Free Trade

Economists consider free trade as the corner-stone of capitalism.  Free trade was not born overnight, it developed in fits and starts. The state and trading companies were major players in the development of capitalism.  Before the British state fully developed, trading companies protected English and expansion.  For free trade capitalism to work, it needed a strong state-a state capable of protecting its merchants.[1]  This is the irony of free trade.  Laissez Faire is a “policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering.”  Capitalism, however, requires a strong state, willing to open markets, and protect businesses.  Imperialism allowed Britain to grow economically.  The U.S. followed in its foot-steps, but more as an informal empire than an imperialist entity.  

The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, a regulated company, offers insight into the role of the state in global trade.  It marked the slow transference from corporate trading to free trade protected by the state.  Designed to protect free trade, the CMTA managed trading post on the African shore for the English/ African slave trade.  However, do to corruption and mismanagement, the English state stepped in and sent its military to protect newly acquired trading post from France in Senegal.  This reveals an early stepping stone future state’s role in free trade capitalism.

Within the past two years historians interested in the British Atlantic Empire have urged scholars to reassess scholarly understanding of mercantilism – for instance, 2012, a forum led by historian Steve Pincus’ “Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in the William and Mary Quarterlyand in 2013, Philip Stern and Carl Wennerlind edited Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire.  In these works, historians debated on whether “mercantilism” should still be used as a blanket term for explaining pre-modern economic thought.  Pincus reminded scholars that our present day understanding of “mercantilism” relies on the writings of Adam Smith, who did not look favorably at economic theories before his own work.[2]  Pincus argued that “the mercantilist age ‘between the Middle Ages and the age of laissez-faire’ was much more than merely a descriptive shorthand for a bundle of centuries.”[3]  Scholars using mercantilism to describe pre-modern economic thought emphasized the role of a strong state in organizing a nation’s trade.  States, such as Britain, preferred the use of monopolies or regulated companies to conduct trade rather than individual merchants.  Historians, such as Bernard Simmell, used mercantilism as the antithesis of free trade to explain that modern or classical economics began in the mid 18thcentury around the time of Adam Smith.  But works like Simmell’s The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism: Classical Political Economy the Empire of Free Trade and Imperialism 1750 – 1850 (1970) fail to explain earlier works by merchants such as John Cary from Bristol, who advocated free trade in the 1690s.[4]  Nor do the dates, used by Simmell and others, reflect public and political debates happening in the 1690s, when England entered an unprecedented era of free trade with Africa for slaves.[5] In the wake of social and cultural histories in the 80s and 90s, notions of a strong centralized British state no longer suffice to explain mercantilist policies. For instance, historian Michael Braddick argued that the British state did not emerge from London as a strong fiscal military institution, but instead, the state formed through negotiations between provinces and merchants.  In Cathy Matson’s response to Pincus’ essay, she urges that historians to focus on the diversity of economic theories and policies, which might reflect instances of both mercantilist, such as the zero-sum game, etc., and free trade concepts.[6]  In other words mercantilism and free trade existed side by side.

During the initial stages of overseas exploration, trade, and colonization, England outsourced the expansion of Empire to corporations.[7]For instance, the British Crown issued monopoly charters to the East Indian Company, in 1600, and the Royal African Company, in 1672, giving these companies the sole right to trade in their respective areas of commerce.  The companies provided their own means of governing and even military support.  For instance, During the RAC’s monopoly, they built several forts (trading posts) on the African shore-primarily on the Gold Coast as gold was the original reason England started trade with Africa. The RAC believed these trading forts signified English presence on the coast to deter foreign competition-even though the Dutch also had forts.   One of the stipulations of a monopoly charter was to promote and defend national interests.[8]  Companies absorbed the costs of expansion and provided efficient administrative networks in their respective area of influence.  The early modern English state, according to historians, was too weak and poor to finance the expansion, defense, and government of Empire.[9]

In 1696, William and Mary opened the slave trade to free trade. Historian William Pettigrew, in “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of the Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714” and Freedom’s Debt: the Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (2013), argued that modern concept of free trade emerged from debates between the Royal African Company (hereafter RAC) and individual merchants trying to gain access to the African slave trade beginning in the 1690.[10]The old ways of imperial expansion e.g. by using corporations and monopolies proved unable to meet the demands of a commercial empire.[11] 

