IN-DEPTH

Canada's Shame, Empires Profit: The Caribbean Slave Wars 1788-1807
December 21, 2005

When Canada secured the airport in Haiti and was instrumental in overthrowing its legitimate government (1,2,3), there was nothing new in its actions. Ever since the earliest beginnings of Canada, its history has been inextricably linked to the history of French, British and American ambitions in the Caribbean. Their profit derived from the peoples of the Caribbean has been an essential element in our history.

In the early 1800’s many of those who had fought in the Napoleonic wars for the British were discharged in Halifax, Nova Scotia (4,5,6). That war, the Napoleonic war in the Caribbean, was one of the most profitable wars in British history (7). The war to corner the market on Slave Plantations produced what is surely Britain’s most defining moment.  Two centuries later it is a moment that defines Canada as much as it does its imperial progenitors.

Few wars in the History of the Empire are more important and less well known. Between 1788 and 1807 British speculators in London who traded in weapons, slaves, sugar and cotton realized profits beyond the dreams of even the British Crown. 

By the time of the Napoleonic war millions had already perished in the British and French slave trade, a trade that drew these competitors into direct military conflict. Each side had long recognized the Caribbean slave plantations (8) as the basis of their wealth.  When France was negotiating the final settlement in the Seven Years War, the choice of either keeping Quebec or hanging on to its Caribbean slave plantations was surely decided by the simple calculation of profit. Quebec’s entire annual production was one eighth that of even one of the tiniest islands in the Caribbean that of Grenada (9,10).

Convinced of the importance of keeping a competitive edge over their opponents both the British and French would not reform their slave economies in fear that it should give advantage to their opponents (11). While more traditional and popular histories of the Napoleonic period concentrate on well dressed English loyalists and French Patriots fighting a gentleman’s war over principles, the reality was one of differences in their respective accumulation of profit, profit directly linked to the murder and enslavement of millions.

As Haiti completed the first ever successful Slave Revolt in history, the British government, despite pretensions (12) to abolitionist principles saw a remarkable opportunity. The French being thrown out of the Caribbean was more glorious to the British than any military victory could ever be. The French being dispossessed of their slave plantations had the double effect of weakening France and providing the British merchants in London with a near monopoly on the global production of sugar (13,14).

The only problem was that the slave revolt might spread and the already unstable islands under British control w0uld strike from freedom. Worse still was the possibility that these people who had overthrown slavery would start to produce sugar from the liberated plantations. The politically free societies of the Caribbean could effectively build an economic base that would that would prove a far more secure and reliable source of sugar for Europe than all the slave economies of the Caribbean. 

One of the initial sparks of the French Revolution is widely thought to be the riots over the shortages of commodities of sugar and coffee created by the slave revolts in the French Caribbean (15). The revolution then further inspired the hopes of liberation amongst the enslaved Africans and mulattoes.  The slave revolts had created a revolution on a global scale in the face of what was the beginning of what we now know as Global Capitalism or simply as Globalization.

The English monopoly with its speculators in London had seen its true enemy in a free people who had a competitive edge that would effectively undermine their power. The business leader and Prime Minister of the British Empire William Pitt stated that Haiti was the “Eden of the Western World” (16). It had represented a third of Frances foreign trade before its rule of slavery had been over thrown (17). The British government and the elite interests it represented were not speaking frivolously when they described their war with Haiti as a war for their “survival” (18). 

The greatest enemy to the English power and profits was the free society of Haiti then known as Saint Dominique. Here under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture they had not only overthrown the slavers and defeated European military powers they had also started to develop their economy (19). With just under half a million people ready to effectively out produce the English slave economies, the powerful elites in London had good reason to fear for their profits. Added to this throughout the Caribbean people were seeking freedom in Haiti. One such person was the future political and military leader Henry Christophe who had escaped to freedom from British enslavement (20). Another leader and brilliant tactician Jean-Jacques Dessalines summed up the cause of the Caribbean peoples in his statement “Live Free or Die” (21).   

14,000 slaves were taken from Africa and a larger number of criminals (22) and kidnapped sailors (23, 24) were drafted into the British military to smash the slave revolts of the Caribbean, and principally the successful revolt in Haiti (25, 26, 27).   Once the slave revolts had been crushed the intention was that British business men would then assume control of the former French slave plantations while enslaving the population. Upper and lower Canada as well as the Maritimes provided not only the lion’s share of the resources (28, 29) and many of the desperately needed soldiers for this conflict but also many of the commanding officers who were to lead the expedition (30, 31, 32). In every way imaginable Canada was an essential part of Britain’s plan to smash the Caribbean’s fight for liberty.

By the late 18th century the territory of what is now Canada had already provided the British Empire with the timber and other supplies essential for its war on the French, the Spanish and the Americans (33). Most critically of all it provided a home for those whose loyalty to Britain was not matched by any British desire to have them live in Britain, especially if they were black (34).

