Re: [OPE] Further evidence RE: Marx, slavery and the South

From: Jurriaan Bendien <>
Date: Fri Feb 18 2011 - 15:09:56 EST

It could well be, that Kevin Bales actually exaggerated the estimate of
average contemporary slave prices in the 19th century by about 80-100%. In
reality, slave prices varied greatly across the 19th century transatlantic
economy. According to one source,

"Market prices probably reflected slave agriculture productivity (Conrad and
Meyer, 1964, pp. 50-53; Fogel, 1974), and slave prices increased with cotton
prices and declined when cotton prices stagnated. For example, in 1859-60,
the New South specialized in the high-value added crop cotton, while the Old
South specialized in various lower value added crops. As a result, prime-age
male Virginia and South Carolina field hands were valued at $1,350; Texas
prime-age male field hands were valued between $1,527 and $2,015 (Conrad and
Myer, 1964, p. 74). Slave rental rates also varied regionally; 1859-60
Virginia and South Carolina annual hiring rates were $105 and $103,
respectively; Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana annual hiring rates were
between $166 and $171 (Conrad and Myer, 1964, p. 73 and 86). No slave price
series exist that cover all slaves throughout the 19th century. To account
for the relationship between slave prices and black stature, one reasonable
measure for slave prices is for New Orleans prime fieldhands' slave price
series recorded between 1802 and 1860 (...). For the New Orleans slave price
series, the average prime field hand price was $948, but varied by
approximately $294 throughout the 19th century. (...) Prices were also
positively skewed (Figure 2), with the highest prices observed just prior to
the Civil War (Fogel, 1974, pp. 86-102).

Using this sort of information, we could do a few approximate calculations
and extrapolate some results:

If you assume an average 19th century slave price of $948 as stated, then,
using the CPI calculator here you can calculate
that (948/8.06)x218.06=$25,664.75 dollars in 2010 (however, we might doubt
the validity of CPI comparisons over such long stretches of time).

If, as one source suggests
19th century US urban workers earnt about $1 a day and rural workers earnt
half that, i.e. 40-50 cents per day, then this implies that a rural worker
would have cost between 120 and 160 dollars per year to hire (assuming a six
day working week).

>From this, you could conclude, that the "rental" of a US farm slave (as
cited in the above quote), must have been roughly equivalent to the normal
wage cost of a US farm worker at that time.

If you assume an annual average farm wage in the 19th century of say $140,
and an ordinary rate of surplus value of 100%, the normal new cash value of
output created per year which this implies is $280 per farm operative
(that's about $7,575 in today's terms, i.e. productivity was lower back
then, among other things).

The 19th century slave, we could assume, would likewise be creating
something like $280 of value for his owner per year.

Assuming a negligible cash subsistence cost for slaves of $19 per year, then
we could estimate that in less than 4 years, the acquisition cost of the
slave could be paid off (unless the slave got sick).

Even if the cost was somewhat higher, say $45 or about one-third of a normal
rural wage, then the cash value of the slave's output would have paid off
the cost of buying him within four years.

After those four years, 80-90% of the cash value of the slave's output would
be pure profit. Within another five years, the slave-owner would have reaped
a profit on his original slave investment (made nine years earlier), of
about 100%. Viewed over say ten years, the average profit rate on capital
investments in slave labour would therefore very likely have been "normal"
profit rates, i.e. a little over 10% per year.

To my knowledge, slaves were for that very reason mostly purchased by
entrepreneurs for labor purposes "long term" (as fixed capital), and not
normally for a quick resale or mere seasonal use, unless there was a strong
fluctuation in commodity prices. An additional spin-off was, that slaves
could breed more slaves, and that the slave parents could train the new
slaves in slave work, at little expense.

It is very difficult to believe that entrepreneurs would go to the trouble
of purchasing slaves, unless the entrepreneurs made sufficient money out of
the slave labour, or unless slave labour compared favourably with other
kinds of labour.


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Received on Fri Feb 18 15:12:59 2011

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