Global0008. Roundtable: Slavery and Business History

Date: 14/10/2020 @ 16.00 hrs London

Speakers: Sherryllynne Haggerty (University of Nottingham), Rafael Pardo (Emory University), Stephen Mullen (University of Glasgow)

Discussant: Cheryl McWatters (University of Ottawa)

Organiser/Hosts: Nicholas Wong and Andrew Perchard (both at Northumbria University)

See session abstracts and recording below.

‘I am so chained down by my business to this spot’ Making Money in Jamaica, 1756

Sherryllynne Haggerty (University of Nottingham)

When Gilbert Ford wrote that he was ‘so chained down by my business’, he was of course alluding to the institution of slavery by which all free Jamaicans made their money, whether explicitly or implicitly. Ford was a planter, and one of the elite, however, this paper uses a rare set of letters sent from Jamaica in autumn 1756 to focus on the non elite. It asks how did non-elite free people contribute to, and benefit from, the local, regional and Atlantic economy of Jamaica? In 1756, despite the start of the Seven Years’ War, Jamaica was at the centre of Britain’s slave ‘system’ and its largest producer of sugar. The island produced huge wealth for white plantation owners at the expense of an enslaved labour force. However, this paper will demonstrate that for non-elites, men and women, white and of colour, there was a more complicated story.

On Bankruptcy’s Promethean Gap: Building Enslaving Capacity into the Antebellum Administrative State

Rafael Pardo (Emory University)

As the United States contends with the economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, should it continue to approach application of federal bankruptcy law to resolve issues of financial distress from the same perspective of the past 120 years—namely, that bankruptcy is about the resolution of private debt matters? To answer that question, this paper looks to modern U.S. bankruptcy law’s first forebear, the 1841 Bankruptcy Act, which Congress enacted in response to the depressed economic conditions following the Panic of 1837. New Orleans was among the cities that financially suffered the worst during that crisis. By the time of the Act, it was the nation’s third-most-populous city; its slave market was the nation’s largest; and its money market was one of the nation’s largest, if not the largest. This paper tells the cautionary tale about the bankruptcy administration and sale of Banks Arcade, a block-long, three-story building that was one of antebellum New Orleans’s premier commercial exchanges for auctioning enslaved African Americans. This history about how the federal administrative state restructured one component of the U.S. slavery complex should prompt us to think critically about what it means to manage the financial fallout from capitalistic excess through the bankruptcy system.

The University of Glasgow Model of Institutional Slavery Income

Stephen Mullen (University of Glasgow)

On 16 September 2018, the University of Glasgow released the report ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’ that acknowledged slave-owners, merchants and planters with connections to New World slavery – and their descendants – donated capital between 1697 and 1937 that influenced the development of the institution. In doing so, the institution became the first British university to declare historical income derived from transatlantic slavery. In response to the report, a nine-point programme of reparative justice was launched, the first British university to launch a project on such a scale. This attracted global interest and was reported in The Times of London, the Guardian, and various other outlets in the Caribbean and the United States. Report authors estimated the university historically benefitted from income valued at, depending on which comparator was adopted, ranging from £16m to £198m (2016 values). Although the historical comparators were included simply as an estimation of scale, it is an imprecise science – the three different estimates are equally valid – the media reported the highest possible values. This paper discusses ‘The University of Glasgow Model of Institutional Slavery Income’; challenges, issues with the methodology; opportunities for further research, and potential transferability to other universities and institutions more broadly.

Questions from the audience

00:38:54   From Trevor Burnard to Sherrylynne: was absenteeism as important as you think in this period? Aren’t most planters residents?


00:49:10   Jennifer Boettcher to Rafael: what would the Federal officials do if they discovered the enslaved person was kidnapped from Africa.  Since 1808 US law ““prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States … from any foreign kingdom, place or country.” ?


00:54:53   David Smith to Rafael: who could seek relief under the 1841 act? Could sole proprietorships? Did they have to conduct business across state lines or have creditors from across state lines? Can the records provide light on the location of creditors of the slave trade and networks of credit (i.e. are they also from northern states, Europe etc.)?


00:57:05   Hillary Claggett to Rafael: Did the Bankruptcy Act of 1841 end the debtor’s prisons, or change anything about the way debtor’s prisons functioned? In a recent biography of Eliza Hamilton, the author mentioned that many people were imprisoned for very small debts. The prisons also housed formerly wealthy people who had lost their fortunes in the war or through gambling, for example.


01:11:17   Jennifer Boettcher to Stephen: When the gifts were made at the time, did anyone bring up the issue of “blood money”.  Did they University ever reject gifts?  Is U of Glasgow offering any reparations to communities who were harmed?


01:27:51   Caitlin Rosenthal to Rafael: Can you tell us a bit more how important this story (and the 1841 act in general) was important in the emergence of bankruptcy law more generally — you alluded to this as the other half of the paper, and I would love to hear the big picture there. Thank you!


01:33:54   Comment from Rory Miller: Good to hear the mention of Joe Mulhern’s work on Brazil. British historians should also not forget that Cuba had slavery until the 1880s too and the UK’s connections with the island were close.


01:40:22   Emily Buchnea to Rory Miller: British investment in the island and lending went on throughout the 19th century, as well as the usual trade links


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