Sinews of Empire: Zach Sell’s Trouble of the World

Sell, Zach. Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.

Back in June, I reviewed Eric Williams’ seminal work Capitalism and Slavery. It wasn’t all I had hoped it would be, but luckily I had an ace up my sleeve: when I had obtained that new edition, I had also purchases a brand new, cutting edge history of slavery in the nineteenth century from UNC Press, Zach Sell’s Trouble of the World. My hope was that this could be an updated, conceptually-clearer version of my original hopes for Williams, and in that I was not disappointed. In fact, Sell moves past some initial weaknesses to deliver a brilliant illustration of just how connected the 19th century world of empire was.

In one of the foundational texts of imperial historiography, Vladimir Lenin argued that “Imperialism is the final stage of capitalism.” On the face of it, this statement is ridiculous even at Lenin’s time of writing; imperialism has existed for thousands of years, far longer than this modern economic system we call capitalism. More properly, Lenin was referring to the unique patterns of European industrial imperialism, wherein the value of overseas possessions was to be found in their role as the beginning and end of a closed economic circle. An empire could extract raw materials from its colonies, transform those resources into manufactured goods in its core provinces, and then sell those goods back to the inhabitants of its colonies. This cycle indeed did much to fuel the growth of the industrial revolution and Europe’s economic might before the twentieth century, leading to Lenin’s comments. Sell’s work deals with perhaps the most consequential of these imperial commodities in the mid-nineteenth century: cotton. Ironically, of course, this great engine of capitalist economies on both sides of the Atlantic was never completely internal to those that valued it most dearly, namely, the British Empire. Cotton was instead grown in the southern states of the United States under a system of chattel slavery before being sold to the textile mills of Manchester. Trouble of the World deftly illustrates how this arrangement constituted a potential economic and, to a lesser degree, moral crisis for free trade, abolitionist, imperialist Britain, born out by the empire’s efforts to shift the cultivation of cotton (and other slave-grown goods such as indigo, rice, and sugar) onto its own colonies and away from the future Confederate States of America.

While its title more properly refers to a line in a slave spiritual, in Sell’s hands Trouble of the World encompasses the breadth of British imperial capitalism and, more specifically, labor management in the nineteenth century. Whether with enslaved persons in the Americas, wage laborers in the British Isles, impoverished agrarian workers in India, or indentured Asian & South Asian laborers throughout the empire, Sells conclusively demonstrates how the twin logics of profit and white superiority combined into a peculiar governing philosophy of the age, and one that continues to affect the present. British attitudes toward slavery are repeatedly focused on in particular as Trouble of the World demonstrates that abolition was more often than not working in concert with ideas of white supremacy, not opposed to them, and how the idea that capitalist labor need only be above literal slavery to be acceptable resulted in much of modern’s capitalism’s worst exploitative tendencies.

That said, Sell is held back from reaching his full potential through the weakness of his initial intellectual history and a seemingly ad hoc selection of case studies. Like Williams before him, Sell never provides a working definition of capitalism to guide his study (or his readers), and thus while he conclusively affirms slavery’s unique, thriving position within nineteenth-century capitalism as both means of production and capital itself, no further arguments about slavery’s foundation role for the system of capitalism itself can convincingly be made. This problem is not confined to economic terminology, either; in a process a friend of mine has called “buzz-word scholarship,” Sell often throws around terms like “anti-black” or “colonization” without pausing to break down what, exactly, those terms mean in that particular instance. Likewise, while his intertwined histories of cotton, indigo, and rice production through the American South and parts of India might constitute a nicely delineated global economic history, Sell’s decision to expand his gaze and investigate processes in Queensland, Australia and British Honduras (with no explanation as to why these two, and only these two, make sense to further include) serve to elevate his racial arguments while making Trouble of the World seem unfinished, as if he simply did not have time to fold in all the other regions alluded to throughout its pages.

For all its weakness, though, Trouble of the World remains a valued new addition to my collection of nineteenth century history. Too few books truly focus on the interplay between hemispheres during this period, despite the foundational importance of much of the trade conducted between the Old and New Worlds, and any effort to demonstrate how crisis in America rippled out into Eurasia and vice versa will always received my approving attention. It may not exactly be a quick read (no true economic history is), but you will find any time spent perusing its pages well worth it.

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