Capitalism, Slavery, and Economic White Supremacy

By October 21, 2020Editors' Choice
Slave Auction

By Calvin Schermerhorn —

What is at stake when we talk about the economics of North American slavery? Over the last 75+ years it has been whether capitalism superseded slavery or whether capitalism and slavery were co-constituted, capitalism to some extent relying on slavery. Part of that discussion has been theoretical and part hinges on whether the exploitation of African-descended Americans is an incidental or an essential part of the economies of English and British North America and the United States over the last four centuries.

To get some perspective, I’d like to look at a sliver of that history and sketch some of its legacies. The 1655 voyage of the slave ship Witte Paard and its aftermath could help bring into focus some of the issues in the ongoing debate over capitalism and slavery. Rather than a discussion of capitalism as an economic system, I’d like to suggest viewing the relationship between forms of capitalism and slavery in terms of economic white supremacy. That is, a sustained yet protean process of disinheriting, dispossessing, and decapitalizing African-descended people. This isn’t a shift in understanding so much as perspective. Where one sits facing a disciplinary, geographic, or chronological boundary tends to influence where one stands on the relationship of slavery to capitalism and the ramifications of those processes.

Sometime in late 1654 or early 1655, Antonio—a Kikongo or Kimbundu speaker—was captured and forcibly transported to the slaving port of Loango in present-day Republic of the Congo. He joined thousands incarcerated in squalid and cramped sites near the harbor. Antonio did not know it, but in 1654, two Dutch merchants had secured permission from the Dutch West India Company (GWC) to sail the Witte Paard (“White Horse”) from Texel to southwestern Africa and buy “Slaves” to sell in New Amsterdam. Records don’t reveal how Antonio, among 455 Angolan and Kongolese captives taken out into the harbor, responded to the sight of the Witte Paard anchored off Loango in the spring of 1655. Did they see it as a floating engine of capitalism? Or a vessel of degradation, suffering, loss, and death?

Before boarding, captors branded each with a red-hot iron, burning a customs stamp on the right breast or shoulder. As the ship sailed across the equator, Antonio and the other captives were probably unaware that Chesapeake tobacco planters had already applied for a share of the human cargo. One in seven died on the months-long passage that brought the survivors to Manhattan, residents complaining of the vessel’s stench filling the harbor.

Antonio languished in a New Amsterdam jail until Symon Overzee, a Maryland planter from a wealthy Rotterdam family, showed up to purchase him. It probably mattered less to Antonio whether Overzee’s economic strategy was capitalistic than the political and social framework that allowed him to claim the fruits of Antonio’s unpaid labor. Overzee took him back to Saint Mary’s City, and when Antonio refused to work as instructed Overzee tortured and murdered him. (You can visit the St. John’s site where it happened.) A Maryland court later acquitted Overzee, sanctioning the violent domination and destruction of Black bound workers. Back in New Amsterdam, other captives had remained incarcerated through the winter as Chesapeake planters showed up to buy them.

Edmund Scarburgh (or Scarborough) of Virginia’s Eastern Shore paid for 41 captives from the Witte Paard early in 1656, fulfilling an obligation he’d made in advance to buy a portion of the human cargo. Virginians like him defied the English Parliament’s 1651 Navigation Act requiring them to ship commodities on English vessels, preferring the reliability of Dutch ships and higher prices for their tobacco in Rotterdam via New Amsterdam than in England. “Colonel” Scarburgh was a thirty-eight-year-old planter and merchant whose diversified enterprise included a fleet of ships, a salt works, malt house, shoe factory, warehouse, an extensive herd of livestock, and tens of thousands of acres worked by scores of bound laborers, mainly English indentured servants.

He had used family wealth in England—his brother would be court physician to King Charles II—as startup capital in Virginia, paying for headrights (good for 50 acres each) and now enslaved people whom he identified as Angolans. His economic power supported his political ambitions, and he served as speaker of the Virginia assembly and surveyor general of the colony, along with other posts. He embodied the swaggering ambition of the English colonial project. And its racial bigotry. In 1651, Scarburgh had led a private militia to kill the king of the Pocomoke people and in the process massacred Accomacs in a bid to aggrandize land. The king survived. Virginia prosecuted him for the attack, but Scarburgh was too powerful to convict.

