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Chapter VI.: MAN WORTH LESS THAN BEAST 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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MAN WORTH LESS THAN BEAST IN DEMERARA.
“What can be the matter with Mitchelson?” said Mr. Bruce one day, when his son was riding with him. “See what a hurry he is in, and how vexed he looks! He is in a downright passion with his favourite mare.”
Mr. Mitehelson smoothed his countenance a little as he approached, but still looked sorely troubled. The cause of his vexation was soon told. His mill-dam had burst, and been carried away at a very critical season, and nothing could repay the loss of time before it could be restored. Time was everything in such a case.
“And how long will it take to repair it?” inquired Alfred.
“Three months,—three precious months, I expect.”
“Is it possible?” said Alfred. “I cannot think it.”
“You judge of everything, son, as if this were England,” said Mr. Bruce. “Our people do not turn off work like the labourers you have been accustomed to see.”
“Mr. Mitchelson must know best, of course,” replied Alfred;” but does your surveyor, or contractor or whoever he be, bid you wait three months?”
“He will when he hears the story which I am now on my way to tell him. I can't stop, so good morning.”
“Let me go with you,—may I?” said Alfred. “l like to see and hear everything I can.”
Mr. Mitchelson professing himself glad of his company, Alfred turned his horse's head in search of the contractor.
While this important personage was musing and calculating, Mr. Mitchelson kept urging,—
“Time, you know, is everything. Anything to save time.”
Alfred modestly suggested that it would be worth trying the experiment of making the slaves as much like English labourers for the occasion as possible. Mitchelson laughed at the idea; but asked the contractor how long the repairs would take if the number of slaves he meant to employ were English labourers?
“From twelve to fifteen days, I should think.”
“And how long if they work like slaves in general?”
“Probably sixty days.”
“Somewhat under the time I fixed in my own mind. You know, Alfred, I said three months at a round guess.”
“I wish—I wish——” Alfred kept saying, half to himself.
“What do you wish?” said the contractor, who understood the value of labour, and suspected that he and Alfred were of the same way of thinking on that class of subjects; “what is it you wish?”
“Perhaps Mr. Mitchelson will laugh at me for the notion; but I wish he would let you and me manage this affair, as we shall agree; you pledging yourself for the cost, and I for the time. You shall arrange the work, and I will manage the slaves.”
“In that case,” replied the contractor, “I would engage to finish the repairs in twenty days.”
“Twenty days!” cried Mitchelson. “My dear sir, you were more right in saying sixty. You will not do it under sixty. But you may try. I give you carte blanche; and to leave you perfectly free, I will go away. I want to go into Berbice, and I may as well do it now while our regular business is stopped.”
The other contracting parties were by no means sorry for this. Alfred's partner returned with him and operations were commenced immediately.
The main feature of Alfred's plan was to pay wages. He collected the men, told them what they had to do and expect, promised them warm clothing in case of their working early and late, showed them the ample provision of meat, bread, and vegetables he had stored at hand, marched them off, only staying behind to forbid the overseer to come within sight of the mill-dam, and from that time never left the spot till the work was finished. Homer was very angry, and full of scorn and evil prognostications; but nobody cared except the poor women and children, upon whom he vented his ill-humour as long as he was deprived of his dominion over the able-bodied labourers.
Mr. Bruce arrived when the work was half done, to see how his son's speculation was likely to succeed. As he approached, he was struck with the appearance of activity so unusual in that region. The first sound he heard was a hum of voices, some singing, some talking, some laughing; for negroes have none of the gravity of English labourers. When they are not sullen they are merry; and now they showed that talk and mirth were no hinderance to working with might and main. Cassius toiled the hardest of all, and was the gravest; but he was happy: for this was an opportunity of increasing the fund for his ransom which he had little dreamed of Alfred was talking with him, and lending a hand, as he did continually to one or another, when his father appeared.
“Bravo! son,” cried Mr. Bruce, as Alfred ran to meet him. “You and your partner are doing wonders, I see. Will you fulfil your contract.?”
“Very easily, sir, if weather remains favourable—(O! I forgot there was no fear of bad weather)—and if Mr. Mitchelson keeps out of the way, so that I may keep Homer and his whip out of the way also till we have done. The family are all absent, you see: but I will step in with you while you rest yourself. I was surprised to find the ladies gone too when I arrived.”
“Mitchelson always takes them with him when he is absent for more than a few hours.”
Alfred thought within himself that he should not have suspected the gentleman of being so very domestic.
“But come,” said Mr. Bruce, dismounting and fastening up his horse, “show me the secrets of your management. What are these barrels, and whence comes this savoury smell?”
“These barrels hold beef and pork, sir; and the savour is from the cooking in yonder hut.”
