Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 24, 2007

Slavery, technical innovation, and the sugar plantation

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:04 am

Verene A. Shepherd and Veront M. Mitchell: see capitalism and slavery as intertwined

In the concluding paragraph of my last post on the role of sugar in the transition to capitalism, I alluded to the spread of new technology in the sugar plantations of the British Empire. By comparisons, the “high farming” estates of the British countryside were quite modest. Except for the introduction of turnips and clover in three-field crop rotation, floating meadows and Jethro Tull’s seed drill, British farms were not particularly innovative and when they did incorporate these innovations (which were actually very beneficial from the standpoint of sustainability), it was at the expense of profit. If such farms were the leading edge of capitalism, it was a very odd capitalism indeed.

The anthology “Working Slavery, Pricing Freedom,” edited by Verene A. Shepherd, includes an article by Veront Satchell titled “Innovations in sugar-cane mill technology in Jamaica.” The book evolved out of a series of seminars at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Shepherd and Satchell are Afro-Caribbeans who are obviously much influenced by the work of fellow Afro-Caribbean Marxists CLR James and Eric Williams. This trend starts off on a completely different premise than Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Rather than seeing the forced labor and trade monopolies of the mercantile period as “pre-capitalist”, they see it as a necessary first stage in the development of capitalism, a period that Karl Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation.” The high farming of the British countryside belongs to this period as well. Classical Marxism, including the work of Maurice Dobb, always saw it this way. It is only in the Brenner thesis that the colonial world becomes unimportant.

Satchell gets straight to the point in the opening paragraph of his article:

A popularly held view by Marxists and some economic historians is that slavery impeded or retarded technological changes. Innovations, they argue, were incompatible with slavery. This incompatibility thesis is rooted in the prevailing assumption that technological change is synonymous with technologies that are aimed at saving labour. According to the argument, then, in a slave society such as Jamaica’s, with an assumed abundance of cheap coerced labour, it would be improvident to introduce labour-saving devices, as this would result in a displacement of labour. Such displaced labour, without work to fill the resultant leisure time, would engage in revolts and other acts of violence. Since there was not much evidence of the implementation of labour-saving inventions (and given the assumption that an absence of these meant an absence of technical progress), the theory concludes that slavery negated technical change.

This chapter is a contribution to the general debate on slavery and technological changes or innovations in slave societies. By presenting an analysis of empirical evidence of technological innovations which were adopted and adapted to sugar-cane mills in Jamaica during the period 1760-1830, the technical capacity of this Caribbean slave society is highlighted.

In accordance with Sidney W. Mintz, Satchell views the sugar plantation as a factory set in a field. Within this agrarian factory, the vertical three-roller crushing mill was the key machine, as essential to its operation as the cotton gin was to the textile mill. As seen in the drawing below from the late eighteenth century, this was a far more complex piece of machinery than any found on large British farms.

The most complex piece of machinery during the “agrarian revolution” was Jethro Tull’s seed drill seen below.

In keeping with the economic rationality of the sugar plantation, a sword was kept close to the crushing mill in case a slave’s hand got cut in the rollers. It was better to lose a hand than stop production. Arguably, the workers involved with the crushing mill had much more in common with Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” than any field hand on a British farm during the same period.

Between 1760 and 1830, the Jamaican Legislature passed 49 bills granting patents for improved methods in sugar and rum production. Of these, 34 were for innovations in the infernal sugar crushing mills. It should be said that there were also many agricultural patents at the same time in the mother country, but they were mostly concerned with how to prepare manure or improve irrigation. Machinery patents were in the distinct minority. The most important patents in Jamaica were undoubtedly those that involved the application of steam power to the sugar mill. It would take at least 30 years for steam power to be as important in the British textile mills, a cornerstone of the industrial revolution.

Eventually they even came up with an invention that would prevent workers’ hands from getting caught in the crushing mill. The so-called “dumbturner” was a circular screen that was attached to the upper and lower frames of the roller and that fed the cane into the crushing mills. The slave owners were forced to devise such a critical part for social and political reasons. Due to the efforts of the British abolitionists, the supply of slave labor had slowed to a trickle. In keeping with the economic rationality of supply and demand, it made more sense to save a slave’s hand. One wonders if the sugar plantation owner had more of a sense of their long-term class interests than the American ruling class that is fighting socialized medicine tooth and nail.

In keeping with the interesting findings in Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science,” Satchell reveals that many of the patents were the inspiration of artisans working on the mills, most of whom were slaves rather than scientists off in a laboratory. The slaves themselves occupied a sort of netherworld between abject field work and free labor. Satchell writes:

Nevertheless, slaves were the principal artisans, and they worked in foundries. My considered view here is that the slaves actively participated in inventing new techniques and equipment pertinent to the sugar industry. My position is based on two premises. First (as stated before), slaves were the principal artisans in the island. In Jamaica there was a paucity of White artisans, so there developed an almost total reliance on the artisan slaves. Planters relied heavily on slave labour for all aspects of plantation life; it is for this reason that Douglas Hall concludes that the slave was a ‘multi-purpose tool’.33 Barry Higman notes that at the time of emancipation in 1834 compensation was paid for 17,873 artisan slaves, representing 5.74 per cent of the total slave population. These included blacksmiths, millwrights, coopers, wheelwrights, masons, plumbers, carpenters, coppersmiths and engineers.

Many of these slaves came from an area of Africa that had a highly sophisticated understanding of metallurgy. The West African coast, from which most Jamaican slaves originated, had developed complex skills in working iron and became blacksmiths in the Americas, either free or slave. Their activities included the manufacturing and repair of machinery, as well as making arms and ammunition. One sugar planter reported that his slaves “perform all manner of foundry work the greater portion of which cannot be performed by any other establishment in the island.” Indeed, as the former slaves of Cuba would eventually discover, they could do all this without the plantation owner himself.


  1. Slaves working in the fields in the U.S. seem to have sabotaged equipment. I wonder what the difference was in Jamaica and Cuba.
    My guess is that the slaves in the sugar mills were treated better than most slaves, so could identify more with their oppressors and that the improved efficiency of the machinery did not make their work more difficult.

    Comment by mperelman — July 24, 2007 @ 1:40 am

  2. […] by Jack Stephens on July 24th, 2007 Louis Proyect blogs: The anthology “Working Slavery, Pricing Freedom,” edited by Verene A. Shepherd, includes an […]

    Pingback by Slavery, Capitalism, and the Sugar Plantations « The Blog and the Bullet — July 25, 2007 @ 1:46 am

  3. rwr

    Comment by aeeeeeq — April 23, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

  4. nice

    Comment by aeeeeeq — April 23, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

  5. slavey suck

    Comment by lil miss thing — October 3, 2008 @ 12:18 am

  6. what an insightful commentary on innovation by slaves, i am referring this blog in my book on grassroots innovations, i hope i have your permission, any other lad on innovations by workers will be most gratefully acknowledged , keep it up, excellent empathetic work anilgb@gmail.com

    Comment by anil gupta (@anilgb) — October 26, 2015 @ 7:23 am

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