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Chapter II.: LAW ENDANGERS PROPERTY IN DEMERARA. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 2.
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LAW ENDANGERS PROPERTY IN DEMERARA.
During a ride of several miles, Mr. Bruce and his son were deep in conversation on the subject of their affairs, which were in a state to cause great anxiety to both, though the anxiety of each differed much in character. Mr. Bruce had made less and less by his plantation every year for some years past; and he was now quite out of heart, and full of complaints about the hardships inflicted on himself and his brother planters, by what he called oppression at home, and the competition of other countries in their trade. He was not a other very clear-headed, though a good-hearted man; and he had passed nearly his whole life within the bounds of his own plantation; so that he, as a matter of course, adopted the views of planters in general, and joined in the cry for higher bounties on West India produce, and thought that the obvious way to relieve West India distress was to obtain more exclusive monopolies. He took credit to himself for being even better entitled than most of his brethren to complain of neglect and want of protection, as he could not oppress his slaves in his turn, nor endeavour to wrest out of them a compensation for his losses in trade. He was too humane a man for this. Thus believing that through the cruelty of the government and nation at home, and his own tender-heartedness, he was going to ruin at a great rate, he was heartily tired of his occupations, and ready to open his mind to his son, and consult with him as to what should be done.
Young as Alfred was, he was deserving of his father's confidence, and far more likely to offer him good counsel, when he should have had a little experience, than any of the neighbouring gentlemen who met from time to time to condole with each other, and draw up memorials to Government. Alfred had been in good hands in England. He had been educated for the station he was to hold, and so carefully instructed in both sides of the great questions which were to be before him through life, that there was no danger of his being blind to all but what he chose to see, or deaf to all but that which a certain class chose to say. A fine estate in Barbadoes was likely soon to lapse to him; and the knowledge that he might at any hour be called upon to act in the responsible situation for which he had been educated, stimulated his study of his duties and his insight into his prospects. He did not, of course, make up his mind respecting the details of the management of a plantation before he had had the opportunity of observing how the actual system worked; but certain broad principles were fixed in his mind,—principles which may be attested in any part of the world, and which could not, he thought, be made void by any connexion, or obscured by any aspect of circumstances whatever. With these principles full in his mind, he began, from the moment he set foot on shore, to observe all that surrounded him wherever he went, and to obtain information from every class of persons to whom he could gain access.
On the present occasion, his father enforced his complaints of West India adversity, by pointing to the estates on either hand as they rode along, and relating how they had changed owners, and what disasters had befallen their various proprietors.
“In England,” said he, “estates go down from generation to generation, and a man may have some pleasure in improving and cultivating, in the hope that his children's great-grand-children may profit by and carry on his labours. But here, no man knows whether his son will be tile better for all he does.”
“We shall never prosper,” replied Alfred, “till the system is wholly changed. Security of property is one of the prime elements of prosperity.”
“And that security can never be reached here, son. As soon as a man thinks he is likely to do well, there comes a hurricane, or a mortality among his slaves, or, worst of all, an insurrection; and perpetually, some thwarting measure of our enemies at home. They need not envy us our possessions here; for I am sure it requires the patience of Job to be an India planter.”
“It must require more patience, father, than I shall ever have, to hold property which is needlessly insecure.”
“How do you mean needlessly insecure?”
“I mean insecure through bad institutions. I do not see at present how we are to guard against hurricanes; but if I were convinced that the other evils you mention could not be removed, I would as soon go into Turkey and hold my chattels at the pleasure of the sultan, as be your heir. There is little to choose between any two countries where there is not security of property.”
“But what I complain of, Alfred, is, that the law does not secure us our property. If the same law secures property in England, why does it not here?”
“Aye, there is the question, father. Is it not clear that there is some flaw in our institutions here which keeps them out of the pale of the protection of law? Hurricanes and bad seasons are answerable for a very small portion of our distress; and to set against them, we have, as with all our complaints we cannot deny, a very extraordinary degree of protection from government; though we cannot manage to benefit much by it. By far the larger share of our evils are such as law cannot remedy; and since that law works far better in England than here, it is plain that the fault does not rest with the law.”
“I am sure it is time we were looking into it, son.”
“High time, indeed: but people are unwilling to took deep enough. If some of tile pains that are spent in providing expedients for the management of property, were employed in examining into its nature and tenure, we should be more in the way of finding out what part of our system is wrong.”
“My dear son, you really are too hard upon us. Do you think we do not know what property is?”
“I do; because I think we hold a great deal that does not belong to us. We can find that out presently by going back to the beginning. Taking the old pagan fable of the first pair of human beings coming out of a cave, and supposing that cave to be in yonder hill,—what property,—what of their own would that man and woman have on first coming into the daylight?”
“As soon as they chose to take possession, they might have a whole continent.”
“Aye; but before they took possession: as they stood, hand in hand, at the mouth of the cave.”
“Why nothing: for if tile man said, ‘That tree, bending with fruit, is mine,’ the woman might say, ‘No, I want it;’ and neither could give a reason for keeping it that the other might not offer as well.”
