Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

A Business of Philanthropy: The Montserrat Company, 1856-1961(1)

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

A Business of Philanthropy: The Montserrat Company, 1856-1961(1)

Article excerpt

When John Stuart Mill denounced Thomas Carlyle's Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question as "damnable" doctrine, his words illustrated the extent to which educated opinion in mid-nineteenth-century Britain had divided over the effects of ending slavery in the British West Indies.3 Presenting the stereotype of "Quashee", the indolent "nigger" who sat in the sunshine while the economy collapsed around him, Carlyle blamed this baneful state of affairs on two of the most powerful currents of thought during that era: the free market tenets of the classical political economists and the humanitarianism of the evangelical abolitionists. Their "unhappy wedlock" had resulted in the removal of the one thing that would bring "Quashee" to work - the "beneficent whip".4

Although the British abolitionists were the butt of some of Carlyle's most scathing jibes - he accused them of "rosepink Sentimentalism" - their reaction to this debate has received little attention from historians. There is even a suggestion that they had been overwhelmed by the sort of argument that Carlyle had offered. James Walvin, for example, claims that many abolitionists believed that "the ex-slaves in the West Indies had let them down",5 and David Eltis goes further by suggesting that there was something like a de facto alliance of the "Government, the planter and ... a significant section of the abolitionists" in support of "a range of measures which coerced West Indian labour".6 The abolitionists, it would seem, had left the way clear for Anthony Trollope, James Anthony Froude and other writers on imperial matters to transmit the image of "Quashee" into the late nineteenth century and beyond.7

This essay argues, to the contrary, that there were abolitionists who saw the possibility of basing successful businesses on the free labour of the former slaves. From their point of view Mill's line of argument was unsatisfactory. As a counter to Carlyle's "Gospel of Work", Mill based his case on a "Gospel of Leisure": he accepted not only that the freed slaves could "exist in comfort on the wages of a comparatively small quantity of work" but also that they had a right to do so.8 This was unacceptable to those abolitionists who were businessmen and believed in what would later be called "the Protestant Work Ethic". The superior productivity of free labour had long formed part of their intellectual armoury, and some of them had devised business ventures to provide practical demonstrations of its efficacy. James Cropper (1773-1840), a Quaker businessman from Liverpool, was a well-known exponent of this strategy. He believed that he and his associates could overthrow slavery by promoting commerce in free-labour products from Britain's Asian, African and Caribbean colonies. Cropper was accused of serving his own interests under the guise of philanthropy, but he seems to have had little trouble in reconciling Adam Smith's economic theories with a Quakerly concern for the pursuit of moral business activities, especially those that promoted the emancipation of the enslaved population. Laws had been "fixed in the nature of things", he believed, through which God regulated the free market for the general well-being.9

Cropper died in 1840, but his successors persevered with the vision of the West Indies as a successful business environment where the former enslaved people would provide labour for up-to-date capitalist enterprises that respected humanitarian principles. Their most important venture was a business company known as Sturge's Montserrat Company (later the Montserrat Company). This essay is structured around two fields of inquiry relating to the Montserrat Company: its business activities and its philanthropic aspirations. Linking the two was a commercial culture that Charles Dellheim has analysed in his study of the Cadbury Company of Birmingham. Although there were many differences arising from the circumstances of managing a British-based business in a small, underdeveloped colony that was making the transition from slavery to freedom, the similarities between the Cadbury and Montserrat Companies are evident. …

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