Martineau on Property & Slave Labour

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Source: From Martineau's Tale "Demerara" in Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 2.

Editor: At the end of each tale or illustration Martineau provides a summary of the main economic ideas whch she was using in the story. This example comes from a tale called "Demerara" on sugar production by slaves in the British colonies. In the 9 volume series of Illustrations of Political Economy there were 25 such tales.


This volume, like the last, enlarges on principles already laid down. It treats of the respective values of different kinds of labour, and of a particular mode of investing capital. The truths illustrated may be arranged as follows.

Property is held by conventional, not natural right.

As the agreement to hold man in property never took place between the parties concerned, i. e., is not conventional, Man has no right to hold Man in property.

Law, i. e., the sanctioned agreement of the parties concerned, secures property.

Where the parties are not agreed, therefore, law does not secure property.

Where one of the parties under the law is held as property by another party, the law injures the one or the other as often as they are opposed. Moreover, its very protection injures the protected party,— as when a rebellious slave is hanged.

Human labour is more valuable than brute labour, only because actuated by reason; for human strength is iuferior to brute strength.

The origin of labour, human and brute, is the Will.

The Reason of slaves is not subjected to exercise. nor their will to more than a few weak motives.

The labour of slaves is therefore less valuable than that of brutes, inasmuch as their strength is inferior; and less valuable than that of free labourers, inasmuch as their Reason and Will are feeble and alienated.

Free and slave labour are equally owned by the capitalist.

Where the labourer is not held as capital, the capitalist pays for labour only.

Where the labourer is held as capital, the capitalist not only pays a much higher price for an equal quantity of labour, but also for waste, negligence, and theft, on the part of the labourer.

Capital is thus sunk, which ought to be reproduced.

As the supply of slave-labour does not rise and fall with the wants of the capitalist, like that of free labour, he employs his occasional surplus on works which could be better done by brute labour or machinery.

By rejecting brute labour, he refuses facilities for convertible husbandry, and for improving the labour of his slaves by giving them animal food.

By rejecting machinery, he declines the most direct and complete method of saving labour.

Thus, again, capital is sunk which ought to be reproduced.

In order to make up for this loss of capital to slaveowners, bounties and prohibitions are granted in their behalf by government; the waste committed by certain capitalists abroad, being thus paid for out of the earnings of those at home.

Sugar being the production especially protected, every thing is sacrificed by planters to the growth of sugar. the land is exhausted by perpetual cropping, the least possible portion of it is tilled for food, the slaves are wren out by overwork, anl their numbers decrease in proportion to ttle scantiness of their food, and the oppressiveness of their toil.

When the soil is so far exhausted as to place its owner out of reach of the sugar-bounties, more food is raised, less toil is inflicted, and the slave population increases.

Legislative protection, therefore, not only taxes the people at home, but promotes ruin, misery, and death, in the protected colonies.

A free trade in sugar would banish slavery altogether, since competition must induce an economy of labour and capaal; i.e., a substi tution of free tbr slave labour.

Let us see, then, what is the responsibility of the legislature in this matter.

The slave system inflicts an incalculable amount of human suffering, for the sake of making a wholesale waste of labour and capital.

Since the slave system is only supported by legislative protection, the legistature is responsible for the misery caused by direct infliction, and for the injury indirectly occasioned by the waste of labour and capital.