The slave trade grew exponentially after the opening of free trade as the African coast was inundated with individual merchants.  After the state opened free trade with Africa, it agreed with the RAC that the forts acted as important ‘signs of possession,’ and provided the RAC compensation for managing the forts.  However, unable to compete with free traders, the RAC closed its door in 1750.  The state wanted to keep the forts to protect trade, but they were not sure how to do it.  Britons debated over whether a joint-stock company or the government itself should manage the forts.  Having just defeated the RAC, individual merchants vehemently opposed the idea of a joint-stock company managing the forts, but merchants also distrusted the government.[12]Parliament and merchants compromised and created the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa (hereafter CMTA), a regulated company.  Historian Judith William Blow considered the CMTA as an experiment to protect free trade, because it was not a trading corporation nor was it part of the state.  Contemporaries believed the state did not know about trade and thus should not be involved.[13]    The state financed the CMTA with an annual stipend and fees charged to merchants for using the trading post.  The sole job of the company was to protect and facilitate trade.  The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa was prohibited from trading i.e. competing with individual merchants.  

Despite these prohibitions, mismanagement of employees pay and the power structure between the Fante (African merchants) and English merchants caused havoc on the coast. For instance, the CMTA’s governing council provided employees with goods, which they were supposed to trade with the Fante for their income, but the goods were not always in demand, thus leaving employees without pay and sometimes without food.  The governing council also provided employees with means to procure slaves to provide individual merchants on the coast, but employees often sold the slaves for their own income and profit, thereby competing with individual merchants.  After several cases of company chiefs competing with merchants and major corruption, the company came under investigation.  Nothing came of the investigations, but company employees continued to trade off the coast.

After the Seven Years War, England acquired a French trading post in Senegal.  At first, the state granted the CMTA with a contract to govern the post, but through an influx of bad press and negative public scrutiny of the company the state revoked the contract and sent the British military to occupy and manage the fort.  This marked the first time the British military entered Africa and occupied territory.  Before the end of the 19th century.  The job of the military was to protect free trade, thereby serving as a precursor to the future of the British Empire and state’s overall role in free trade capitalism.

Another, not well known, example occurred in Senegal, Africa after the Seven Years War.  The British state sent troops to protect trading posts from the French.  Up until the Seven Years War, the defense of these posts was outsourced to corporations: first the Royal African Company, then the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa.  

The CMTA put in a bid to protect the Senegal trading post, but after a year public doubt over the competence of the CMTA lead King George III to revoke their charter.  While the CMTA certainly had its fair share of corrupt employees, the company’s inadequacies were the result of African politics and misinformation about the company’s behavior on the African coast.

In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith deals with the problems of the CMTA specifically.  He agreed with Sir Josiah Child that regulated companies provided invaluable services, but they had not been used in foreign trade before the CMTA.  Regulated companies, such as the CMTA, did not have adequate access to funds to provide the required oversight.  The payment method of the CMTA, also, created an incentive for employees to trade for their own gain and sustenance, thereby creating competition with private merchants. This combination, for Smtih, spelled disaster.  

Several British businessmen proposed that the Senegalese post should be protected by a joint-stock company, but the public was aware that this would simply create a monopoly on the trade.  The age of monopolies were in question.  And the CMTA, with its mismanagement, was beginning to operate like a monopoly. The only way to protect free trade would be through state involvement in trade.  And that is what King George III did.  In 1765, he revoked the CMTA’s charter to oversee the Senegal fort and placed it under direct supervision of the state, sending soldiers to Africa for the first time—before the late 19thcentury.[14]  

Although this aspect of the slave trade has largely been overlooked, it marks an era when the role of companies, traders, and the state were changing.  Free trade could only grow in proportion to the state’s ability to involve itself in overseas trade and protection—whether as a formal or informal Empire.  Free trade and laissez faire, contrary to what modern contemporaries might suggest, are dependent upon the state, just as states were once dependent on corporations.

                                                                                    –Todd Burst


[1]It also required a state to implement protectionists policies so that domestic industries could achieve a competitive edge.

[2]Steve Pincus, “Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The William and Mary Quarterly69, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 3.

