Author Caitlin Rosenthal on the role of slavery in the history of business

Kimberly Adams Aug 14, 2018
Stereograph Cards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Author Caitlin Rosenthal on the role of slavery in the history of business

Kimberly Adams Aug 14, 2018
Stereograph Cards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Historian Caitlin Rosenthal extensively researched the morally reprehensible business of slavery for her new book, “Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management.” In the book, she lays out the case that slaveholding “planters” employed accounting and management techniques that are still in use by businesses today

Below is an edited transcript of Rosenthal’s conversation with Marketplace senior reporter Kimberly Adams.

How did you end up writing this book?

After college, I went to work as a management consultant. And I got really interested in how businesses that employed tens of thousands of people came to dominate the economy, and how people thought about businesses of that scale. So when I went to graduate school for history, I wanted to study the same ideas. One day I went to the archives, and started looking at business records from New England textile mills, as well as Southern plantation records and account books. The Southern records were markedly more advanced than the average practices seen in the textile mills, and I found evidence of a lot of interesting business management techniques. So, I decided I wanted to write the business history of slavery, which is this very different type of business.

Why isn’t slavery already a part of the business history narrative?

Many historians are interested in using account books to uncover the experiences of enslaved people; I was coming to this with a business background. And I started looking at these plantation records kind of the same way I looked at Excel spreadsheets, and I started to see that planters were making really sophisticated business decisions about, of course, the most horrifying and totally commodified human body.

How did plantation and slavery management inform modern business practices?

There are a lot of practices used by planters that we still use as management techniques today. First, they built really complex hierarchies. I reconstructed the managerial structure of a Jamaican plantation, and it looked similar to a multi-divisional American company. Even the idea of sending people to different places to be trained in managerial techniques can be traced back to plantations. There are cases of absentee plantation owners in England who would send their sons to the West Indies to learn how to run a plantation.

Another business concept you mention in “Accounting for Slavery” is depreciation. Where do we see depreciation first come up on plantations?

In the 1840s, a plantation owner named Thomas Affleck drew up a manual called “The Plantation Record and Account Book.” In the manual, we see Affleck gives special instructions on how to value the appreciation or depreciation of enslaved people. So Affleck was codifying for planters how to keep track of the value of slaves. As they grow or get stronger, they increase in value. But, also on the back side, planters are keeping track of their depreciation in value as they grow older, or if they’re injured — and these relatively sophisticated valuations even extend to people sometimes receiving a negative value.

Are there any current management practices that actually originated in slavery?

There were times when I thought I was going to find the smoking gun, the origin of modern management on a slave plantation. But I never found that one link, because I came to realize the whole story is much more complicated. Southern planters were corresponding with Northern manufacturers about industry innovation. There was a lot of cross-pollination in terms of where people got their management techniques at the time.

What other parallels between plantation management techniques and modern businesses really jumped out at you?

One thing that really struck me was the idea that an experienced manager could rework a labor process to increase productivity. Plantation owners and managers would come in, observe the enslaved peoples, and then restructure the labor system around a series of incentives in order to push up productivity. So there was this idea that if you just found the right data and brought in the right tools, you could increase output. And this is a core idea management consultants use in businesses today. The other thing I think that’s really striking as a parallel is just the amount of paperwork that’s involved. There were abstracts, reports, and charts, as well as pre-formatted, standardized account books. At the time, there were pre-printed forms used in other industries, like shipping. But to have a pre-printed book with every form you needed to run a plantation? That was well ahead of its time.

What original source document struck you most in your research?

The documents I found most disturbing were the ones that showed planters rating enslaved people as fractions of a hand. A 20-year-old man in good health was labelled a “prime” field hand. But a child learning to work, or a breastfeeding mother might be labelled as a half a hand, or three quarters of full hand. Seeing humans as fractions allowed planters to compare these enslaved people as a simple commodity.

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