Recent efforts by French (35) and English (36) governments have been made to recast their imperial histories, especially in the textbooks they give to school children. Their mutual antagonism is portrayed as a struggle to protect liberty and encourage social reform. Canadians as the offspring of that global antagonism would do well to take note for we have a shared history and guilt in fighting a war to preserve the institution of slavery. Those wars also culminated in the accumulation of massive profits for London business men who bought and sold slaves.

The profits however were not shared between all business men equally. It was the speculators in London who encouraged the war that gained. The prices of sugar, cotton and slaves rose as a result of the perceived instability created by the Caribbean Slave War that the British elites had created (37). By creating a monopoly and then manufacturing a crisis to drive the prices higher through speculation on the market the British Business elites realized in these war years the highest profits they had ever made (38).

The slave plantation owners however saw the reverse in their profits (39). The more unstable the Caribbean became the greater the decline in their profits. Unable to sustain the conflict and create a profit, not to mention save their lives, the entire structure of Britain’s enslavement of the Caribbean was in danger of collapse. The British were running out of troops, and worst of all what troops they had proved entirely ineffective against the Haitians.

In every way that one can imagine the British were facing defeat in the Caribbean. Out of 25,000 who went into Haiti under the leadership of General Maitland a quarter of that number would leave (40, 41). Britain had lost more troops and sailors suppressing the peoples of the Caribbean than they had lost fighting in battles against Napoleon in Europe (42).  By the end of the Napoleonic global conflict Britain had lost approximately 300,000 troops and sailors (43). To realize the incredible profits of the London speculators thousands of soldiers and sailors of the Empire died in the Caribbean while killing thousands of free men who dared and succeeded in overthrowing slavery.

Britain was forced to sign an extraordinary peace treaty with the Haitians. In the Treaty Britain asked Haiti not to invade the British Empire and in return the British Empire would not attack Haiti (44). The strongest, largest and most brutal empire that the world had known asked a Caribbean island not to invade it. The British military was clearly not a threat to Haiti as much as Haiti was a threat to the very heart of British power, its slave plantations. To preserve what it had in the face of Haiti’s success Britain had to reform its slave plantation economies. The defeat of the British gave direct pressure to the reform movement already underway in Britain (45). That movement succeeded in ending the slave trade in 1807. Slavery itself however was not banned in the British Empire until over two decades later in 1833.

Canada was created in the conflict between two great powers, the British and the French, who derived their great economic power from the enslavement and murder of millions of Africans (46). When those enforced Africans and British criminals were discharged from the Caribbean Slave Wars and disembarked for a new life in Canada it is entirely possible they knew the war they had fought in was unjust. They probably also knew that they were released in Canada because they were not wanted in England. They were a politically embarrassing reminder of how the British Empire had lost in its attempt to crush the desire of a free people to resist slavery.

As their descendents and heirs it is remarkable that we do not remember our history or feel the shame on our society it engenders. What is not so remarkable considering our collective ignorance is that we continue to assist the world’s most powerful elites in suppressing the peoples of the Caribbean in their desire for freedom.

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(1) Haitian Rebel Leaders, CNN, 02/29/2004. “Malveaux: We've already heard reports about Canadians who are at the airport in Port-au-Princes to try to secure that and open up the waves, the airwaves, rather, for flights to come in. Also we've heard about the French, that they're involved as well. No surprise, the administration has been involved with talks with both of those nation.”

(2) Canada's Haitian policies draw fire; Don Lajoie, Windsor Star   10-08-2005

(3) Haiti-Unrest-Canada-Airport; Yuri Cortez, Agence France Presse   03/01/2004. Photographs show Canadian Special Forces present at the airport.

(4) Royal West India Regiment of Rangers, K MacDonald, Generations, Fall 2005, New Brunskwick

(5) Royal West India Rangers (RWIR) who settled in New Brunswick (now part of Canada) in 1819, http://www.geocities.com/moriancumerb/62RWIRrevised.htm

(6) Old habit in military may be clue to ancestor's disappearance; Devlin, Sandra, Truro Daily News   09-12-2005. “… British Army regiment known as the Royal West India Rangers, many of whose soldiers were discharged in Saint John and Halifax in 1819”.

(7) Seymour Drescher, Econocide, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. Drescher’s research showed the massive profits that people made speculating on the price of slaves and slave plantation products on the London markets. Drescher argues from this that the slave trade was profitable. In reality it was only profitable as long as the British had the military force to keep people enslaved. If we consider the profits of the speculators that were a direct result of the war then the war itself was an early and a massive success of British Capitalism. This book is not available in the Vancouver Public Library, but another book by Drescher, A Historical Guide to World of Slavery (Oxford, 1998), with most of the research repeated is.  I presume it is not in as much detail. The basic premise of Drescher that he supports with very extensive research is that the slave trade was increasingly profitable to the British in London right up to the moment the Slave Trade was abolished by Parliament.

(8) Seven Years' War; W.J. Eccles, Canadian Encyclopedia (2002)   01-01-2002

(9) Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild, Hought Mifflin Company, 2005. Page 55

(10) William Pitt 1759; John Robert Colombo, Colombo's All Time Great Canadian Quotations   04-01-1994. "Some are for keeping Canada, some Guadaloupe. Who will tell me what I shall be hanged for not keeping?", William Pitt (the Younger).

