In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section West Indian Economic Decline

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • The American Revolution and Decline
  • Proponents of Decline
  • Opponents of Decline
  • The Economic Durability of Slavery
  • Foreign West Indies and Brazil
  • Abolition
  • Enslaved Resistance
  • Long-Term Impact of Decline

Atlantic History West Indian Economic Decline
Ahmed Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0234


A central feature of British West Indian economic history is the precipitous decline of the plantation system. At its peak, profitable plantation colonies such as Jamaica produced and shipped unprecedented amounts of sugar, rum, and coffee to Britain and the mainland colonies in North America. With the success of antislavery action in ending the slave trade and slavery, the forecast for the continued success and record achievements for the plantation system was not positive. Further, with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the plantation system could no longer rely on a steady supply of enslaved labor from Africa resulting in a significantly reduced labor force that became a common feature during this important transition to freedom. To compound matters further, the relative successes gained during the Haitian Revolution and the Napoleonic conflict dissipated because the high prices sustained during this period of expansion were replaced by a steep fall in prices: this pattern continued well into the 20th century. The final and perhaps most devastating blow during this transitional period was the emergence of alternative sources for sugar coming mainly from Brazil and Cuba, the growth of beet in Continental Europe, and the loss of protection West Indian sugar enjoyed for many centuries. The intersection of these factors resulted in the dramatic economic decline of a region that was once at the center of the Atlantic trading system. What was evident is that once profitable estates laid in ruins, and colonies that were at the forefront of Atlantic commerce were now producing less than half their highest levels.

General Overviews

While scholars agree that the plantation system was moribund by the late 19th century, there is general disagreement on the timing of its decline. Williams 1944 and Ragatz 1963 noted that the system was overheating from as early as the American War of Independence in 1776. Williams further argued that Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 because the British West Indian colonies, with the use of enslaved labor, were inefficient and thus declined in profitability and importance to Britain. This interpretation of colonial inefficiency and decline has been the subject of criticism by many, most notably in Drescher 1977, which argues that the colonies were highly efficient and productive enterprises even up to the time of abolition. The author posits that when Britain abolished the trade in 1807, it did so when the plantation system was operating at its zenith and sugar made up a large and increasing share of Britain’s overseas imports. Therefore, the decline of the British West Indian plantation system started after the Napoleonic Wars, and at a time when Britain was committed to the emancipation of slavery. Interest in the decline thesis has not dwindled and as such there have been important works that provide important surveys of the nuances in the historiography. Beckles 1984 examines the debate surrounding specific themes in William’s Capitalism and Slavery (Williams 1944), while Darity 1988 brought a fresh perspective to the debate, by showing that the decline thesis was prominent in 19th-century British literature. Solow and Engerman 1987 contribute to the debate surrounding abolition with an important collection that examined the life and work of Williams. Morgan 2001 reflects on two important themes of the Williams thesis. Paquette and Smith 2010 provide coverage of some of the main themes on slavery and abolition.

  • Beckles, Hilary McD. “Capitalism and Slavery: The Debate over Eric Williams.” Social and Economic Studies 33.4 (1984): 171–189.

    Provides a comprehensive review of the historiography on Williams 1944.

  • Darity, William, Jr. “The Williams Abolition Thesis before Williams.” Slavery and Abolition 9.1 (1988): 29–41.

    DOI: 10.1080/01440398808574946

    Important work that aims to show that leading British historians such as W. H. Lecky had preceded Williams in rejecting the traditional interpretation about British antislavery and abolition, focusing instead on a narrative of decline.

  • Drescher, Seymour. Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

    This is the most detailed refutation of the economic decline thesis regarding abolition of the slave trade. Drescher used trading as his key variable to show that at the time of abolition, the British West Indian colonies were enjoying a significant share of the British market in tropical staples.

  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery: Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1600–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511622120

    Provides an excellent overview of the historiography regarding the first and second parts of the Williams thesis.

  • Paquette, Robert L., and Mark M. Smith, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.013.0001

    This useful collection examines the complex nature of plantation slavery. The first section documents the regional variations of slavery while the second provides useful information on a variety of themes such as the economics of slavery, slave resistance, abolition and antislavery, and emancipation.

  • Ragatz, Lowell. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763–1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. New York: Octagon, 1963.

    Written by an early proponent of decline who argues that the fall of the planter class was symptomatic of an inefficient plantation system characterized by debt, overproduction, and soil exhaustion. Originally published in 1928.

  • Solow, Barbara L., and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Brings together a selection of papers presented by some of the leading practitioners in the field at a conference in Italy in 1984 commemorating Eric Williams. The essays explore in varying ways the life and work of Williams, with particular emphasis on the four main themes in Capitalism and Slavery (Williams 1944).

  • Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

    In his magnum opus, Williams placed the Caribbean at the center of the British Atlantic system. He achieved this by showing that the decline of the West Indian colonies figured greatly in Britain’s decision to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833.

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