By Caitlin Rosenthal
Accounting for Slavery is a unique contribution to the decades-long effort to understand New World slavery’s complex relationship with capitalism. Through careful analysis of plantation records, Caitlin Rosenthal explores the development of quantitative management practices on West Indian and Southern plantations. She shows how planter-capitalists built sophisticated organizational structures and even practiced an early form of scientific management. They subjected enslaved people to experiments, such as allocating and reallocating labor from crop to crop, planning meals and lodging, and carefully recording daily productivity. The incentive strategies they crafted offered rewards but also threatened brutal punishment.
By showing the many ways that business innovation can be a byproduct of bondage, Rosenthal further erodes the false boundary between capitalism and slavery and illuminates deep parallels between the outlooks of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slaveholders and the ethical dilemmas facing twenty-first-century businesses.
The mobility of plantation records did not always work in the ways planters anticipated. Just as accounting made sugar plantations visible to absentee planters, reports and journals also put evidence of slavery’s brutality into the hands of abolitionists. The same accounts that helped absentee planters to control overseers and overseers to control slaves could also make enslaved people visible to new audiences. Because these records bound together information and violence, they could also make violence and destruction visible to slavery’s critics.
Abolitionists could consult plantation records for evidence against slavery. At least one critic of the system even turned an account book prepared in the pursuit of profit into a powerful illustration of the human costs of slavery. This striking example comes from British lawyer James Stephen. Stephen analyzed and published evidence from a plantation journal, using it to reveal “the treatment of the slaves and its fatal consequences.” His short pamphlet reconstructed death rates for two plantations on the island of Saint Christopher. The absentee proprietor, a Mr. Wellsof Piercefield, had leased his holdings — two plantations and 140 enslaved — in 1812. By April 1815, the resident population had plummeted to a mere 108. The deaths continued: “In April 1816, they were reduced to 102; in April 1817, to 98; in April 1818, to 91; in 1819, to 86.” This tragic decline continued despite the purchase of additional slaves and the birth of children. Making allowances for losses in these groups, Stephen estimated that over the course of a decade, “80 out of 140 human beings” had perished.
Stephen followed his calculations with descriptions of punishment excerpted from the daily entries in the plantation journal. On May 29, 1817, “Statia Jack, who had feigned sickness on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday last,” tried to escape from the deadly grounds of the plantation. He was brought back and brutally punished. As Stephen remarked, “That sickness or debility was not feigned by him is highly probable . . . for we find a few months afterwards that he was bloated with dropsy, and died.” On Wednesday, June 7, the manager “cart-whipped” a long list of other slaves. He lashed Priscilla thirty-nine times, also punishing Domingo, Lena, Betsy Peters, Joe, Mary Danie, and Betsy. Santy, who had run away, was harshly beaten and had salt rubbed in his wounds: “Gave him at two o’clock thirty-nine severely, and then pickled him.” The manager whipped Santy and Priscilla again the following day, and following the whipping steeped hot peppers from the garden and used the water to bathe Priscilla and Domingo. Santy again ran for freedom on July 13. He was brought in almost immediately and brutally lashed. Again on July 31, the manager whipped him thirty-nine times and put an iron collar around his neck.
And so the journal continued. Stephen included numerous other excerpts, and also encouraged readers to consult the journal themselves. As he explained, “I will deposit it with my booksellers for the inspection and perusal of any gentleman, giving his name, who may wish to satisfy himself that it is genuine, and that my extracts are correct.” In different hands, the same document could be either an instrument of labor control or a tool in discourses of emancipation.
As planters and their brutal production methods came under fire, accounting also became a tool for controlling planters and overseers. Ameliorationist measures — meant not only to reduce the brutality of slavery but also to strengthen the larger system — included limitations on how enslaved people were to be punished. These laws regulated the number of lashes that could be inflicted, by whom, and under what conditions. They took advantage of standardized, preprinted forms to help enforce these restrictions, sometimes requiring the keeping of a “punishment record book.”
Records of punishment recorded the regular and shocking brutality of what was supposedly a more humane, more regulated version of the slave system. “William King’s Punishment Record Book of Plantation Friendship” is one such example. On this preprinted record, the master or overseer was to record the date, the name of the slave, the offense, and the time and place of the punishment. The form included space to note by whose authority, by whom inflicted, and those who witnessed the punishment. Regulations varied by sex, so separate space was allotted for the extent and nature of punishment for men and women. For example, in early March 1829, a slave named Kathleen was punished for insolence. Her punishment, three days of solitary confinement, occurred in the hospital. In January, Frank received twenty-five stripes in the yard. The manager authorized each punishment, also noting who inflicted the lashes and who witnessed each measure.