(11) Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild, Hought Mifflin Company, 2005

(12) William Pitt (the Younger), British prime minister (between 1783-1801 & 1804-1806), House of Commons debate, 2-3 April 1792: "[The slave trade is] the greatest practical evil which has ever afflicted the human race. [He promised without delay] to restore Africans to the level of human beings."

(13) Seymour Drescher, Econocide, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. Page 30, here it is shown that British had decisive control of the slave trade market over its competitors by 1805.

(14) Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild, Hought Mifflin Company, 2005.

(15) Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795, University of Illinois Press, 1979 115–118. Regards in general terms the events of February 1792, in Paris, explains the motives of popular resentment and mobilization on the sugar shortages.

(16) Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild, Hought Mifflin Company, 2005. Page 261.

(17) Ibid. page 261

(18) Ibid. Chapter 19, “Redcoats’ Graveyard”: This chapter details quite well the failed attempt by the British Empire to take Haiti.

(19) James, C. L. R. 1938. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Seeker and Warburg.

(20) Henry Christophe; Compton's by Britannica, 12-01-2003

(21) Haiti: 200 Years Of Black Independence; New African   02-01-2004

(22) Royal Africa Corp. (Royal York Rangers) http://www.regiments.org/regiments/africawest/regts/RAfrCorp.htm

(23) Royal Navy During the Napoleonic Era – Recruiting, http://home.gci.net/~stall/seaman1.html , 09/24/2004

(24) Impressment, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressment, 12/21/2005

(25) Birth of a Nation, Has the bloody 200-year history of Haiti doomed it to more violence? Adam Hochschild, San Francisco Chronnicle, May 30, 2004

(26) Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild, Hought Mifflin Company, 2005

(27) Slave Purchases, The Gordon Memorandum of the 8th April 1807, http://www.regiments.org/regiments/westindies/lists/wirgxref.htm , http://website.lineone.net/%7Ebwir/wirhist.htm#3rd

(28) History of Nova Scotia: Book #2: The Awakening.Part 5, "The War Of 1812: Eastern Theatre."  Ch. 7 - The Halifax Station. http://www.blupete.com/Hist/NovaScotiaBk2/Part5/Ch07.htm, 12/1/2005. Describes in extensive detail the importance of Halifax as a resupply base for the British Royal Navy. It was a central hub for the British Empires control of the Caribbean.

(29) Napoleonic Wars; Canadian Encyclopedia (2002),  01-01-2002

(30) Kent, Edward Augustus, Duke of 1767-1820; Canadisk/CanPix   06-15-1989

(31) Prince Edward,Duke of Kent (1767-1820): "The Forgotton Son."

http://www.blupete.com/Hist/BiosNS/1800-67/Kent.htm , 12/01/2005

(32) Prevost, Sir George; David Evans, Canadian Encyclopedia (2002)   01-01-2002

(33) Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785

(34) Canada: Letter from Birchtown: Reclaiming a hard past: Nova Scotia blacks celebrate a historic community; John Demont, Maclean's   02-14-2000

(35) Chirac says commission will review controversial new law on France's colonial past; AP Worldstream   12-09-2005. “The law, which was quietly passed earlier this year by the conservative-controlled parliament, requires history textbooks to show the "positive role" France played in its former colonies.”

(36) The (British) Empire strikes back, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3889537.stm, 07/13/2004. "We finish the book asking pupils to consider whether the empire was a good thing or a bad thing. It's deliberately a non-question, one that can't be answered because there are so many different viewpoints." This is a quotation from the author of an approved text book about the British Empire.

(37) Seymour Drescher, Econocide, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. Page 17 and 18, one can see from the graph the value of imports and exports by Britain from the West Indies rose at a phenomenal rate between the years of 1791 and 1812.

(38) Like the situation in Iraq today, instead of securing a surplus of oil and making prices cheaper the crisis has created a rise in prices in turn creating staggering profits for American Business elites who control the oil market.

(39) Seymour Drescher, Econocide, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977

(40) Statistics of Wars, Oppressions and Atrocities of the Nineteenth Century (the 1800s), http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/wars19c.htm. Here the numbers vary widely from different sources.

(41) Birth of a Nation, Has the bloody 200-year history of Haiti doomed it to more violence? Adam Hochschild, San Francisco Chronnicle, May 30, 2004

(42) Statistics of Wars, Oppressions and Atrocities of the Nineteenth Century (the 1800s), http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/wars19c.htm.  Here it is listed that 45,000 died in the conflict in the Caribbean, this compares to only 25,000 who were killed in action fighting battles against Napoleon.

(43) Statistics of Wars, Oppressions and Atrocities of the Nineteenth Century (the 1800s), http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/wars19c.htm.

(44) Birth of a Nation, Has the bloody 200-year history of Haiti doomed it to more violence? Adam Hochschild, San Francisco Chronnicle, May 30, 2004

(45) A respectable trade? Slavery and the rise of capitalism, International Socialism, London, September 1998

(46) Slave sugar; New Internationalist   12-31-2003

 

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