Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VIII.: THE PROUD COVET PAUPERISM IN DEMERARA. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter VIII.: THE PROUD COVET PAUPERISM 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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THE PROUD COVET PAUPERISM IN DEMERARA.
It was well that Alfred had held out no expectation to Cassius that his ransom would be lowered, or to anybody that the overseer would be dismissed. Mr. Mitchelson was willing to promise everything to any person under whose influence he might be at the time; but as fear had been his predominant passion ever since the days of the insurrection which once happened on his estate, and as Horner had found some means of making him afraid of him, there seemed little hope that any counter-influence would be of any avail. Alfred continued to hover about the plantation, however, and to give the slaves who had been exposed to increased hardship by his means, the protection of his occasional presence, till he was called away for a time, and obliged to leave his charge to the tender mercies of their enemy, while he undertook a yet more pressing responsibility. The Barbadoes' estate became his, and it was necessary that he should proceed to the spot.
“I wish I could make you think of returning to live with us, my dear son,” said Mr. Bruce. “You see we cannot possibly break up our establishment and come to you. Why cannot you arrange your concerns, and then leave them to an agent, like other people?”
“He will I am sure,” added his mother, “if he has any idea how we dread losing him. Mary, love, you have more influence than anybody with your brother; you can persuade him to return to us.”
Mary looked up through her tears, while she replied that she believed her brother had long weighed the duty of living on his estate against other claims; and she hoped he would do what he thought right,;and then it was certain he would come back if he could.
Alfred declared that it was a great grief to him to leave his family so soon, and that he should return as speedily and as often as possible to visit them; but that he could not promise to reside permanently anywhere but on his own estate.
His father observed that there were plenty of agents to be had, and that he was sorry some friends of his in England had prejudiced his son against management by agents.
Alfred observed that, believing, as he did, that the non-residence of proprietors was the curse of the West Indies, he could not conscientiously add his weight to the burden. Neither was he at all sure that he could afford the heavy expenses of agency, or that any of the plans for which he had been expressly educated could be fairly tried without his superintendence. Whatever might be the honesty and obedience of an agent, and however strong his own confidence in one recommended by his father, it was impossible that any man should discern his views so clearly or take so warm an interest in their issue, as himself. It appeared to him that a critical period in the state of his slave population had arrived, and he could not forgive himself if he gave the management into other hands.
“I am glad you are aware,” said his father, “that Barbadoes is little like Demerara. What you have seen here affords no rule for what you are to do there.”
“One kind of rule, perhaps,” said Alfred, smiling; “the rule of contrary. Here soils are fertile, there barren; here the slave population decreases as rapidly as it increases there; here slaves are very valuable, there they are worth little; here they are manumitted at the average of 27, there of 125 in a year, the impediment of a heavy tax remaining in each.”
“Then you had rather have an estate in Barbadoes than here,” said Mary, “whatever your profits may be?”
“Much rather. Slavery, like other institutions, is only enforced where it is worth enforcing; and since it is found less worth enforcing in Barbadoes than elsewhere, I shall meet with the less opposition to measures which I should have adopted wherever my estate had happened to lie. I do not despair of inducing some of my neighbours to make free labourers of their blacks, if, as I expect, they already find that riley are of little value as slaves.”
“The reason why they are so little valuable,” said Mr. Bruce, “is that there is less sugar grown in Barbadoes than in any of the colonies which grow sugar at all.”
“True,” said Alfred. “The soil of Barbadoes produces less sugar; the planters therefore profit less by the bounty on sugars: they are less tempted to overwork their slaves, and to reduce their provision-grounds to the narrowest limits prescribed by law; the slaves therefore increase beyond the proportion wanted for the land, and of course obtain their freedom easily. The exact reverse is the ease here. Here the most sugar is grown, the largest share of the bounty taken, the slaves most overworked and underfed, their numbers decreasing, their value increasing, and their freedom the most difficult to achieve.”
Mary looked up from her work, observing that the bounty was then the great obstacle to emancipation.
“The one obstacle,” replied her brother, “without which no other could stand for an hour. Louisa, my dear, bring me a map of the world.”
“Of the world!” exclaimed the little girl; “I could show you the way to Barbadoes with a much smaller map than that.”
“You shall teach me the way to Barbadoes afterwards; I want the larger map first. Look here, Mary. See here what the whole world owes to British legislation on the sugar trade! Let us first find out to what extent sugar might be grown if we had to consider climate only.”
“I have always wondered,” said Mary, “why there was no sugar grown in Africa, or in any part of South America but the little angle we inhabit. So it might be anywhere within that line.”
“Anywhere (as far as climate is concerned) within thirty degrees of the equator. There are duties which prohibit the English from purchasing sugar from China, New Holland, the Indian Archipelago, Arabia, Mexico, and all South America, but our little corner here; and from Africa none is to be had either. The slave-trade has destroyed all hope of that, independently of all restrictions. The slave-trade has been like a plague in Africa.”
“Well, but you have passed over Hindostan.”
“The trade is not absolutely prohibited there; but it is restricted and limited by high duties.”
“What remains then?”
“Only our corner of the world, and a tiny territory it is, to be protected at the expense of such vast tracts—only the West India Islands, and a slip of the continent.”
“But surely it is a hardship on the inhabitants of these other countries, to be prevented supplying the British with sugars?”
“It is a hardship to all parties in turn—to the British, that the price is artificially raised, and the quantity limited; to the inhabitants of these vast tracts, that they are kept out of the market; to the West India planters; but most of all, to the slaves.”
“To the planters? Why, I thought it was for their sakes that the monopoly was ordered!”
“So it is; but they suffer far more than they gain by it. The cultivation of sugar is at present a forced cultivation, attended with expense and hazard, and only to be maintained by a monopoly price, both high and permanent.