[3]Ibid., 5.

[4]John Cary, A Discourse on Trade: And Other Matters Relative to It(T. Osborne, 1745).

[5]William A. Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752(UNC Press Books, 2013); William A. Pettigrew, “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714,” The William and Mary Quarterly64, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 3–38.

[6]Michael Braddick, “State Formation and Social Change in Early Modern England: A Problem Stated and Approaches Suggested,” Social History16, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 1–17; Michael J. Braddick, “The Early Modern English State and the Question of Differentiation, from 1550 to 1700,” Comparative Studies in Society and History38, no. 1 (January 1, 1996): 92–111; Michael J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, C.1550-1700(Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[7]Philip J Stern, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3; Philip Stern does not use the term outsource. His works indicated that early trading companies functioned as “company-states.  He defines Britain’s early political landscape as “an early modern world filled with a variety of corporate bodies politic and hyphenated, hybrid, overlapping, and composite forms of sovereignty.”; Stern’s work draws on revisionary histories of the development of the British state that have been occurring over the past two decades, most notably Michael Braddick’s State Formation in Early Modern England, c. 1550-1700(2000).

[8][As the works of Philip Stern on the East India Company have argued, company-states were often more organized and better able to govern because companies developed administrative institutions, which were too expensive for the contemporary British state.]

[9]Michael J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, C.1550-1700(Cambridge University Press, 2000); Michael Braddick, “State Formation and Social Change in Early Modern England: A Problem Stated and Approaches Suggested,” Social History16, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 1–17; David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, “Introduction,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, Second Edition. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 1–29.

[10]Pettigrew, “Free to Enslave,” 3, 5–7.

[11]K. G. Davies, The Royal African Company, by K. G. Davies(Longmans, Green and C°, 1957)?.

[12]Judith Blow Williams, “The Development of British Trade with West Africa, 1750 to 1850,” Political Science Quarterly50, no. 2 (June 1, 1935): 194–213.

[13]Ibid.

[14](5.Geo.III.20), (5. Geo.III.44)

The Autocracy ​​of ReASoN and WESTERN CIVILIZATION

The U.S. Constitution was the result of the European Enlightenment.  Capitalism, as understood by Smith, also resulted from the Enlightenment. At the center of political and economic liberalism lies Reason, without it, neither capitalism nor democracy will work—at least not according to how it was supposed to work.  Reason, as understood by Enlightenment thinkers is gone, but its institutions remain.  The American Empire is the result of political and economic practices that have outlived their guiding principal—Reaso

According to philosopher Jürgen Habermas, writing several decades ago, we are still participating in the Enlightenment Project e.g. modernity, which began in the eighteenth century by thinkers who wanted to “to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic.”  Working together, Enlightenment thinkers would use science and reason to “accumulate knowledge…for the pursuit of human emancipation and the enrichment of daily life.” Scientific thought and reason would allow people to be free from scarcity, free from dogmas, free from tyranny, superstition, and other factors that impinge human liberation.  Peter Hamilton, writing in the Formations of Modernity (1992) defines Reason as “a faculty which allows the person to make informed decisions between good/ bad or right/ wrong.”

With the use of Reason, there is only one outcome or one True answer to a problem. The right answer is usually the answer dictated by Europeans who allegedly used REASON to obtain their conclusion.  And the right answer will always prove itself—someway, somehow.  This is why democracy and free-market capitalism rely on Reason because the True will reveal itself and silence any dissent, because dissent would be based on false reasoning.  Alexander Hamilton, a federalist, like his peers, distrusted democracy because they knew that the public often believed in false news, rumors, hysteria, etc.  If the public were allowed to vote, which they were not, it could lead to utter ruin. Therefore, Hamilton suggested that the founders create an Electoral College to oversee democracy in case the public gets it wrong.  As we know in the U.S. electors’ votes trump the popular vote.

Electors were to be men of education, men with the capability of using Reason instead of giving into emotions or hysteria. It was not the job of electors to represent the populace; it was their job to be white, male, property owners, who were smarter than the public.  

To use Reason appropriately, a person needs information—accurate information—without which a person would be unable to make an informed decision guided by the light of Reason.  Imagine the quality of the previous presidential debates.  Political figures work hard NOT to answer questions. Moderators ask questions that cannot be answered in a fifteen second window of time.  And if they do—we probably shouldn’t vote for them.