“True,—as to the fruit tree; but there is a possession for each which each has a sound reason for claiming. Suppose the man to say to the woman, ‘The hair of my head is too short, and I will have some of yours;’ or the woman to say, ‘I have not strength enough in my limbs, and you must work for me,’ has either any property in the person of the other?”
“Certainly not. If the woman wants the whole of her hair to shade her face at noonday, and the man the whole strength of his limbs for toil or sport, there is no reason why each should not keep his own if he can. But most likely one would be stronger than the other, and then possession would he taken.”
“But not property established. If the man cut off the woman's tresses while she slept, the hair would be no longer a part of the woman, as strength of limb or faculties of sense: yet the woman would still have the best title to it as having been hers by original endowment. If the woman, in her turn, bound the man's feet as he lay sick on the ground, and would not release him till he had dug up as many roots for her as she chose, would the man, therefore, or his strength of limb, become her property?”
“Certainly not; for if he chooses to dig up no more roots than he eats himself, she can do nothing with him for her own advantage; and the moment he can free himself he will. This is merely force acting against force, and there is no right in the case.”
“But the woman has a right to cut off her own hair, and the man to employ his own strength, as long as he does not trespass on his companion's personal rights. Now, we see that man has no natural property in man.”
“Nor in anything else but himself,” interrupted Mr. Bruce, “as you began by showing. If you can prove that man has now any right to property in the fruits of the earth, it follows that he may in man.”
“I think not,” said Alfred. “The question depends on what constitutes right. I think that man has a conventional, though not a natural right, to the productions of the earth; but neither the one nor the other can sanction his holding man in property. There may be a general agreement that men shall take and keep possession of portions of land; but there can never be a general agreement that man shall be lord of man. If the man and woman agree to take each a portion of land, and not to interfere with one another, that agreement is a kind of law; and, in proportion as it is observed, tile property of each will be secure. The same plan is pursued by their descendants till they become too numerous to make a mere agreement a sufficient security. They then agree upon an express law, sanctioned by certain punishments, which once more secure to each the possession of what has now become his property by common consent.”
“Such agreement and such law,” said Mr. Bruce, “are essential to the general good; for there would be no end to violence and fraud, no inducement to improvement, no mutual confidence and enjoyment, if the law of brute force were to exclude all other law.”
“True,” said Alfred. “The general good is not only the origin, but ought to be the end and aim of the institution of property. With the property in man which has been assumed from age to age, the case is very different; and there never was a time when that sort of property could be secure, or established by general agreement, or conducive to the general good. One needs but to draw a parallel between the histories of the two kinds of property to see this.”
“Histories too long for me and my neighbours to study, I am afraid, Alfred.”
“They may be very briefly sketched, father. Capital held by the tenure of mutual agreement, —that is, property in all things created subordinate to man, has a perpetual tendency to increase and improvement; and every such increase is an addition to the good of society. Cultivators of the land have made their portions more and more productive, so as to maintain a greater number of people perpetually. Inventions have arisen, arts have improved, manufactures have extended, till a far larger multitude of people spend their lives in ease and enjoyment, than would ever have been born if security of property had been unknown. There is this conspicuous mark of blessing on capital rightly applied, that the more it increases the more it will increase; while precisely the reverse is the fact with that which is unrighteously made capital. The more eagerly it is applied, the faster it dwindles away; the more it is husbanded, the more want it causes. Its increase adds to the sum of human misery; its diminution brings a proportionate relief.”
“Why, then, has there been slavery in all ages of the world?”
“Because the race, like the individual, is slow in learning by experience: but the race has learned, and goes on to learn notwithstanding; and slavery becomes less extensive with the lapse of centuries. In ancient times, a great part of the population of the most polished states was the property of the rest. Those were the days when the lords of the race lived in barbarous, comfortless splendour, and the bulk of the people in extreme hardship;—the days of Greek and Roman slavery. Then came the bondage and villeinage of the Gothic nations,—far more tolerable than the ancient slavery, because the bondmen lived on their native soil, and had some sort of mutual interest with their owners; but it was not till they were allowed property that their population increased, and the condition of themselves and their masters improved. The experience of this improvement led to further emancipation; and that comparative freedom again to further improvement, till the state of a boor as to health, comfort, and security of property, is now superior to that of the lord of his forefathers. In the same manner, my dear sir, it might be hoped that the condition of the descendants of your slaves, a thousand years hence, would be happier than yours to-day, if our slaves were the original inhabitants of the soil they till. As it is, I fear that our bad institutions will die out only in the persons of those most injured by them. But that they will die out, the slave-history of Europe is our warrant; and then, and then only, will the laws of England secure the property of Englishmen as fully abroad as at home. It is no reproach upon laws framed to secure righteous property, that they do not guard that which is unrighteous. Consider once more who are the parties to the law, and the case will be clear.