“Look at Mitehelson's plantation, and see whether its aspect is that of a thriving property! A miserable hoe, used by men and women with the whip at their backs, the only instrument used in turning up the soil, while there are such things in the world as drill ploughs and cattle! A soil exhausted more and more every year! A population decreasing every year, in a land and climate most favourable to increase! Are these signs of prosperity? Yet all these are the consequence of a monopoly which tempts to the production of sugar at all hazards, and at every cost.”
“I see how all these evils would disappear, brother, if the trade were free; but could the proprietors stand the shock? Could they go through the transition?”
“O yes; if they chose to set about it properly, living on their own estates, and making use of modern improvements in the management of the land. If the soil were improved to the extent it might be, the West Indies might compete with any country in the world. The planter would estimate his property by the condition of his land, and not by the number of his slaves. He would command a certain average return from the effective labour he would then employ, instead of the capricious and fluctuating profits he now derives from a species of labour which it is as impolitic as guilty to employ; and, as the demand for sugar would continually increase, after the effects of free competition had once been felt, there would be no fear of a decline of trade. A soil and climate like this are sufficient warrants that the West Indies may trade in sugar to the end of the world, if a fair chance is given by an open trade.”
“Then if economy became necessary, there would be no slaves; for it is pretty clear that slave labour is dear.”
“Slavery can only exist where men are scarce in proportion to land; and as the population would by this time have increased, and be increasing, slavery would have died out. At present, land is abundant, fertile, and cheap in Demerara, and labour decreases every year; so that slaves are valuable, and their prospect of emancipation but distant. But in my estate, as I have told you, the land is by far less fertile, labour more abundant, and slavery wearing out. My exertions will be directed towards improving my land, and increasing the supply of labour; by which I shall gain the double advantage of procuring labour cheap, and hastening the work of emancipation. I hope no new monopoly will be proposed, which should tempt me to change my plan, and aid and abet slavery.”
“I can trust you,” said Mary, smiling. “You would not yield to the temptation.”
“I trust not, sister: but I will not answer for the effect of living long in a slave country. The very sight of slavery is corrupting, to say nothing of the evil of holding property under the system. But I feel resolute enough at this moment.”
“Remember, my dear son,” said Mr. Bruce, “that you may find, as many find, that principles which seem very clear when only reasoned on, turn out very differently when applied to practice. There is your principle that you argue upon, as if it was a settled matter, that high prices stimulate supply——”
“Well, father, what of it? Is it not true, when things take their natural course?”
“I only know that it is not true here, if what you have been saying is true. The high prices you complain of lessen instead of increasing the supply of labour. Did not you say so?”
“I did; and I think the fact only shows that labour i, not supplied in its natural course. You see the principle operates naturally upon the masters. It stimulates them to the production of sugar to such a degree as to ruin their soils; and if the supply of labour fails in proportion to the rise of prices, it proves,—not that a principle is false, which holds good everywhere else,—but that the peculiar kind of labour used here is not rightly held or naturally recompensed. This is only another of the many reversals of all allowed rules, which are so striking to those who watch West Indian policy from a distance. We might make another picture out of it for our new Topsy Turvy.”
“I would make two pictures,” said Mary. “John Bull comes with a high price in his hand to buy sugar of a free labourer, who works harder and harder, grows rich, and employs a tribe of labourers under him. John Bull brings the same price to a slave. He pines and will not work: the price is lessened; he brightens, works, eats, and grows fat. It dwindles to nothing, and he leaps for joy, snaps his fingers in his master's face, and hugs John Bull with might and main.”
Alfred laughed while be admitted this to be a true picture. In answer to an objection from his father, that slaves were not fit to employ and enjoy freedom, lie mentioned the remarkable fact that scarcely any fee blacks receive parish relief in comparison with whites, though their civil and political disabilities are such as to impose great hardships upon them. If, in an average of six years, including the whole of our West Indian colonies, it be found, (and it has been proved,) that out of a free black and coloured population of 88,000, only one in 387 has received even occasional parish relief, while, out of a white population of 63,400), one in 38 has been so relieved, it is pretty plain that the manumitted slaves are not too vicious or idle to take care of themselves; and there is an end to the common objection to manumission, that the freed slaves must increase the burden of pauperism.
It had frequently occurred to Alfred, that forebodings of pauperism came with a very ill grace from a body who subsist on the most expensive pauper establishment ever invented. The West India monopoly is a most burdensome poor-rate, levied by compulsion, and bestowed on those who ought to maintain themselves. It operates as poor-rates always do, in producing discontents among those who pay, and indolence, recklessness, waste, and profligacy, among those who receive it, together with incessant and greedy demands for further assistance. The main difference is, that the West India paupers might and would flourish, if the mother country could be prevailed upon to withhold the alms so clamorously craved; which is more, alas! than can be said in the case of parish paupers. Alfred thought that this consideration would for ever strengthen him to stem the current of public opinion, which, however narrow and foul, runs so strongly in the West Indies as to require the force of a strong mind to keep its place in it. Happen what might, he could never submit to be a pauper.
He hoped, however, that the days of strong temptation were ever,—that slavery was a perishing system,—a system that must perish ere long under any kind of management. High prices, rich lands, and scarcity of people, in conjunction, he argued, are the only supports of slavery.
High prices exhaust lands; so there is a prospect of an end of slavery this way.
Moderate prices cause an increase of people; so there is the same prospect this way.
Low prices only effect the same end more rapidly.
So, with a clear conviction that slavery must, at all events, come to an end, Alfred set sail for Barbadoes. The chief object of his going was to learn what he could do to hasten the wished-for day.