The role of accurate information is also important in capitalism.  In the same way that a person makes the Right decision for president given the facts at their disposal, they do likewise when purchasing goods.  According to the self-interest modal, the individual know what is best for her. People, using Reason, will buy only what they need or want.  Producers will note the people’s demand, shift their production to meet demand, compete with each other, and produce a superior product that people want—all the time Reason is the driving force behind the decisions consumers and producers make.           

But imagine a world, where producers create demand.  Imagine a world where Reason doesn’t exist, where the ‘best’ possible choice of products is determined by an aura of hyper-reality.  This is capitalism today.  We could even go so far as to say that producers have hegemony over demand. 

Free Trade, Corporatism, and the State in The English/ African Slave Trade

18th century public and political debates between British merchants over the “state of the African trade” not only contributed to modern economic theory, but also helped set the standard for the roles, expectations, and relations between private merchants, corporations, and the state in Britain’s expanding Empire. 

Historian William Pettigrew recently argued that the modern liberal notion of free trade, often associated laissez faire capitalism, emerged in the late 17th century as a rallying cry for private English merchants to trade with Africa for slaves. Prior to debates over free trade, the Royal African Company held a monopoly on the African trade through the royal patronage of King Charles II. But after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, parliament overthrew the previous Stuart lineage and invited William and Mary to rule England. Britons argued that because King Charles II granted the monopoly without consulting, the monopoly was not only illegal, but an infringement on the natural liberties of free Englishmen to trade with Africa for slaves. The Royal African Company tried to compete with private traders, but according Davis (the prominent RAC historian), the RAC was unable to compete because the company had to provide governance and maintenance for a series of company trading post along the African coast. Parliament, however, recognized the importance of the trading establishments during the initial debates between private merchants and the RAC, deciding that the establishments were important signs of possession on the coast (the signs of possession were most likely for Britain’s European rivalries; Britain did not own the establishments, instead the company rented the land from the local community). Because of this importance, Parliament awarded the RAC a yearly stipend for the maintenance of the forts, parliament acquired this stipend through a ten percent tax levied on individual traders. But the RAC still complained that the stipend was not enough and that they could not compete with individual traders. In 1750, the RAC fell into bankruptcy, closed its doors and the establishments became the subject of heated debates in the halls of Westminster and even in the public press as merchants, rhetoricians, officials, etc. weighed in on the debate. 

Up until the middle of the 18th century (a even beyond), England expanded through the use of corporations. According to recent revisions on the early modern English state, historians such as Michael Braddick argued that the English state was relatively weak well into the 18th century and that the state consolidated control of the outer English provinces, generally, through compromises and cooperation with provincial leaders. Another historian, Philip Stern, who focuses on the British East India Company argued that the EIC operated like a company state, meaning that it was well organized, efficient, provided its own military support, incurred its own costs, etc. Early companies, especially monopolies, expanded the frontiers of the Empire and served as a model for proper and efficient governing (not all the time). But after the Glorious Revolution, the state became more efficient at collecting taxes and began to expand, most likely in part because parliament controlled the purse-strings and held sway in decisions concerning trade. 

At first, private trade (or free trade) seemed like a horrible idea to the old mercantilist vanguard. Author Aphra Behn captured aristocratic fears of opening trade to any free Englishmen. Not all Englishmen, Behn argued in Oroonoko, were honorable. In fact, she considered many Englishmen as scoundrels. In her book Oroonoko, a Coromantyn Prince (Oroonoko) and his wife (Imoinda) were kidnapped from the African coast and sold into slavery. They were sold into slavery by an honor less Englishmen. For Behn, the honor less Englishmen were commoners, nor aristocrats, etc. Although mercantilist and “company men” feared that Englishmen would ruin the trade by kidnapping royalty in Africa (which they did), these men were concerned not only with the conduct of Englishmen, but also the protection of the African trade from rival Europeans — the French. Companies, too, were hierarchical meaning that the commands of the Crown could be communicated through the ranks of a company and the company would be more likely to carry out directives from Westminster. As mentioned above, companies such as the RAC and EIC provided military support and protection for English interest (loosely defined). Individual private traders could not offer the same support and protection for the nation. Critics of free trade even went so far as to suggest that free traders would probably aid England’s enemies. 

