Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management – ROSENTHAL (THT)

ROSENTHAL, Caitlin. Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. 312p. Resenha de: MUHAMMAD, Patricia M. The History Teacher, v.52, n.4, p.724-725, ago., 2019.

Scholars have written extensively concerning the Trans-Atlantic slave trade’s intricate financial regime promoted through multi-lateral treaties, slaving licenses, nation states, private companies, and slavers, proprietors, and bankers who financed and insured this barter in human commodities. In Accounting for Slavery, Professor Caitlin Rosenthal outlines municipal slavery business structures primarily in the West Indies; with slaveowners at the highest rank, followed by overseers and attorneys who were property managers. Using the terms “proprietor,” “balance,” “tally,” “middlemen,” and “employees,” Rosenthal transposes this verbiage with “plantation owner,” “bottom line,” “slaves,” “skilled workers,” “overseer,” and “watchmen”—demonstrating the level of accounting practices slaveowners developed.

Interlaced with technical nomenclature, the author includes historical events that affected plantation operations, such as the Maroon Rebellion in Jamaica and more frequent occurrences of sabotage of production output and plots to escape slavery’s brutality. She furthers her analysis by discussing crimes against humanity such as branding and torture as false incentives to increase labor production and compliance. Thus, enslaved people were forced to work against their will and were also chastised for fighting against a system in which human rights violations were systemically committed against them.

The author also discusses how slave codes encouraged plantation owners to maintain accurate records of their slaves’ whereabouts. Local authorities fined slaveowners for failure to abide by these laws, which only complemented their accounting practices. Both municipal and transnational law reflected Europeans’ desire to maintain control of their extended empire through hierarchies that negotiated with established Maroon communities of formerly enslaved people.

Although these communities were not acknowledged as a nation state, they had authority to enter a bi-lateral treaty with England in 1739 to preserve their autonomy with a condition precedent to not accept any additional runaway slaves.

Rosenthal then examines the impact of absentee proprietorship, in which plantation owners returned from the West Indies to England, seeking to maintain accountability of both land and slave. Consequently, these slavers authored plantation manuals (accounting guidelines) to track slaves, harvest, land, and productivity, referred to as “quantification.” Arguably, these standards were the financial antecedent to generally accepted accounting practices used to evaluate professional standards of modern bookkeeping for Western corporations. The slavers also furthered transnational law through lobbying with the British Parliament, securing their interests in sugar markets and a form of anti-dumping preventative measures under international trade law, as well as opposing the nascent trend in public international law to abolish the slave trade. The author argues that their records had a mitigating effect on the regulation of plantation slavery enforced by local officials, requiring slavers to adhere to graduated punishments that they recorded as evidence in their own defense.

Thereafter, Rosenthal dissects the methodology of plantation accounting, including ledgers, balance sheets, sticks used by slaves to account for livestock tallied annually, and eighteenth-century slaveowners’ advent of pre-formatted forms and double bookkeeping. These written records became evidence for British abolitionists to use against West Indian slavers since they not only detailed the loss of productivity, but also the loss of slaves’ lives resulting from the violence and torture they bore at the hands of slave masters.

Rosenthal then assesses rating systems based on historical records that affected the price of slaves as further evidence of their commodification. For instance, she employs the usage of “depreciation” in relation to an enslaved person’s decline due to disobedience, age or health. Value and (human) capital reinforced the disparity of rights between the enslaved and the master, with one person determining the other person’s worth based on what could be extracted by force or used as collateral for purchase of other tangible property.

Lastly, the author discusses the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on both slavers and enslaved. Slavers had the ability to quit the land and negotiate.

However, the agreements enslaved people signed were usually under duress, and former slaveowners had a greater bargaining position due to literacy, land ownership, prior financial gain from their former slaves, and the use of black codes to keep freed peoples subordinate.

The author uses primary sources to illustrate the development of accounting practices, through organization, law, and politics, making the text valuable for historians and graduate students specializing in those matters. With assiduous care, Rosenthal successfully depicts municipal slavery’s evolution from scattered processes to maintain control of slaves and land into a sophisticated, individual business venture that documented crimes against humanity and ironically supported the institution’s inevitable extinction.

Patricia M. Muhammad – Independent Researcher.

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