The Plantation Complex after Abolition of Slavery

Kris Manjapra’s new perspective will throw fresh light on our history as we follow the movement of capital from compensation money through the plantation complex, financial institutions and to present-day companies which remain at the commanding heights of our economy

“Plantation capitalists from the West Indies used compensation money to build the plantation empires in Africa and Asia. They took large tracts of land from the people to establish palm, tobacco, and coffee and tea plantations in Africa, tea in Assam and Ceylon, and rubber in Malaya and Vietnam… Today it is the same plantation capitalists who have been transformed into multinational companies operating in Asia and Africa with the same mode of racialised labour control and exploitation. Names like Tate & Lyle, Michelin, Dunlop, Firestone and Unilever are just a few of the multinational companies removing large tracts of land, which used to produce food crops for the people, to instead produce cash crops for export…”


A powerful, insightful and informative article by Kris Manjapra, associate professor of history at Tufts University, in The Guardian, UK, reminds us of the unwillingness of the British state to come to terms with slavery and its refusal to apologize for its role in this crime against humanity, and provide restitution. His piece, together with lectures and seminars delivered at Harvard, provide us with a refreshingly new perspective on the development of capitalism, particularly plantation capitalism as it moved from the Caribbean to the British and European colonies in Africa and Asia. This article draws heavily on Manjapra’s work in terms of perspective, as well as provides us with a new approach to view apprenticeship, indentured labour and plantation capitalism in our own island.

It is of great interest and shocking to learn that the British State compensated not the slaves but slave owners with about 20 million pounds, the equivalent of 300 billion pounds today. The money was obtained by the British state which contracted a loan with the bank syndicate of Rothschild’s, and Nathan Mayor and Moses Monte Fiore. The debt, which represented 40% of Britain’s Gross Domestic Product, was finally paid off in 2015. From 1835 onwards, British taxpayers unknowingly had been paying such a huge debt to slave owners. The information came out in a tweet by the Treasury some time back and it raised such a storm that the tweet was deleted.

While 47,000 slave owners were paid including those in Mauritius, nothing went to the slaves in spite of the all kinds of sufferings that included sexual assault and rape. One slave owner, Thomas Thistlewood recorded 3852 acts of sexual intercourse with 136 enslaved women in his 37 years in Jamaica. Half of the compensation money went to 5% of the slave owners. The issue of paying back the slave owners gave rise to acrimonious debates in the House of Commons and abolitionists objected to compensation to slave owners, but the lobby of about 80 MPs owning Caribbean plantations managed to secure compensation for the British and other capitalists. In his lectures and seminars, Manjapra shows how the British capitalists receiving the compensation money moved from the Caribbean to the colonies of the Indian Ocean, Africa and Asia to replicate the plantation complex developed out of apprenticeship.

The apprenticeship in many Caribbean colonies did not differ much from slavery. The situation in West Indies strikes a similar note on the situation in Mauritius. As in the west indies, apprenticeship in Mauritius was no different from slavery. Historians writing on the Mauritian situation have highlighted the oppression which followed abolition of slavery in 1835. W. Kloosterboer wrote that planters went much further than in Jamaica to keep the apprentices at work after abolition and ‘whereby the great majority of the population were faced with a situation hardly considered to be better than slavery’. He quotes the ordinance of 1835 passed in Mauritius:

All persons under the age of sixty, capable of labour (that is men and women) and unable to prove that they follow a business or possess sufficient means of subsistence, shall be bound to take up a trade or find employment, or hire themselves as field labourers, within a period to be fixed by the police. In the event of failure to perform his duty, the offender is to be delivered to the police to be employed on public works, and if after three months, any such person shall not have found employment, he may be sentenced to be placed on a plantation or in a factory, to be employed for a period not exceeding three years’. It also made possible ‘to put children over eight to work as apprentices up to their 21s year’.

Even though the ordinance was disallowed by the Secretary of State for the colonies, it had been in force for a year. Later many of its clauses were introduced in legislation for indentured labourers.

We also learn that during the period of apprenticeship planters put numerous obstacles to prevent apprentices from enjoying some relative freedom. As Vijaya Teelock has shown, owners successfully campaigned and modified liberal manumission laws. Slaves were assessed higher than their value to make it difficult for apprentices to purchase their own freedom. Other measures were taken to prevent apprentices from having an autonomous existence out of the reach of the plantation estate. In other words, after the abolition of slavery, forced labour continued during apprenticeship.

Manjapra shows how this mode of labour coercion, which developed during apprenticeship, was exported by Europeans as well as British capitalists to the countries of Africa and Asia. He defined the main features of the Caribbean plantation template — use of force, racialised modes of labour and labour control –, and ironically all these happened after slavery had been abolished. These forms of forced labour were subsequently taken to Africa and Asia. He also makes the point that plantation capitalism and capitalism in general rest on forced labour. He elaborates on the movement of plantation capitalism to the European colonies resting not only on impersonal forces, but is deeply embedded in a network of the movement of capital, labour, ideas, technology and social network of families and kinships – fathers and sons , uncles and nephews. He provides examples of 97 capitalists from the West Indies who invested in Africa and Asia. Among them, there was one Jules Daruthy, a French planter from the Caribbean who invested in ships transporting labour from India to Mauritius.

One of these prominent slave owners who developed this new plantation complex was John Gladstone. Students of slavery are familiar with John Gladstone, the father of William Gladstone, a future Prime Minister of England, who was the proprietor of estates in Demerara (a historical region in the Guianas on the north coast of South America which is now part of Guyana). He played an important role in the House of Commons and took part in a number of meetings in Britain in drafting the ordinances regarding apprenticeship and indenture in Britain and in the colonies. Gladstone had two nephews in Calcutta — George Arbuthnot and F.M. Gillanders — and the two formed a company which brought the first coolies on the Sarah to Mauritius in August 1834. Later he instructed Gillanders and Arbuthnot to send him coolies from India who were allocated to his estates Vreedenhoop and Vriedenstein.

Like Gladstone, plantation capitalists from the West Indies used compensation money to build the plantation empires in Africa and Asia. They took large tracts of land from the people to establish palm, tobacco, and coffee and tea plantations in Africa, tea in Assam and Ceylon, and rubber in Malaya and Vietnam and in many other countries. Today it is the same plantation capitalists who have been transformed into multinational companies operating in Asia and Africa with the same mode of racialised labour control and exploitation. Names like Tate & Lyle, Michelin, Dunlop, Firestone and Unilever are just a few of the multinational companies removing large tracts of land, which used to produce food crops for the people, to instead produce cash crops for export, which results in famine and poverty and at the same time destroys the environment.

These insights from Manjapra’s ongoing research will certainly inspire many of our young historians with new insights and perspective to look at our history and particularly business history. In Mauritius, too, slave owners – both local and foreign – used compensation money to set up banks, consolidate sugar estates, finance the shipping of Indian labourers from India and construct a labour force based on various forms of coercion, assisted by the colonial state and post-colonial state, a practice which continues to this day.

As to Manjapra’s argument that capitalism is not only about wage labour but rests also on force and is built not only on impersonal forces but also concretely on a dense and complex set of family relationships, social networks, technology and ideas, this refreshingly new perspective will throw fresh light on our history as we follow the movement of capital from compensation money through the plantation complex, financial institutions and to present-day companies which remain at the commanding heights of our economy.

 


* Published in print edition on 20 April 2018

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