Looking at History through an Economics Lens: A Short History of North American Slavery from an Economic Point of View

Article excerpt

Mr. Zambelli is Director of the San Diego Center for Economics Education. He is an instructor in the Business and Professional Studies Department at Cuyamaca College where he teaches Principles of Micro and Macro Economics. He is a recipient of the Cuyamaca College President's Award, Award for Teaching Excellence, Rainbow Award for service to the college community, Alfred Lord Whitehead Award for Teaching Excellence at the University of Redlands, and the Adam's Apple Award from the California Council on Economic Education.

According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, history is "A narrative of events; a story. A chronological record of events, as of the life or development of a people or institution, often including an explanation of or commentary on those events."

History textbooks generally approach history through a multi-themed approach. They look at the threads that together weave the story. They follow each one for a specific period of time and then pick up another, and so on. Each thread has its own pedagogy and thematic emphasis. Geography: land and weather; Political: wars and struggles and the creation and changes in government; Social: changes in accepted norms; and Economic: entrepreneurs and workers and macroeconomic trends.

The purpose of this article is to enhance and enrich the way in which you are able to look at the economic strand or thread that plays through history so that you and your students may more effectively evaluate the impact of economic decisions and the consequences of those decisions, both in the short term and long term. In other words, it is my goal to enhance the tools or frameworks through which you tell the story. At the same time, you will be given tools for evaluating the present and predicting outcomes in the future.

We begin with a definition of economics. According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, economics is the social science that deals with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services and with the theory and management of economies or economic systems. What does all of that mean? As a social science, economics deals with the decisions people make. Economists study, analyze, and attempt to predict how people behave and the consequences of that behavior.

This article will apply the economics lens to the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean colonies and in the United States. It is hoped that this article will provide an additional perspective on slavery in the United States and the consequences of two alternative ways of ending it. In addition, the article is meant to demonstrate how economics provides a necessary perspective into historical topics.

Background

"Slaves were as much a part of the settlement and economy in the [New World] as the settlers and the crops. But this was the normal state of affairs for much of the Western world. The African slave trade, started in the 15th century, was begun by the Portuguese, but slavery among African tribes was common, as it was among the Native Americans that Columbus encountered in Hispaniola. The biggest difference between native slavery and the slavery brought by Europeans to Africa and the Caribbean was the scope and scale." (Walenta, 2010)

Slavery in the British Caribbean

British planters in the Caribbean originally cultivated tobacco, coffee, cotton, indigo, and sugar on smallholdings. Over time these smallholdings were amalgamated into bigger and bigger holdings as sugar became the cash crop of choice and production shifted to the plantation system. The shift from small holdings to the plantation system also shifted labor requirements from indentured servants to slaves imported from African. For example, the biggest sugar planter in Jamaica owned 11 estates, one of which consisted of 600 acres worked by 200 slaves (Ali & Siblon; Payne, 1994).

Sugar production and the slave trade complemented each other and boosted the English economy. …