“And what is your allowance per man?”
“As much as he chooses to eat. We should get little work done if we gave each labourer weekly no more than two pounds of herrings and eight pounds of flour, with the vegetables they grow themselves.”
“The law pronounces that to be enough.”
“But what says the law of nature? You and I do no hard work; and could we keep ourselves sleek and strong on such a supply of food?”
“Negroes do not want so much as whites.”
“That is a good reason for their having as much as they do want. Our people here are not troubled with indigestion, as far as I can perceive. What do you think of our warm jackets?”
“I cannot imagine how they can support the heat in such clothing. No wonder they throw them aside.”
“They are only for morning and evening. The people scarcely seem to heed the morning fogs while they wear their woollens; and we make them put them on again when the sun sets——”
“Do you mean that they work after sunset of their own accord?”
“We have difficulty in making them leave off at nine o'clock. They like to sing to the moon as they work; and when they have done, they are not too tired for a dance. Father, you would more than pay for a double suit of clothing to your slaves by the improvement in their morning's work; and yet I believe you give them more than the law orders.”
“Yes. One hat, shirt, jacket, and trowsers, cannot be made to last a year; and the clothing that the slaves buy for themselves is more for ornament than warmth. I do not know how the overseer clothes them, but I have always desired that they should have whatever was necessary.”
Alfred said to himself that the overseer's notions of what was necessary might not be the best rule to go by.
Mr. Bruce meanwhile was looking alternately at two gangs of slaves at work alter a rather different manner. He was standing on the confines of two estates; and, in a field at a little distance, a company of slaves was occupied as usual; that is, bending over the ground, but to all appearance scarcely moving, silent, listless, and dull. At hand, the whole gang, from Cassius down to the youngest and weakest, were as busy as bees, and from them came as cheerful a hum, though the nature of their work rather resembled the occupation of beavers.
“Task-work with wages,” said Alfred, pointing to his own gang; “eternal labour, without wages,” pointing to the other. “It is not often that we have an example of the two systems before our eves at, the same moment. I need not put it to you. which plan works the best.”
“It is indeed very striking; but what can we do? We must hold labour as capital,—to put the question in the form you like best,—for our modes of cultivation require continuous labour. We cannot begin our til age, and leave off and begin again, as may suit the pleasure of our labourers. We must have labour always at command.”
“Undoubtedly; and which has the most labour at command at this moment,—Mitchelson, or the owner of those miserable drones yonder? And what is to prevent Mitehelson from having this efficient labour always at command if he uses the same means that have secured it now? Labour is the product of mind as much as of body; and. to secure that product, we must sway the mind by the natural means,—by motives. A man must learn to work from self-interest before he will work for the sake of another; and labouring against self-interest is what nobody ought to expect of white men,—much less of slaves.”
“I am quite of your opinion there, and, in consequence, make my slaves as comfortable as I can. Of course, every man, woman, and child, would rather play for nothing than work for nothing.”
“Then surely it is best for all parties to make the connexion between labour and its reward as clear as possible. I doubt whether any slave believes that his comforts depend on the value of his work. At any rate, he often sees that they do not. And this difficulty will for ever attend the practice of holding labourers as fixed capital.” “But the maintenance of their labour, son, is reproducible as much as if they were free.”
“It is; in the same way as the subsistence of oxen and horses. In both cases it is consumed and reproduced with advantage: but cattle are fixed capital, and so are slaves. But slaves differ from cattle, on the one hand, in yielding (from internal opposition) a less return for their maintenance; and from free labourers, on the other, in not being acted upon by the inducements which stimulate production as an effort of mind as well as body. In all three cases the labour is purchased. In free labourers and cattle, all the faculties work together, and to advantage; in the slave they are opposed: and therefore he is, as far as the amount of labour is concerned, the least valuable of the three.”
“And too often as to the quality of his labour also, son. A slave does some few things for us that cattle and machinery could not do; but he falls far short of a free labourer in all respects Our slaves never invent or improve.”
“Why should they? No invention would shorten their toil, for they do no task-work. No improvement does them any good, for they have no share in the profits of their labour. They can invent and improve,—witness their ingenuity in their dwellings, and their skill in certain of their sports; but their masters will never possess their faculties, though they have purchased their limbs. Our true policy would be to divide the work of the slave between the ox and the hired labourer; we should get more out of the sinews of the one and the soul of the other, than the produce of double the number of slaves.”
“I have sometimes wondered,” said Mr. Bruce, “whether we do not lose on the whole by forbidding our slaves to raise exportable produce in their own grounds. They, being better adapted than ourselves to the soil and climate, might discover and practise modes of tillage from which we might gather many useful hints, which might more than repay what we should lose by their thefts.”
