In 1858 South Carolina statesman and US Senator James Henry Hammond famously proclaimed that ‘Cotton is king.’ At that time the Southern States produced about 75% of the world’s cotton, with sales of this crop constituting about 60% of all US exports. The strength of the US economy at that time was unquestionably based on the output of Southern plantations. By this time cotton had replaced sugar as the most valuable commodity traded internationally. How did this happen? How was sugar (which as we have seen totally transformed the eastern Atlantic islands, northern Brazil and the Caribbean) dethroned?
NEW ATLANTIC ORDER
Dr Dale Tomich, professor of history at Binghamton University, explains in an article entitled ‘From Abolition to Emancipation’ how a new Atlantic order emerged in the final decades of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth century. Dr Tomich’s article appears as chapter twenty in The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its People, edited by Stephan Palmie and Francisco Scarano. During this period, despite losing the 13 North American colonies, Great Britain ‘emerged… not only as the world’s only industrial power, but also as the center of world commerce and finance as well as its most powerful maritime nation.’ The British rise to international power shook up the old order in the Atlantic, Caribbean and on the mainland in North America because of the new policies it pursued. These policies included abolition of the international slave trade, free trade and informal imperialism in the Americas and Asia (especially India).
BRITISH ANTI-SLAVERY GEO-POLITICS
In 1811 Great Britain declared international slave trade to be piracy. It enforced this policy by searching foreign vessels, leading to international conflicts (including the War of 1812). The British pressured other colonial powers (Spain, Brazil, France and Portugal) to ban the slave trade. Despite the bans, Tomich notes on page 312 ‘the first half of the 19th century witnessed one of the largest cycles of slave importations in history.’
In 1834 the British abolished slavery in the Empire. This led to sharp economic decline in the Caribbean region. The British part of the region had already been hurt when the United States became independent in 1783, raising the costs of needed supplies (especially food) for West Indians. Then in 1791 the horror of the Haitian Revolution broke out, ultimately leading to White genocide in the colony and the utter destruction of what had been the wealthiest colony in the world. Tomich notes on page 310 that ‘The combined effects of the Haitian Revolution and Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars led to [the] destruction of the French navy and merchant marine and [the] decline of the French port cities and left the United States as Britain’s only potential challenger in the Atlantic.’ Britain used its new power to maintain European political stability in order to expand overseas, building up a vast colonial and trading Empire. Its efforts to enforce an anti-slavery policy ‘can be interpreted as an effort to restructure the Atlantic economy in accordance with British interests,’ Tomich asserts. Abolishing the slave trade in particular weakened the United States, Britain’s only real competitor at this point in the Atlantic, which had been a leading slave-trading power.
THE RISE OF THE SOUTH & COTTON
Old economic areas dependent upon slave labour (such as most of the British West Indies) faded away, hurt by severed connections with the mainland, unable to compete with new sugar producing areas and ultimately done in by the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, new areas were on the rise. Tomich writes on pages 312-313:
The new slave zones in the US South and Cuba were representative of the emergent world market. The acquisition of West Florida and Louisiana, the invention of the cotton gin, and a vigorous internal slave trade opened the American South to cotton cultivation. The United States became the world’s most important cotton producer and the primary supplier of raw materials to the British cotton industry. British industrialization was inseparable from the creation of the new American slave cotton frontier. Cotton replaced sugar as the most valuable item in world trade. Unrestricted trade between the independent United States and Britain far surpassed commerce between the two before independence. Further, the cotton trade created a large balance of payments surplus that allowed the United States to become the major consumer of Cuban sugar. Thus, the cotton trade indirectly stimulated the Cuban sugar industry, and the United States developed important economic links with Cuba. Indeed, because of the strong American presence, Cuba was the one place where Britain could not undersell its competitors.
Cuba became the world’s largest sugar producer by the end of the 1820s while Dixie became the world’s largest cotton producer. The two were linked together, as explained above, while the British controlled the seas and international trade with their fleet. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the British Caribbean colonies ‘were condemned to continuing economic, social, and political crises’ after the abolition of slavery. The area became an economic backwater while nearby Cuba and Dixie boomed. It should also be noted that during this time there was strong public support in the Southern States for bringing Cuba into the Union. Due in part to Spanish threats of emancipation, there was also some support on the island for leaving Spain and joining the United States. Cuba might have been another Florida, Louisiana or Texas. Instead, efforts to acquire Cuba were blocked by Northerners who opposed adding another slave State to the Union, thereby strengthening the South’s position.