Scarburgh’s career seems at first blush like a prelude to what Sven Beckert terms “war capitalism” and an embryonic form of what Walter Johnson terms “slave racial capitalism,” while Antonio’s response to Overzee’s demands illustrates an early assertion of what Daina Ramey Berry calls “soul values.” Scarburgh’s career illustrates what S. D. Smith terms “gentry capitalism,” in a Virginia idiom. But it was also part of a move to support the growth of white wealth by stealing the work product of African-descended people.

Having assembled a bound labor force of Angolans, one of the largest of its kind in Virginia, Scarburgh disembarked 41 survivors of the Witte Paard in Northampton County. He put a number to work in his salt works and claimed all of them as headrights worth 2,050 acres he put in the names of his daughters Matilda and Tabitha. Angolan bodies were at work building intergenerational wealth strategies for the whites who claimed to own them. And in bringing Angolans to labor for an indefinite period in Virginia, Scarburgh prefigured later planters’ reliance on African-descended enslaved laborers to make their crops and grow their fortunes. It “was the moment when the Chesapeake tobacco plantations began replacing British indentured servants with African slaves,” argues Rik Van Welie. Less than a decade later, the Virginia assembly started codifying slavery as a condition inherited through maternity. Survivors of the Witte Paard and slave ships like it—along with their maternal descendants—would be denied the opportunity to earn income and build wealth in the Chesapeake.

The Witte Paard slaving voyage and its aftermath relied on the confidence of those who invested in slaving voyages or bought captives. It relied too on a technology of race, to use a concept elaborated by scholars including Edward B. Rugemer, that made Angolans into “Negroes” as bound workers and property in North America. It may have been a moment in which slavery and capitalism were co-creative, the confidence that lent credit to Scarburgh’s enterprises being as strong as the commitment to hold African-descended people in slavery for life and transfer that status to the children of enslaved mothers. Scarburgh was an early adopter, and fellow planters were soon clamoring for more enslaved workers.

The economic history of the colonial Chesapeake is broad and deep, its foundations laid by Lorena S. Walsh, Russell R. Menard, John J. McCusker, Allan Kulikoff, Gloria L. Main, Paul A. Shackel, and many, many others, who generally agree that planters plowed resources into headrights and livestock in order to generate returns managed by and for households. Scholars from Edmund Morgan and Ira Berlin to Anthony S. Parent, Jr. have analyzed the shift to slave labor in the Chesapeake as the tobacco economy matured. It was a backwater of the larger commodity complex described by Sidney W. MintzMarcy Norton, and others, but Scarburgh’s participation in a knowledge economy linking his Virginia technologies to New Amsterdam and Dutch markets and resources seems to resonate with Joel Mokyr’s contentions regarding modern economic growth.

Yet markets and information about them were unsteady and unreliable. Tobacco prices fluctuated, and the business cycle was about as short as the tragically brief marriages and lifespans that characterized the era. Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson’s magisterial Unequal Gains argues that the Chesapeake and South in general was the home of high incomes and relative equality compared with England, Holland, and even other parts of English America in the seventeenth century. Enslaved people or “slaves,” they argue, “had higher living standards than did the poorest in England,” even if the English poor were less and less likely to risk death in Virginia as bound laborers. If growth seemed slow it was because colonists were having so many babies who needed care. Economically speaking, Scarburgh and his fellow colonists must have been seizing opportunities and managing resources well. But there was another process that pervaded Scarburgh’s strategy.

Scarburgh’s enslavement of the Witte Paard captives imperiled Black Virginia landowners like Mary and Antonio or Anthony Johnson and their sons John and Richard. The elder Johnsons were Angolans who’d arrived as captives in the 1620s, working their way out of bondage and up the social ladder. In 1656, John and Richard Johnson, together with their parents, owned 1,000 acres in Northampton and (the future) Accomack counties. In 1652, Scarburgh had backed John Johnson in a real estate dispute with a white man (if only to get back at someone who’d prosecuted him for attacking Accomac and Pocomoke people). Scarburgh served as a bank for two indentured servants who bought 200 acres of Anthony Johnson’s land in 1665.