“What you would lose by theft is a mere trifle,” answered Alfred, “in the account of the cost of a negro. If they were free labourers, thieving as fast as opportunity would allow, (which being free labourers, they would, not,) your blacks would cost you little in comparison of what they do now without thieving.”
“How do you know?”
“I took pains to calculate the cost of a slave before I left England; and I have had the means of proving my calculation by the experience of my friend yonder, the contractor, who has had more opportunity than most people I know of mastering both sides of the question.”
“Does he speak of slaves newly imported, or of those born and bred on the estate? for that makes a vast difference.”
“We have reckoned both. Those imported were, of course, by far the dearest; for, in addition to the usual cost, we had to defray the expenses, in life and money, of wars on the coast of Africa and of conveying them across the ocean, the loss under the seasoning when they arrived, and the revenue to the African trader; and, after all, they are worth less than those bred on the spot, from being unacquainted with the language, and unused to the kinds of labour in which they were to be employed.”
“I never was one to advocate the importation of slaves; it is so clear that the expenses of their rearing are much less than those attending their transport. But I really do not think the cost of maintaining slaves can be greater than that of free labourers. They must both eat and drink, you know, and be clothed and housed.”
“True, father; and the question therefore is, whether their maintenance can be managed the more economically by their own contrivance when they have an interest in saving, or by their master's pinching them when they have an interest in wasting his property. The free labourer has every inducement to manage his field or other possession frugally, and to husband whatever produce he may obtain. You need only look into the state of our slave acres, to see how different the case is there. The cultivation is negligently performed, the produce stolen or wasted, so that we reap scarcely a third of the natural crop. In both cases, the master pays the subsistence of the labourer, but the slave-owner pays in addition for theft, negligence, and waste.”
“Well but, Alfred, give me the items. Tell me the value of a healthy slave at twenty-one?”
“I believe his labour will be found at least 25 per cent. dearer than free labour. From birth to fifteen years of age, including food, clothing, life-insurance, and medicine, he will be an expense; will not he?”
“Yes. The work he does will scarcely pay his insurance, medicine, and attendance, leaving out his food and clothing; but from fifteen to twenty-one, his labour may just defray his expenses.”
“Very well; then food and clothing for fifteen years remain to be paid; the average cost of which per annum being at the least 6l., he has cost 90l. over and above his earnings at twenty-one years. Then if we consider that the best work of the best field-hand is worth barely two-thirds of the average field-labour of whites,—if we consider the chances of his being sick or lame, or running away, or dying,—and that if none of these things happen, he must be maintained in old age, we must feel that property of this kind ought to bring in at least 10 per cent, per annum interest on the capital laid out upon him. Whether the labour of a black, amounting to barely two-thirds of that of a white labourer, defrays his own subsistence, his share of the expense of an overseer and a driver, and 10 per cent. interest on 90l., I leave you to say.”
“Certainly not, son, even if we forget that we have taken the average of free labour, and the prime of slave labour. We have said nothing of the women, whose cost is full as much, while their earnings are less than the men's. But you overlook one grand consideration;—that whites cannot work in the summer time in this climate and on this soil.”
“It is only saying ‘free black’ instead of ‘white.’ The tenure of the labour is the question, not the colour of the labourers, as long as there is a plentiful supply of whichever is wanted. Only let us look at what is passing before our eyes, and we shall see whether negroes working for wages, or even under tribute, are not as good. labourers as whites.”
“I have often meditated adopting the plan of tribute, Alfred, since times have gone badly with me; but it is difficult on a coffee plantation. If I were in Brazil, the proprietor of a gold mine, or at Panama, the lord of a pearl-fishery, I would adopt their customs. I would supply my slaves with provisions and tools, and they should return me a certain quantity of gold or pearls, and keep the surplus.”
“That is one way of making them work by fair means, father. It is an important approach to emancipation, as I believe it was found in Russia. It seems, too, an excellent preparative for a state of freedom; and surely such a preparative would never have been adopted, and would not have been allowed to proceed to entire emancipation, if such comparative freedom had not been advantageous to the master as well as the slave. It is a strong argument, brought forward by slave-holders, in favour of emancipation.”
“But the plan could not be tried on a coffee plantation, son—that is the worst of it. If we lived in the neighbourhood of a large town, I would attempt it on a small scale. Some of my slaves should let their labour, paying me a weekly tribute, and keeping whatever they earned over and above. This is done in places south and west of us on this continent, as a Spanish friend of mine was telling me lately.”
“Suppose we try task work instead, father?”
“I have no other objection than this, son. If the experiment did not answer, there would be no getting the slaves back to the present system.”
