Scholars tend to discuss capitalism and slavery either through slavery’s contribution to the investment capital that made industrialization possible; the innovations in long-distance credit and insurance; mortgages that the slave trade enabled; or the cultures of industrial capitalism that emerged from slavery’s work discipline. The cultures of industrial capitalism have also been used by historians to explain the rise of abolitionist sentiment in the Age of Revolutions. But what about abolitionism in places where industrialization was not underway, in parts of West Africa, for instance? Why might actors around the Atlantic World frame their objections to slavery in the form of abstention, boycotts, and bans on trade? And why did some of the people who objected to the slave trade or enslaved labor turn to shopping as a solution, a form of activism that might seem familiar to purchasers of Fair-Trade coffee, or ethically sourced clothes, or free range eggs?
In my new book, Not Made By Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition (Harvard UP, 2020), I look at how the eighteenth-century consumer revolution shaped the way abolitionists around the Atlantic World engaged with the problem of slavery. Focusing on both the supply and demand sides, the book looks at the development of everyday practices of “ethical” businesses seeking to undermine the Atlantic slave trade and, later, enslaved labor.
I came to this topic from my interest in both the Free Produce Movement and the companies, like the British firm of Macaulay & Babington or the Rhode Island-based Brown & Ives, that were operating businesses in places like Sierra Leone after the abolition of the legal slave trade. I wanted to know more about how these businesses linked up: how did “legitimate commerce” traders like Macaulay & Babington find markets for West African produce? Did they exploit existing demand, or use their anti-slavery credentials to appeal to consumers? And how did Free Produce stores source their products? Did they link up with legitimate traders, or seek out their own supply chains? And how did consumers buying from these stores ensure that they were buying goods that were genuinely “not made by slaves”?
What emerged from this investigation into shifting business ethics, though, was a prolific amount of writing that explored and explained the moral rationale underpinning it. Newspapers, poems, polemics, religious tracts, shareholder meeting minutes, business correspondence, and printed advertisements: they all contributed to shaping a sort of layman’s political economy of ethical capitalism. At the heart of it was a question of the consumer’s responsibility within the market. Abolitionists argued that consumers incentivized producers to use enslaved labor by buying their products. Some argued that abstaining from those products would be the best way to change the system, but others claimed that finding free-labor alternatives would instead lead to emancipation as cotton and sugar plantation owners who had been profiting from enslaved labor realized that ‘free produce’ was where consumer demand lay. These abolitionists wanted to make a case, though, that markets themselves could force otherwise indifferent consumers and producers into more moral behavior, and so they experimented with different sources of supply, different tariff regimes, and different production methods in order to try to drive prices down.
One of the main arguments of the book is that West Africa was the site where a lot of this experimentation in determining what was ethical and how to best source free-labor products took place. International commerce played an important role in forcing merchants, producers, and consumers to figure out what was and was not ethical in trade because they had to negotiate across different cultural and religious norms. How would commercial debts be collected when enslaved captives could no longer be used as collateral? How would different West African consumer markets respond to a shift towards paper currency and away from commodity currencies? What goods could be considered ethical in the Fulani revolutionary states? And so understanding how commercial norms and shifting ideas of political economy were developing in places like Futa Toro, or Sokoto, or amongst the Temne in Sierra Leone, helps to explain why Atlantic trade from West Africa developed in the ways that it did after the abolition of the legal slave trade.
A focus on West Africa also helps to illuminate the unanswered questions of who abolition was supposed to benefit; who was a more ethical capitalism for? Abolitionists who focused on market solutions to the slavery problem regularly appealed to the consumers’ interest – they believed free labor goods would be cheaper. They hoped consumers would then incentivize emancipation amongst producers who used enslaved people as their labor force. In West Africa, though, the same abolitionists hoped the switch to legitimate commerce would prove a painless commercial transition for the existing beneficiaries of the slave trade, the West African consumers who made the trade in enslaved people possible. As I argue in the book, while the enslaved producers were the imagined beneficiaries of ethical capitalism, the most persuasive and influential arguments formulated by these movements were those that promoted the consumer’s power – both to receive the benefits of global capitalism and to arbitrate its morality.
Including West Africa can help us remember that the relationship between abolitionism and capitalism was about more than industrial development: it was also about the moral responsibility of consumers within a global market economy.
Bronwen Everill is the Class of 1973 Lecturer in History at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Not Made By Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition (Harvard, 2020), and Abolition and Empire in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Palgrave, 2012), and co-editor of The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa (Palgrave, 2013).
Title Image: East India sugar basins. B Henderson, china-warehouse, Rye-Lane, Peckham. – [London] Printed at the Camberwell Press, by J.B.G. Vogel [ca. 1828] Ref.: Vol. H/22.
Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Diouf, Sylviane A., ed. Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.
Everill, Bronwen. Not Made By Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.
Glickman, Lawrence. Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Greene, Sandra. “Minority Voices: Abolitionism in West Africa,” Slavery & Abolition vol. 36, no. 4 (2015); 642-661.
Holcomb, Julie. Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.
Jones, Hilary. The Metis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Law, Robin, Suzanne Schwarz, and Silke Strickrodt, eds., Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade and Slavery in Atlantic Africa. Rochester, Boydell and Brewer, 2013.
Major, Andrea. Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire in India. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012.
Scanlan, Padraic. Freedom’s Debtor’s: British Antislavery in Sierra Leone in the Age of Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
Ware III, Rudolph T. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London, 1944); Joseph Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in Britain (Cambridge, 2002).
 Robin Pearson and David Richardson, “Social Capital, Institutional Innovation and Atlantic Trade before 1800,” Business History vol. 50, no. 6 (2008): 765-780; Joseph Inikori, “The Credit Needs of the African Trade and the Development of the Credit Economy in England,” Explorations in Economic History vol. 27 (1990): 197-213; Bonnie Martin, “Neighbor-to-Neighbor Capitalism: Local Credit Networks and the Mortgaging of Slaves,” in Slavery’s Capitalism, ed. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman (Philadelphia, 2016), 107-121.
 Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, MA, 2018).
 Thomas Haskell, David Brion Davis, and John Ashworth in Thomas Bender, ed. The Antislavery Debate (Chapel Hill, 1992).
 See, for instance, Julie Holcomb, Moral Commerce (Ithaca, 2016); Lawrence Glickman, Buying Power (Chicago, 2009).
 Lawrence Glickman, ‘ “Buy for the Sake of the Slave”: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism,’ American Quarterly, 56/4 (2004), 889-912; Anna Vaughan Kett, “Quaker Women, the Free Produce Movement and British Anti-Slavery Campaigns,” 106; Deborah Rossi, “The Stuff of History: American Free Produce Assocation Label 1839-1847,” Connecticut History, 47, 2 (2009), 252-255.
 See Akinwumi Ogundiran, “Of Small Things Remembered: Beads, Cowries, and Cultural Translations of the Atlantic Experience in Yorubaland,” International Journal of African Historical Studies vol. 35, no. 2-3 (2002): 427-457; Kazuo Kobayashi, Indian Cotton Textiles in West Africa: African Agency Consumer Demand and the Making of the Global Economy, 1750-1850 (Basingstoke, 2019); Robin Law, ed. From Slave Trade to “Legitimate” Commerce (Cambridge, 1995).