Critics of free trade also accused individual merchants of putting their own interest before the interest of the nation, thereby accusing individual merchants of a serious moral violation that could inevitably affect the whole country. But towards the middle of the 18th century, support for ideas such as natural order and self-interest gained popularity. These ideas, of course, are often associated with the philosopher Adam Smith, who argued that principles of self-interest in a larger economic sphere were directed by natural forces thereby creating a greater sense of order out of what seemed like selfish motives and happenstance. Self-interest will emerge again in the writings of Hippisley. 

Britons, however, quickly recognized the benefits of free trade. Free trade provided the Caribbean sugar plantations with far more slaves than the RAC could have delivered. The extensive number of slaves transferred to the Americas and the sheer wealth generated by free trade made it a staple of modern economic thought. 

Parliament, however, was in a bind. English merchants had successfully made their case that it was their natural born liberty to purchase and sell slaves; free trade had proved highly successful; but after the RAC closed, who would govern and maintain the forts? The Board of Trade and Plantations did not want to take on the responsibility of the forts, though their reasons were not clear, some contemporary commentators believed that the state had no business being involved in commerce. 

Several groups of merchants from London, Bristol, and Liverpool (the leading slave ports) argued that a joint-stock company should take control of the forts. Though these men did not argue in favor of monopolies nor should they be considered mercantilist because they did not all agree in the core beliefs of mercantilism, such as finite wealth, bullionism, and especially the notion of a strong state that dictated trade common to mercantilist thought. These were “company men.” They believed that companies were more efficient than individual traders for the reasons given above. Because a joint stock company sold shares to the public, the company (employees included) had a responsibility to generate profit fro share holders, thereby providing employees with the incentive to do a thorough job at whatever it was they were supposed to do — like guard the forts. Adam Smith, of course, disagreed, but we will get to that later. 

Because joint-stock companies operate off of a profit motive for the entire company, parliament worried that a joint-stock company would needlessly compete with individual slave traders on the coast, thereby undermining the benefits of free trade. Competition with France and even the influx of British slave traders in Africa were already driving slave prices up. Parliament did not want to harm the nation’s most lucrative trade. But France was encroaching on the English slave trade. The RAC had defeated a French garrison that was intent on destroying Cape Coast Castle (the headquarters for English African Companies in present day Ghana), but without the RAC who would protect the slave trade? 

British officials decided to create an experimental company to govern and maintain the trade establishments, while the British navy patrolled the African coast. They created a regulated company called the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. A regulated company differed from a joint-stock company, primarily, because members of a regulated company did not work for the general good of the company. For instance, a Briton would pay a fee to become a member of a regulated company — not a stock. This fee allowed the Briton to use the facilities of the company, if the company had facilities, but the Briton was also obliged to following the general rules of the company, this assured an overall sense of good conduct among members to help facilitate trust, which was essential for trade. But each member traded for their own profit, not the profit of the company. According to the charter of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, the sole purpose of the company was to govern and maintain the forts. A committee of nine men, three from each of England’s primary trading ports, controlled the company from England. According to historian Eveline Martin, the main duty of the committee centered on acquiring a yearly stipend from parliament for the establishments in Africa. The CMTA, obviously, was publicly funded both through taxes and a “membership fee” that individual merchants had to pay the company to use the establishments — totaling 40 shillings. 

In Africa, each of the establishments was governed by a “chief” or simply “governor.” The Governor of Cape Coast Castle lead the council of governors on the African coast. Wary of competition that might arise on the African coast between English merchants, parliament included a clause in the company’s charter forbidding company employees from trading in a corporate capacity for profit. In other words, employees were only supposed to govern and maintain the establishments for individual English merchants. 

Part of the company’s job in aiding the English slave trade was to keep the forts well equipped with goods that were in high demand with the local Fanti merchants. Company employees were to purchase slaves at favorable prices using said goods and then resell the slaves to the slave traders. The committee was tasked with supplying the forts wit tradeable merchandize. This became a problem as the committee was not always aware of what was in demand in Africa. 