But as Scarburgh and other planters opted for enslaved Angolans, they drove out Black competitors. He cheated Anthony Johnson out of a payment for that land sale in 1667 with a letter he forged saying the Johnsons owed him a debt. From his new home in Maryland, Anthony Johnson declined to sue Scarburgh. And after Johnson died in 1670, the county escheater ruled twice in two weeks to strip the Johnson family’s claim to their Virginia lands because he had been “a Negroe and by consequence an alien,” kicking Richard Johnson and his family off the estate—a highly unusual move. (Scarburgh died without a will in 1671, but no one confiscated his wealth.)

The Witte Paard captives were never permitted opportunities to become property owners, and the Johnsons were pushed to the margins of Chesapeake society. In 1655 they were planters in Virginia. By 1665, most of the family had left for Somerset County, Maryland, where Scarburgh couldn’t cheat them. By the next generation they had moved to Angola Neck, Delaware, and by the fourth generation they were scattered down the coast as far as North Carolina.

For both free and enslaved African-descended Americans, an economic system founded on the theft of Black work product and Black wealth never gave up stealing. There is a deep historical literature on the process by scholars such as Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, and many others including Cedric Robinson. Even in places in which slavery was marginal or abolished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, racism and denial of Black economic opportunity didn’t un-follow slavery.

Two centuries after the Witte Paard captives arrived in Virginia, the complex that became the American South was reliant on expropriating value from enslaved workers. From the perspective of enslaved people, that theft was relentless. Over the last forty years, scholars from Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, Larry Neal, James Marketti to Mary Frances Berry and Thomas Creamer have attempted to understand and estimate the value of stolen labor value of United States slavery, ranging from $5.9 trillion ($2009) to $19 trillion—and some estimates are higher.

Yet those estimates and their significance have not generally been integrated into analyses of slavery’s capitalism. What would it mean if we focused on lost income and wealth in econometric debates such as those featuring Alan Olmstead, Paul Rhode, and Edward E. Baptist? What is owed to the descendants of those tortured and robbed of their labor value?

Whatever the answer, it seems that capitalism and slavery grew together and grew apart. Varieties of capitalism aren’t always apparent in the view from above or below. Those who investigate connections among capitalist development and the history of racial slavery in North American contexts might well take a page from scholars of religious pluralism. Pluralism goes beyond a recognition of diversity of religious traditions to comprehend commonalities. The Pluralism Project, for instance, is an interfaith effort to understand and engage across exoteric traditions.

If we attempt a similar exercise with historical capitalism, we might glimpse continuities that show disagreements more in terms of perspectives than incommensurable paradigms. Subregions of the South had interlocking but differing economies. Capitalism on the ground looks different than capitalism as an economic system. Treat capitalism as a sectarian process with a clear orthodoxy, and the church of capitalism has few members. Treat it as a sprawling tent, and it may be so broad as to include everything in a marketplace.

Those who identify with the history of capitalism tend to be in the latter camp. Two centuries after the Witte Paard captives arrived, Chesapeake enslavers captured some of that money when they sold descendants of those African arrivals—and the tens of thousands who followed—to other regions of the South. New York merchants, bankers, and shippers provided logistics and financial services essential to commodity chains. My work along with studies by Joshua D. RothmanKathryn BoodryCaitlin RosenthalDaniel Rood, and others argues that enslavers were innovators in finance, management, and technology. In the 1830s, for instance, the financial integration of the North Atlantic was accomplished through a credit system linked to slavery.

Econometric historians investigating agricultural enterprises using enslaved people have long established that enslavers’ coercion of African-descended bondspersons paid big returns on investments, even if in the broader frame the plantation economy of the antebellum South was constrained by capital sunk in lands and bondspersons, characterized by violent labor relations, anticompetitive practices, and devaluing of free labor—what critics call “low-road capitalism.” That general understanding emerged in—and is contested by–an extraordinarily rich body of foundational scholarship by Claudia Goldin, Gavin Wright, Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, Ransom and Sutch, Ralph V. Anderson, Fred Bateman, Heywood Fleisig, Robert E. Gallman, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Robert A. Margo, Donald Schaefer, Mark DSchmitzRichard H. Steckel, and Thomas Weiss, among many others.

Cotton and other commodities traveled from sites of oppressive production to capitalist enterprises that spun, wove, or otherwise added value, and from which enslavers drew inputs that they sunk into violent enterprises that were ultimately economic dead ends. John Majewski, for instance, points to “Schumpeterian capitalism” in areas of the nineteenth-century United States where free labor predominated, contrasting it with slavery’s capitalism, while Keri Leigh Merritt has documented the price paid by laboring whites in the South for the violent coercion of African-descended Americans. But this didn’t mean that Schumpeterian capitalism was like oil and water with slave-racial capitalism.