“A strong argument against the present system, father; but not the less true for that suppose then we try with some new employment. If the blacks are as stupid as they are thought to be here, we need not fear their carrying the principle out any farther than we wish. Suppose we make bricks by task-work. Why should we import them, when we have abundance of brick clay on the estate and labour to spare?”
“It has been found to answer better to import then.”
“Who says so?”
“Mr. Herbert, my old neighbour. He had not straw enough, to be sure, growing, as he does little besides sugar.”
“Ah; the bounty is all in all with these sugar growers, father. They keep their eye fixed on that bounty, and give no other article of production a fair chance. Besides, I suppose he did not try task-work?”
“Not he. But consider, Alfred, how very little the freight is; and then, there is the fuel.”
“The fuel is easily had; and a ton of coal will serve for eight tons of bricks. We are better supplied with straw than if we raised sugars only; and the apparatus is not expensive. Only consider, father the labour of your slaves, at present, does not average more than fifteen-pence a day; and brickmakers, in England, make from five to seven shillings a day. Do let me try whether, by working by count, we cannot raise the value of our slave-labour, and save the expense of importation.”
“But, my dear son, we do not want bricks enough to make it worth while.”
“Our neighbours want them as well as ourselves; and it may answer well to withdraw a permanent portion of labour from our coffee-walks and transfer it to our brick-field. The art is not difficult, and the climate is most favourable, so confidently as we may reckon on the absence of heavy rains for weeks together.”
“Well; we will see about it, son.”
“I give you warning, father,” said Alfred, laughing, “that I shall not be content with one experiment. If we save by brickmaking, I shall propose our making the bagging and packages the our coffee at home, instead of paying so high as we do for them.”
“Nay, Alfred; what becomes of your boasted principle of the division of labour?”
“I think as highly as ever of it where labour is as productive as it ought to be. But where eight free labourers do as much work as twelve slaves, it follows that if those twelve slaves were set free, four of them would be at leisure for more work. If as much sugar was raised already as was wanted, those four labourers might make a great saving by refining and claying the sugars at home; which business is now done elsewhere.”
“In the Spanish colonies, where there is a large proportion of free labourers, I know they do many things among themselves which British planters do not, and thus reduce the cost of cultivation in a way that we should be very glad to imitate.”
“Such imitation is easy enough, surely. We have only to introduce as large a proportion of free labour.”
“The wages of free labour are so dreadfully high,” objected Mr. Bruce.
“Only in proportion to the scarcity of free labour, I believe, father. Wherever there is little of a good thing, it is dear, according to the general rule. Slave-labour is not only dear in itself, but it makes free labour dear also; and gives an undue advantage to free labourers at the expense of the other two parties, if we would but allow natural principles of supply and free competition to work, the rights of all parties would be equalized.—But there is Homer hovering at a distance and looking as if he longed to come and whip us all round. I must keep him off, or he will spoil our work. The very sight of him is enough to paralyse my men; they absolutely hate him.”
“And well they may,” observed Mr. Bruce. “I cannot think what makes Mitchelson keep the man in his service. Even my overseer, who knows the nature of the business well, calls him a brute.”
Alfred told his father, in a low voice, that he should think it his duty to get this man discharged as soon as possible; for he was so enraged at the adoption of a new plan, and at its evident success, that it was too probable he would ill-treat the slaves to the utmost as soon as he had them again in his power.
“He cannot vent his revenge upon me,” said Alfred, “and will therefore pour it out upon them; and since I have done the deed, I must look to the consequences. Having taken these poor creatures under my care, I must see that they do not fall back into a worse state than before. I will not quit Mr. Mitchelson's side till I have seen change his overseer.”
Mr. Bruce shook his head, and made some grave remarks upon the imprudence of making enemies. He did not perceive, and his son did not remind him, that for his one new enemy he had secured a posse of grateful friends.
Mr. Mitehelson and his family returned punctually on the twenty-first day. The dam was, to their great surprise finished, the mill fit for use, the slaves in good plight, the contractor satisfied and gone home, and all at a less cost than would have secured the reluctant labour of as many hands for sixty days;—to say nothing of the vast advantage of avoiding a suspension of the usual operations on the estate. Mr. Mitchelson being, of course, pleased, all was right, except that Horner snatched every opportunity of oppressing and thwarting the people under him and it was no easy matter to get him dismissed. He was foolish enough to let fall words in the hearing of the slaves, which showed that he was aware he owed his situation to his master's favour only, and that he owed Alfred a grudge. The natural consequence, among a people perfectly ignorant, and yet subject to human passions, was that they adored Alfred, and hated Mr. Mitehelson and his overseer with an intense and almost equal hatred.