Paying company employees on the coast, however, ended up worse than supplying the forts. The committee paid its employees with tradeable goods that employees were supposed to exchange on the coast for their pay. Just like the fort’s supplies, the committee often failed to know what was in high demand on the coast. In many cases, employee pay was worthless. As Martin suggested, the problem with the CMTA from start to finish was the deplorable state of management. Though Adam Smith would disagree, but we will get to that later. 

Many employees, especially the chiefs of the establishments, sold slaves from coast. Richard Brew, for instance, became a prominent slave trader on the Gold Coast and he finally assimilated into the Fanti community. Brew, however, started out as a chief and when he got caught trading slaves in 1753, Brew quite the company and went into business for himself. According to Margaret Priestley, Brew’s influence on the coast grew and when the Seven Years War began, the CMTA hired him back, knowing quite well that Brew was using the company’s facilities for his own personal gain. 

Both individual merchants and “company men” complained that employee trade on the coast was causing slave prices to rise. In 1753, a series of affidavits accused various employees of monopolizing trade on the coast, thereby causing prices to rise. Brew, as mentioned above, was one of the major culprits, but so was John Hippisley. In an affidavit, a merchant accused Hippisley of threatening to beat a private English trader who landed at Winebah where Hippisley served as chief. 

After the Seven Years War, England acquired a French trading post in Senegambia.  The CMTA  petitioned the government to  acquire the trading post, but the companies reputation preceded it and the government turned down the company’s request.  In fact, the state sent the English military to occupy the trading post, marking the first  time the English military got involved in the African trade before the end of the 19thcentury.  The larger pictures shows that when free trade emerged, the state needed to become more involved in trade to protect merchants, which is the opposite impression we get from free trade proponents today.

Africa was not the only place where the English had a trade deficit, but it differed from China and India.  For instance, money flowed to China and India, but the state and the East India Company actively sought to undermine local manufacturing practices.  The African trade was carried out by more than one company, it would have been difficult to carry out a single policy to undermine local slave traders because of the competition between the Royal African Company and the private merchants—not to mention other European traders.  Africans, also, did not allow Europeans to go inward, nor were they able to because of disease.  The African trade spurred industry in England.  Gunpowder and Brass, specifically, became major trade items to Africa and these were produced in Bristol and other places.  

Although some contemporaries knew about African dominance on the coast, information about trade in the public sphere was political and in many cases the strength of the Fante over the company was either misrepresented all together or portrayed as weakness of the company.  Private merchants complained that the company dominated trade, thereby causing slave prices to rise, while joint-stock advocates argued that the company was too weak to force the Fante to open roads leading inland, where they thought Africans were more abundant and therefore cheaper.  Extra pressure was laid on the company because Gold Coast Africans were often preferred over slaves from other regions.

Prices had been increasing since the trade was open to the English public and as demand grew in the Americas, so did the price of slaves.  Although this is widely recognized by historians, African agency is lost to notion of natural market forces of supply and demand.  The price of slaves at company outposts costs more because it cost the company supplies to house and feed the slaves, though contemporaries thought that the supplies provided through parliament should have made up for this difference. [quote from Hippisley] In the mid eighteenth century, the African Gold Coast was facing a dearth of slaves imported from the hinterland because of internal political conflicts between the Fante and the rising power of the inland Ashante power.  Slaves, further south, were more abundant and cheaper and the general trade started moving in that direction, but according to company adversaries, this southern trend was the fault of the company. It was complained that the company lacked the means of forcing the inroads open and that the RAC could have done it, but this accusation simply ignores the power structure on the coast.  Any force exerted on the Fante by Europeans was met with resounding counterforce. Simply put, the company was not in a position to force the Fante to do anything.  What’s more is Britain supported the Fante in their strife with the Ashanti, though the company did trade with the Ashanti when they could, they were not likely to undermine Fante coastal institutions and norms in case they offended the Fante and were kicked off the coast.   

After the Seven Years War, England acquired a French trading post in Senegambia.  The CMTA  petitioned the government to  acquire the trading post, but the company’s reputation preceded it and the government turned down the company’s request.  In fact, the state sent the English military to occupy the trading post, marking the first  time the English military got involved in the African trade before the end of the 19thcentury.  The larger pictures shows that when free trade emerged, the state needed to become more involved in trade to protect merchants, which is the opposite impression we get from free trade proponents today.