Records such as this one and the corroboration of the witnesses who signed them were meant to ensure that regulations were followed. Local officials required their submission regularly. The record of punishments inflicted on Plantation Friendship actually appears to be a duplicate made for reporting purposes. The bottom reads “a True Copy,” and it is signed off by the copyist — perhaps an attorney or a colonial official. By means of records such as this one, the authority of accounting became an aid to amelioration.
Chains of witnesses confirmed that slaveholders and their employees followed regulations. Of course, such records also protected planters and white workers. They could present the “punishment record book” in court, and call witnesses when planters were accused of violating the regulations. When a slave was maimed or even killed, a record such as this one might protect the manager or the man who administered the lashes.
Viewed through a modern lens, the calculations of ameliorationists can seem as darkly abstract as those of planters. Joshua Steel of Barbados wrote a series of letters on the “mitigation” of slavery that contained detailed accounts on the advantages of raising slaves rather than purchasing them from Africa. Steel was arguing against the slave trade, and he advocated for gentler treatment to facilitate the health and reproduction of enslaved people. He was careful to clarify, however, that his views must not be confounded with the “Emancipation of the Slaves.” In his letters to William Dickson, he planned to show “from unexceptionable data, that the returns of sugar estates have long been inadequate to the expense of this wasteful and oppressive system.” In his view, unprofitability was due not to any features of the slave system but to the choice of West Indian planters to purchase new slaves instead of raising them on their own plantations. In Steel’s letters, it is “arithmetically demonstrated, that, for very many years, bought slaves in general, have not refunded their purchase-money, far less yielded a profit.” Consequently, he argued that it was “in the interest of proprietors to raise their laborers on their own estates, instead of buying them, as may still be done, from various West Indian sources, quite independent of Africa.”
Data interpreted at a distance could be turned to multiple purposes: it could be a tool for management or become evidence for amelioration. Read closely, records could even reveal the suffering and resistance of enslaved people. But the overarching portrait that emerges from these grids of numbers tends not toward individuality but toward abstraction. As Stephanie Smallwood has written about records of the slave trade, through their “graphic simplicity and economy, invoices and ledgers” efface the “personal histories that fueled the slaving economy.” The archives that plantations left behind can help us to write their history, but as Saidiya Hartman writes, they also dictate “the kinds of stories that can be told about the persons cataloged, embalmed, and sealed away in box files and folios.” So much was recorded and also so little: birth, death, output, and consumption were diligently noted, but the details of so many human lives are lost between the lines.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, accounting practices across the Caribbean and North America varied widely. Both planters and manufacturers experimented with new modes of record keeping, feeling their way to greater precision and profitability. But elite Caribbean planters were beginning to standardize their methods in ways that went beyond those used in contemporary New England cotton mills. Preprinted forms were distributed to attorneys and overseers, carefully completed, and sent back across the Atlantic to England. By contrast, labor records from many textile mills appear haphazard and irregular — a result of high levels of turnover. Free workers could quit — and did. Enslaved people enjoyed far fewer opportunities to negotiate, circumstances that enabled regular management and record keeping.
Planters and overseers thought about enslaved people as abstract, interchangeable inputs of production. This outlook translated well to standardized reporting, and planters increasingly relied on preprinted forms to help them record and allocate day after day of uninterrupted labor. The forms contain neat columns of numbers that show how plantations turned people into profitable commodities. In a sense they offered blueprints for machines made of men, women, and children. Neatly folded, the forms could even be shipped across the Atlantic, allowing planters to monitor these human machines from great distances. Enslaved people defied planters’ expectations, and read carefully, reports also reveal their resistance. Occasionally they even revealed this resistance — and its high costs — to abolitionists. But, more often, the records helped planters to control overseers and overseers to control slaves. The overarching picture that emerges is of the sophistication of the system that enslaved people were up against as they attempted to survive. Compared to manufacturers employing free labor, planters wielded immense control, and they maintained that control both through violence and through careful accounting.
By the 1830s, preprinted forms — designed to help move information over great distances — were traveling to the American South. Even before Farquhar Macrae advertised his methods to American planters, they were beginning to collect data and use it to analyze productivity. Eventually, standardized forms would have an even greater influence in the South than they had in the Caribbean. Planters would come to rely heavily on preprinted forms to monitor plantation business, particularly the growing of cotton. In cotton picking, they would take productivity analysis to new heights, monitoring enslaved productivity on an individual basis. Where West Indian planters had focused on labor allocation and on maintaining accountability over distance, American cotton planters would turn their attention to pushing up output per slave. By the 1840s and 1850s, some would be measuring labor output with an intensity approaching that usually attributed to scientific management.