What The Price Of Slaves Tells Us About The Workers’ Wages


It’s a general principle of economic thinking that higher productivity workers will get paid more. Further, that when productivity rises generally then the workers will gain more wages generally.

An interesting little confirmation of this from slave prices:

It seems to me, however, that the main explanation for the relative rise in the
values of inventoried slaves vis a vis newly arrived slaves relates to both increased
productivity among slaves and also to a growing sense of confidence in the future
economic prospects of the plantation sector. Slaves may have started to have become
over-valued, although there was no shortage of buyers for slaves, as the opening
anecdotes from Thistlewood suggest, either on board slave ships or at local vendue
sales. Slaves do not seem to have become truly expensive until near the end of the
slave trade, as planters tried to stock their plantations with as many slaves as they
could as a hedge against future demographic decline. In the last three years of the
slave trade, newly arrived slave prices (which had been increasing rapidly from the
late 1780s) jumped £11, to £73.17. Meanwhile, sugar prices fell from around 60
shillings per cwt. in the 1790s to 45 shillings per cwt. between 1800 and 1807. At this
stage slaves were a massive 149.1 percent of the price of sugar shillings per cwt.11
Before the 1790s, however, slaves do not seem to have been overpriced. What
seems more likely is that over time slave prices came to increase to levels that
reflected the actual value of plantation profits. Gradually, slave prices came to
become almost equal to the price of sugar. Before 1720, slave prices were about 50
percent of the price of sugar. They increased after that date to 75 percent of the price
of sugar before reaching 90 percent of the price of sugar from the early 1760s. Eltis,
Lewis and Richardson suggest that this relative rise in slave prices reflects
considerable productivity improvements. Rapid expansion in output in terms of both
value and volume and rises in the prices of slaves relative to the price of sugar suggest
strongly, they argue, productivity improvements of some order. Both contemporary
opinion and present day economic analysis suggest that the prices of slaves were
closely tied to productivity and the expected performance of sugar

Yes, obviously, the slaves weren’t getting the wages. But the value of a slave is that capitalised value of what would be the wages if they were not slaves, minus the costs of feeding, clothing etc the slave.

Another way to put this is that there has to be some system forcing that increase in productivity elsewhere in order for wages not to rise as productivity does. Slavery does it as we can see. Of course, the modern contention is that neoliberal globalised capitalism does exactly that but then the people making that assertion are full of it.

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Concerned Prick
Concerned Prick

Not a good look Tim


Do try to grasp the economic lesson before dishing ridicule. The hint is the thing about “conformist” in the masthead. Perhaps he wrote this not even caring about how he would “look” to you.

Concerned Prick
Concerned Prick

I do grasp the lesson.
I guess so. I just think giving ammunition to those that would seek to smear you isn’t a good idea. Perhaps that is the idea though.


“near the end of the slave trade” – when the price ratio changed – corresponded with secession and war. If plantation owners were hoarding slaves, it was not protection against “demographic decline” but against the forced end of the slave trade, which would make it impossible to get replacements. What actually happened was that the victors declared their entire hoard void.

bloke in spain
bloke in spain

That’s certainly one of the more obtuse pieces of writing I’ve seen for a while. Is it really quoting slave prices in decimal pounds & sugar prices in shillings per cwt? How do you relate a capital cost to a production value without a depreciation rate & running costs?