The Scottish Enlightenment four stages theory: a (re-)introduction

Voltaire Foundation

There are few paradigms more tightly connected with the Scottish Enlightenment than the four stages theory. Yet it arguably remains one of the least understood.

John Millar James Tassie, Medallion of John Millar (1767). Courtesy of the University of Glasgow Archive Services, University collection, GB 248 UP3/26/1.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a whole host of famous Scottish thinkers – Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, Henry Home (Lord Kames) and John Millar – attempted to explain a range of social phenomena according to a single, universal narrative of the history of progress. The spirit of the paradigm was that the fundamental distinguishing components of societies lay not in accidents of climate, religion or race, but rather in the social, psychological, legal and cultural effects of the history of property and sustenance relations. While French thinkers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot used three stages…

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Slavery’s Capitalism: Mortgaging Slaves

On March 6, 1841 in Baton Rouge Louisiana, Amos Adams purchased a slaved named Liverpool from John Dunbar. Sheriff Henry Fowler confiscated the slave and him up for sale. According to a court order, Sarah J. Jewel (a relation to Dunbar) owed the Bank of Louisiana money a morgage. The court considered Liverpool as Jewel’s property and the bank ordered the sheriff to arrest Liverpool and turn him over to the bank for collateral. This was unknown to Adams. He claimed that he bought Liverpool without any knowledge of Dunbar’s debt to the bank. He chided the bank and sheriff for confiscating Liverpool without any warning. Dunbar, then, petitioned to sue the bank, the Sheriff,f and Dunbar for illegaly confiscating his ‘poperty.’

Slaves provided Southerners with capital, which they could mortgage to aquire more capital. The financial status of slaves and its contribution to American capitalism has become a major topic in the New History of Capitalism. Mortgaging slaves helped build Louisiana’s infrastructure, but to what extent remains unknown.

In antebellum America, Southern states benefited from slavery in many different ways. One of which was confiscating ‘illegal’ slaves and re-selling them. The proceeds of which went to the state. In Louisiana, children born to black women in prison were automatically sold as slaves to the highest bidder. See: Born in the Penitentiary: Women and Children Incarcerated in Louisiana, 1833–62.

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Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751): Benjamin Franklin, Creating a White Nation

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us.  George Washington’s colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so today.  Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating.  But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles… We see his reflection in our own time.

                                      -Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life[

The English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased.  And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light…why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people?  Why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red?

–Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751)[2]

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin evokes familiar praise for America’s founding fathers often located in popular narratives about American history.   Isaacson believe ‘Ben’ stands out from the other founding fathers as an accessible, friendly, but extremely intelligent average joe.  “he was America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategists.” By portraying himself as a backwoods sage,” Isaacson argues, Franklin tried “to create a new American archetype.”  After all, “We see his reflection in our own time.” Maybe Franklin succeeded in creating this new archetype, but no in the way Isaacson imagines.  

The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency shed light on the prevalence of slavery, invisible to so many white Americans.  We have not come a long way since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  And if anyone has doubt whether Trump’s base is racist, let us remember that former Klan Wizard David Duke encourages fellow white-supremacist to support Trump.  As most minorities know, race did not disappear. Although writers celebrate American exceptionalism and hero-myths of the founding fathers, many other scholars show that that race was a central concern in colonial and antebellum America.  In fact, race is a quintessential aspect of American history.

Franklin’s Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind portrays two important historical perspectives—American exceptionalism and Universal History—and their relation to racism.[3]  American exceptionalism is predicated on the idea that America differs in kind with any other nation.  Franklin viewed America as the “city upon the hill” a beacon for modernity and the Enlightenment.   American exceptionalism focuses on the idea that it was created consciously created through a rebellion and a utopian vision of working republic, where all people—white men—were created equally.  America did not have the long history of monarchies and traditions that obscured Reason’s search for truth.  

