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The efficacy/inefficacy of accounting in controlling labour during the transition from slavery in the United States and British West Indies.
Lookup NU author(s)
Professor Richard Fleischman
Professor David McCollum-Oldroyd
Professor Thomas Tyson
Fleischman RK, Oldroyd D, Tyson TN
Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal
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The paper focuses on the transition from slavery to wage workers in the American South and British West Indies and the corresponding nature of the reporting and control procedures that were established in both venues in order to create a disciplined workforce and establish regular relations between employees and employers. It seeks to explain the differences in labour control practices between the two regions and to discuss the impact on these practices of accounting and other quantitative techniques c.1760-1870. In particular it considers the central role played by government in the process.
Methodology/approach – The study forms part of an archival research project in which the authors have consulted archives in four southern states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina), three Caribbean island nations formerly British colonies (Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica), and record repositories the length and breadth of Great Britain. The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau (FB), located in the National Archives, Washington, DC, have been likewise visited. These primary sources have been supported by the extensive secondary literature on slavery and its aftermath.
Findings – In the U.S., accounting for labour in the transition from slavery was typically ad hoc and inconsistent, whereas in the BWI it was more organised, detailed, and displayed greater uniformity both within and across colonies. The role of the British Colonial Office (BCO) was crucial here. A range of economic and political factors are advanced to explain the differences between the two locations. The paper highlights the limitations of accounting controls and economic incentives in disciplining labour without the presence of physical coercion in situations where there is a refusal on the part of the workers to cooperate.
Research limitations – The FB and BCO records, as well as other primary source materials, are so vast that only a small percentage of extant material must serve as a surrogate for the greater whole. There is no guarantee that other records might not provide a different story particularly in the U.S. where accounting practice was less uniform. Generalisations to labour practices among other groups of repressed workers must also be made with caution.
Originality/value – There is a relatively small volume of secondary literature comparing U.S. and BWI slavery and its legacy. Likewise, the accounting implications of labour-control practices during the transition from slavery to freedom are largely understudied. The research also points to a need to assess the decision-influencing capabilities of management accounting systems in other transitional labour settings.
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