Seth Rockman’s research has demonstrated that Schumpeterians shook hands with enslavers, harnessing the creativity supposedly born of an entrepreneurial capitalism to the imperatives of slavery’s capitalism. Massachusetts’s Blackstone Valley thrived on manufacturing slave-made cotton. Justene Hill Edwards’s forthcoming book Black Markets details how enslaved people as petty capitalists developed strategies that both held out the prospect of capturing some of the income they generated while enslavers reinforced their own interests in race-based slavery. Alexandra J. Finley’s new book and Stephanie Rogers Jones’s study of female enslavers broaden the categories as they demand we look outside the cathedrals of one operating paradigm or another.

And if North American slavery’s capitalism seems to have come to a screeching halt with the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s also true that economic structures shaped by racial disadvantages did not come completely undone with the disappearance of chattel slavery. Put another way, if David Brion Davis’s contention that “that racial exploitation and racial conflict have been part of the DNA of American culture” is correct, then that DNA seems to have replicated and mutated to adapt to the postwar and Reconstruction economies. Freedom came in the context of near zero wealth among formerly enslaved people, and income gains arrived in the context of a punishing economy for southern workers generally. Violent white supremacy worked against Black economic aspirations in a system that in many ways mimicked slavery.

Ten generations after the Witte Paard captives were enslaved in Virginia, their descendants were finally free. Yet the system that stole two centuries of income and wealth (not to mention health, dignity, civil rights, and even children) did not stop the plunder. W. E. B. Du Bois contended 85 years ago, “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” The momentum of generations of institutionalized theft did not halt when chattel slavery ended. Enslavers’ children quickly recovered their family’s lost wealth, according to Philipp Ager, Leah Boustan, and Katherine Eriksson. But Black families did not get a fair shot at economic advancement. Sharecropping and violent anti-labor-organizing dovetailed with convict labor practices explored by Talitha L. LeFlouria and Douglas Blackmon among others. A Jim Crow labor regime that prefigured neoliberal sunbelt capitalism was partly what attracted industries to the South (and still does). Black families in the upper South had high rates of property ownership by 1900, but scholars including Andrew Kahrl and Pete Daniel have detailed the countervailing process of stripping Black land, a process that continues in places like Hog Hammock, Georgia.

Sequella to slavery’s economic destruction included a dialectical process of economic white supremacy that was nimble and protean. Each time African-descended Americans surmounted one obstacle to economic disadvantage, another one appeared. Black Americans fled the South but were subject to predatory lending, redlining, and exclusion from unions. Managed capitalism made social insurance a racial right rather than a civil right. The great compression or “great exception” of the mid-twentieth century provided upward-moving escalators for many, but by the time Black Americans got on them they tended to descend. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor terms this predatory inclusion. Remarketized capitalism after 1973 paid workers diminishing returns, and the policies of the 1980s tended to exacerbate racial inequality.

Today, the typical Black family owns 10 cents on the dollar compared to the typical white family, five decades after legal discrimination ended and eight generations after slavery was abolished. The wealth gap is growing, as is the racial wage gap. As Destin Jenkins points out, each time we peel back the layers of time, the yawning gap in income and wealth is still present, though its causes are not immediately apparent. In her study of segregated financial systems, Mehrsa Baradaran points to the fact that Black Americans owned 0.5 percent of national wealth in the mid-1860s and just about 1.5 percent today, despite being a similar proportion of the population. Stratification economists such as William S. Darity and Darrick Hamilton analyze the process with a view to policy solutions.

And over three and a half centuries after the Witte Paard voyage, there seem to be pronounced continuities between racial disadvantage as it formed in the seventeenth century as race-based slavery took shape within a gathering process of capitalist development and what some call “the road to zero wealth” for African-descended families in the United States today. The debate over capitalism and slavery might well take as its anthem Ta-Nehisi Coates’s contention that “The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

Source: Calvin Schermerhorn

About the author: Calvin Schermerhorn is a professor of history at Arizona State University and author most recently of Unrequited Toil: A History of United States Slavery.


About IBW21

IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.