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Monetizing Human Life: Slave Valuations on U.S. and British West Indian Plantations
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Professor Richard Fleischman
Professor David McCollum-Oldroyd
Professor Thomas Tyson
Fleischman RK, Oldroyd D, Tyson T
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This paper examines specifically one of the most frequently employed purposes of accounting on slave plantations in the antebellum US and the pre-emancipation British West Indies (BWI) – the valuation of slaves as assets. We attempt to explain why this exercise was undertaken and the processes involved. In the case of the US, we hypothesize that a key explanatory factor was the publication and wide distribution of Thomas Affleck’s plantation journal. In the BWI, important variables were the high incidence of absentee ownership and slave rentals. The valuation process featured the parading of the slaves past plantation managers and overseers, often in the company of appraisers and bookkeepers, where narrow distinctions were made on the basis of qualitative information such as physical characteristics and productive efficiency. The paper considers certain comparative features between the two slave environments, such as the greater concern in the BWI with linking valuations to the skill sets of slaves (e.g., blacksmiths, carpenters, etc.) and the existence of a valuation premium on male slaves in the US which the data do not indicate existed in the BWI. The paper concludes with a consideration of certain moral issues of slavery, such as the potential implication of accounting and accountants in a repressive regime and the attribution of contemporary morality to an historical epoch long past. It finds that far from condemning it, the accounts helped justify the institution of slavery in the face of pressure for its abolition.
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