“The government and the holders of the property are the parties to the maintenance of the law. The infringers of the law are the third party, whom it is the mutual interest of the other two to punish. So the matter stands in England, where the law works comparatively well. Here the case is wholly changed by the second and third parties being identical, while the first treats them as being opposed to each other, The infringer of the law,—that is, the rebellious slave, being the property of—that is, the same party with, his owner, the benefits of the compact are destroyed to all. If the slave is not to be punished, the owner's property (his plantation) is not safe. If he is punished, the owner's property (the slave) is injured. No wonder the master complains of the double risk to his property; but such risk is the necessary consequence of holding a subject of the law in property.”
“You put me in mind, son. of old Hodge's complaint,—you remember Hodge,—about his vicious bull. He thought it very hard that, after all the mischief done to his own stock, he should be compelled by the overseer to kill the bull. Hodge owned a rebellious subject of the law.”
“True; and Hodge was to be pitied, because there was no making a free labourer of his bull. But if he had had the choice whether to hold the animal itself as capital, or only its labour, we should have laid the blame of his double loss upon himself.”
“You must hear what Mitchelson has to say on that subject, son. He has suffered as much in his time as any man from troublesome slaves, More than one was executed, and several ran away while his last lease was current. His management has changed, however, with the change of times.”
“Is he suffering, like every body else?”
“Yes; and I do not think he would have renewed his lease if he had anticipated how prices would fall. But he is a prudent man, and knows how to mould his plan to differences of circumstance.”
“Who is his landlord?”
“Stanley, who has lived in England these fifteen years, you know. When he left this neighbourhood, he let Paradise to Mitchelson for ten years, at a thousand a year. There was a permanent population of 300 slaves on the estate at that time.”
“If there were no more than 300 slaves, sugars must have borne a better price than they do now, to make it a good bargain to Mitchelson.”
“They averaged a gross price of 30l. a ton. In addition to the rent, the other charges amounted to about 20l. a ton; so that Mitchelson's net income was 1000l.”
“And prices being higher than at present, he was tempted to work his slaves to the utmost?”
“Yes; but another part of the agreement was, that the plantation, with all belonging to it, should be appraised when the lease expired, and that Mitchelson should pay up for any damage it might have sustained, or pocket the value of any improvement. He made his calculations carefully, and found that it would hardly answer to overwork his slaves considerably, as what he would have to pay up for the sacrifice of life at the end of ten years, would balance the present increase of profits from making more sugar; so he began moderately but when prices rose to 40l. a ton, adding 2000l. to his income, it became clearly his interest to increase his crop. He determined therefore to add 100 tons to it, even at an expense of life of 1000l. But it is inconceivable what trouble he had after a time. He can tell you as much as any man I know about the inefficiency of the law for the protection of property.”
Alfred made no reply; and there was a long silence.
“Well!” continued his father, “do not you wish to know the end of Mitchelson's speculation?”
“O! by all means. I was thinking what would be the issue of it——at the end of time.”
“At the close of the lease,—that is, five years ago,—he willingly paid up for the slaves that were under-ground, and got a renewal——”
“Pray, did Stanley understand his system?”
“Why, I should suppose he did, having lived here some years himself; but whether he did or not, he found Mitchelson a good tenant, and that was all that concerned him. No sooner was Mitchelson set going again, than prices fell, and fell, till they were only 25l. a ton.”
“Thank God!” cried Alfred.
“Nay; I was really very sorry, independently of my own stake in the market. It was truly mortifying that it should happen at the beginning of a lease. He made the best of it, however, and saw that if he could not bring his crops just to answer the rent and expenses, he might make his profit at the end of the lease by a large claim on the score of improvements. So he changed his system entirely, as you will see presently. He raises food for slaves and cattle on ground which he cropped before, feeds them well and works them lightly, so that their numbers may increase, and has even had his slaves taught mechanical arts. He will have a pretty heavy lump of profits, at the end of another five years, if this state of things continues.”
“We are told in England, father, that it is the interest of planters to be humane to their slaves, and the English are too apt to believe it. I trust that you have never put your hand to such a declaration since Mitchelson opened his affairs to you; or that you explain it away like an innkeeper I knew in England.”
“What did he declare?”
“A gentleman was giving him a lecture about over-working his post-horses. ‘Bless me, sir!’ said the man, ‘do you think I know my own interest in the poor beasts no better than that? It is my interest, you see, to keep them in good condition till the election, our great county election, which comes on in three weeks.’ ‘And what becomes of your horses then?’ ‘There must be wear and tear at those times, you know; but when that fortnight is over, there will be rest for man and beast: for it is always a dead time for posting just after an election.’ ‘Much good may your tender mercies do your carrion!’ said the gentleman, as I shall be tempted to say to Mitchelson, if he tells me the story of his two leases.”
“Let me just observe, Alfred, that I hope you will not admit any prejudice against Mitehelson on account of your peculiar opinions about property. He is the most humane man to his white servants, the most indulgent parent, the best——”
“Father,” interrupted Alfred, “I assure you, once for all, that when I hear of cruelties in the gross, I execrate systems, not men. If I had thought of individuals as I do of institutions here, you would have already had my farewell, and I should have been on board ship again for England by this time.”
“Patience! my dear boy, patience!”
“Not with abuses, father; not with social crimes. As much as you please in enlightening those who are unaware of them: but with the abuses themselves, no patience!”