even understand the criticisms. I’m open to being wrong about this, but to this point this is how it looks to me.