Franklin argued that the main duty of a founding father was to civilize a territory.  During the Enlightenment, scholars developed Universal History, which suggested that all human societies followed the same path of development. Although there were variations according to specific scholars, the most prevalent timeline of development suggested: in the beginning were hunters and gathers (known as savages). The second stage was pastoralism or husbandry where societies depended on animals and simple horticulture (referred to as barbarians).  Scholars argued that agriculture, the third stage, was quintessential component of civilization.   Scholars also considered a fourth stage—commerce.  

John Locke stated that “in the beginning everything was America,” meaning that indigenous American presented an early stage in social development and that the land was untouched by civilizing factors— agriculture.[4]It was the duty of America’s founding fathers to implement civilization.  “America is chiefly occupied by Indians, who subsist mostly by Hunting.” Hunters and gatherers owned no land (private property), which was a quintessential aspect of civilization.  The founding fathers of a nation, according to Franklin, were to start factors of civilization e.g. private property and agriculture. 

Hence the Prince that acquires new territory, if he finds it vacant, or removes natives to give his own people room; the Legislator that makes effectual laws for promoting of trade, increasing Employment, improving land by more or better Tillage; providing more food by Fisheries; securing property, &c. and the man that invents new trades, arts or manufactures, or new improvements in husbandry may be properly called Fathers of their Nation, as they are the cause of the generation of multitudes, by the encouragement they afford marriage.[5]

Once the founding fathers eradicated Native Americans, white people could easily settle the land, but they needed laborers for their plantations. Britons made the mistake of using Africans for slavery.  This affected Europeans’ work ethic.  “The negroes brought into the English Sugar Islands have greatly diminished the whites there; the poor are by this means deprived of employment.”[6]In the Northern colonies, slaves are not in as high demand as the sugar plantations.  However, “slaves also pejorate the Families that use them; the white children become proud, disgusted with labour and being educated in idleness are rendered unfit to get a Living by industry.”[7]Slavery, in other words, made white people lazy. 

            Franklin’s study of populations reflects a trans-Atlantic interest in the study of populations for reasons of state.  “Demographic concerns shaped projects of social engineering, Empire building, and economic improvement” Ted McCormick, from above quote.  In the History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that “one of the great innovations in the techniques of power in the eighteenth-century was the emergence of ‘population’ as an economic and political problem.”⁠[8]Foucault revealed how discourses created both an epistemology and ontology of the subject of the discourses i.e. knowledge of sexuality created and defined sexuality itself. For Foucault, ‘populations,’ aided in creating biopower over people.  Biopower, according to Foucault, is a type of knowledge/ power over biological subjects, a power that creates standards of normativity, ideal kinds of biological states, etc.  Slave populations presented Europeans with an easy means of manipulating populations through labor organization.  Franklin’s essay can be seen as a form of bio-power on a large scale, as he wanted populations to be controlled so that only whites inhabited America. 

           At the end of the essay, Franklin tells readers who should inhabit America: “the number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small.  All Africa is black or tawny.  Asia chiefly tawny.  America (exclusive of the newcomers) wholly so… the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth.  I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people?  Why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair and opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red?  But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind.”[9] 

Franklin’s essay portrays a nation engineered using biopower to create a haven of white Europeans.  This rhetoric continues in today’s racial divide with Trump as the front man “to make America great again.”  He spent most of his presidency undoing the policies of Barack Obama.  Although Obama was a typical imperialist, he was also a black man and this infuriated Trump and his followers.  America is far from an egalitarian nation stratification between race, class, and gender is a hallmark of American history.  Franklin’s essay is one voice among many that sought to engineer a white populace.


[1]Isaacson, Walter. 2004. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[2]Benjamin, Franklin. n.d. “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751”. Ardent Media. Accessed January 10, 2019.

[3]Here I use ‘racism’ loosely.  Racism as we know it today, emerged in the 19thcentury, when thinkers tried to apply biological aspects to different people.  As we know, there is no biological determinant of race e.g. all humans are part of the same species.  In the eighteenth century, there was no concept of race, Enlightenment thinkers offered theories about the effect of climate on societies that made nations differ from each other.

[4]Lowi, Theodore J. 1996. The End of the Republican Era. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 3.

[5]Benjamin, Franklin. n.d. “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751”. Ardent Media. Accessed January 10, 2019, 221.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 25.

[9]Benjamin, Franklin. n.d. “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751”. Ardent Media. Accessed January 10, 2019, 224.