The Emancipation Question: A Lively Dialogue over the Economics of Slavery Played out in Newspapers and Magazines on the Eve of the Civil War

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One hundred fifty years ago on a frigid and repulsive January day in New York, 30-year-old William G. Sewell departed on a steamer for Barbados, the first stop on a tour of the Caribbean island colonies of the British West Indies. Doctors had recommended that the New York Times editor travel south because of tuberculosis. While recuperating, he would file a series of articles on a topic that would prove of enormous interest to Americans: how had the colony's islands been affected by the abolition of slavery 25 years earlier? The British West Indies had suffered its fair share of economic difficulties, and argument ensued over whether abolition had helped or harmed. The relevance to America's situation was obvious: the United States held 4 million people in bondage, and the debate over the peculiar institution's future threatened to tear the nation apart.

Sewell, a native of British Quebec, must have encountered the antislavery sentiments of his homeland, and perhaps shared them. But, as a former attorney, he used logic rather than emotion for his arguments. In an article published on April 20, 1859, he claimed that he would address fiduciary, not moral, issues. "I consider the question to be a commercial one--to be judged favorably or unfavorably by commercial rules," he wrote. He had "no sympathy with the argument of the Abolitionists, that the question of emancipation is one in which the black race are to be only considered, or that 'depreciation of property is as nothing compared with a depreciation of morality.'"

The British Empire had outlawed slavery in 1834 and phased it out over the next four years in a surprisingly peaceful transition. "Let us look at the facts," wrote Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in 1843: "the abolition of slavery in the nineteen English colonies has thus far not given rise to a single insurrection; it has not cost the life of a single man, and yet in the English colonies there are twelve times as many blacks as there are whites." However, the production of sugar, one of the staple crops of the West Indies, had fallen off since emancipation, and advocates on both sides of the debate argued over whether the end of slavery had caused the decline.

The Times started publishing Sewell's examination of these issues in March and continued them through the spring, summer, and fall as he reported from Barbados, St. Vincent, Grenada, Jamaica, Trinidad, and other islands. (In 1861 Sewell published an expanded version as a book tided The Ordeal of Free Labor in the British West Indies.)

In Barbados Sewell acknowledged that sugar exports had declined, but he reported that exports had been decreasing even under slavery, with many plantations being sold for debt or abandoned. As Sewell asserted, "[N]o Barbadian planter would hesitate in 1859 to select free labor in preference to slave labor, as in his belief the more economical system of the two."

Nor did Sewell notice that the island's black population was suffering from a surfeit of freedom. "The masses are certainly no worse than they were under Slavery; while those who had the intelligence, industry and energy to rise, have risen to positions of competence, independence and wealth, which they never could have enjoyed under any other than a free system," he wrote. "Poor whites," however, suffered the most under the new conditions. "Incapable themselves of undergoing the hardships of field labor beneath a tropical sun, they employed, before emancipation, one or two slaves, upon whose services they lived. Deprived of this species of maintenance and having no resources of their own, they became such a burden to the community, that the Government has been called upon to adopt some measures for their relief."

Sewell noted changes that emancipation had brought to the islands, including the arrival of indentured servants from Asia: "coolies" intended to replace the black laborers freed by emancipation. …