Racial Capitalism and the 18th-Century Black Atlantic

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:50 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Justin Leroy, University of California, Davis
Eighteenth-century antislavery emerged at the intersection of moral concerns and economic policy. Proponents of abolition in the British Atlantic world wanted their economic practices to be morally upstanding. This aspiration had the stark effect of legitimizing any form of free trade regardless of its exploitative nature, since anything that did not involve trading slaves could be cast as valorous.

Scholars of early black Atlantic writing have framed black thinkers as uncritically complicit actors in this division of the economic world into clear categories of slave and free. As a result, a consensus has emerged that these early black thinkers were antislavery capitalists. This paper recasts black Atlantic writers such as Venture Smith, Phillis Wheatley, John Marrant, and Ottobah Cugoano as shrewd critics of both capitalism and slavery. They saw the eighteenth-century British Atlantic as upheld by racial capitalism, which exploited black labor both enslaved and free.

Take the example of Marrant, an itinerant Methodist preacher, who used the language of “covenant breaker” to describe both enslavers and those who denied land and resources to free blacks. Marrant’s vision of freedom was grounded in evangelical notions of community and interrupted the expectation that black workers would continue to be a profitable source of labor even after their emancipation. Or Smith (named “Venture” by his master because he was expected to be “a good business venture”), who bought his own freedom and that of his children. He translated the many tragedies of his life into precise economic terms, and noted that freedom did not prevent black people from being subjected to many forms of fraud, cheating, and oppression. His focus on blacks as laborers above all else, whether enslaved or free, prefigures Du Bois’s similar construction in Black Reconstruction a century and a half later.