In his memoirs about his personal life as a slave and slavery in general, Moses Grandy on page 65 claims that:

The proprietors, though they live in luxury, generally die in debt: their negroes are so hardly treated, that no profit is made by their labor. Many of them are great gamblers. At the death of a proprietor, it commonly happens that his coloured people are sold towards paying his debts.

Is his claim that the horrible treatment of the slaves caused them to be not profitable correct?

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    Your conclusion does not follow from the quote; They treated slaves horribly; they died in debt. There is no causal relationship between these two facts.
    – MCW
    Nov 22, 2015 at 17:32
  • @Mark C. Wallace I'm just quoting from his book. I actually left the debt aspect out of my question being that it could be totally attributed to the gambling or whatnot. My question is specifically about his claim that the slaves were not profitable.
    – user6591
    Nov 22, 2015 at 17:35
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    The addition of the gambling point makes me think that it could mean something along the lines of "Slave owners in debt would try to overwork their slaves to get more profit, and would get in a worse situation as slaves become ill, die or escape". Anyway, if slavery had not been profitable it would not have been kept and fought for.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 22, 2015 at 17:44
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    Possible duplicate of Was slavery really on the way out in the antebellum USA? Nov 22, 2015 at 19:19
  • By the second half of the 19th Century, slavery was unquestionably profitable only where very large plantations, "employing" large numbers of slaves, were concerned. House slaves were, in fact, a luxury. Hiring slaves out was beginning to be less and less profitable with the influx of Irish and German immigrants who were willing to do the same work for pennies and if any of them got killed or injured, the employer wasn't liable for the loss. Cynicism ruled, and none of it was pretty.
    – Ricky
    Nov 23, 2015 at 5:33

3 Answers 3


One of the great things about economics is that, in a way, it is self regulating. If slavery was unprofitable then plantation owners would exit the business and stop investing capital in unproductive capital goods (slaves). Please take into account the source of this comment, a former slave and anti-slavery activist. Which is more likely? A biased commenter was attempting to disparage an industry for political purposes or that there was mass-insanity where business men would allocate capital in such a manner so they often died in debt and year after year would not make a profit.

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    Well, maybe not economics, but certainly capitalism as practiced in the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain at this time. It is certainly possible for a government to coerce participation in an unprofitable activity as the lesser of evils. - as witness several communist economies during the 20th century. Jan 26, 2016 at 5:59
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    @PieterGeerkens What you say is true in the short run but in the long-run these systems are self regulating to a degree. I.E. Communisms eventual collapse in the USSR or Venezuela's ongoing collapse at the moment. Jan 26, 2016 at 16:08

Slavery was quite profitable, according to Baptist's Half Has Never Been Told. It made many Southern slave owners significant money in the antebellum decades of the 19th century, especially when they raised cotton on large plantations. Baptist draws a strong picture of more and more deliberate violence against slave laborers to make them work harder and faster, raising productivity.

Plantation slavery's potential for ever increasing profit at larger scale demanded increasing investment and growing speculation in land, buying of more slaves from the northern slave states for sale in New Orleans and West, thus using a lot of Northern capital while replying on escalating British demand for cotton. This amounted to ever increasing risk of financial failure, especially severe when cotton prices declined. Some slave owners went bust or ran away from their debts but the money to be made attracted others to take their place, and buy the bankrupts lands and slave assets.


The very nature of the trade in those days ie. cotton , sugar and tobacco are high labour intensive "raw material" crops which required a deal of after processing the profits were mostly made by Merchants and Industrialists rather than the planters of the raw materials. It is said that the Glasgow tobacco merchants (they became known as the Tobacco Lords) specialised in giving American and West Indies plantation owners generous credit lines until they had them in a debt trap to ensure a monopoly on their tobacco/cotton supply at rock bottom prices , or they gained ownership of the plantations. Glasgow is full of grand buildings built from the profits of this trade and of course the profits of the slaves who worked on the plantations.

see attached for further info , particularly under the heading "American Revolution" which clarify's the state of plantation owners precarious financial situation.


  • Disagree - This is not historically accurate. The value-add for tobacco/sugar was not in the relatively cheap extraction but in the Transocean shipment and marketing. This is pretty normal in the resource extraction industry even today. As for debt trap, my research into east indies sugar plantations has not shown this to be the case. Nov 24, 2015 at 15:11
  • If you have sources to the contrary they would be much appreciated Nov 24, 2015 at 15:11
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    Hi Stuart , the East Indies were controlled by the Dutch and was a completely different trade to that in the West Indies , they didnt use slaves for a start ? was East possibly a typo ? Dec 3, 2015 at 16:57
  • At its very best, this is only true until 1776, as only applicable to the tobacco trade prior to the American Revolution. It has no bearing on the profitability, or not, of cotton-growing slave plantations in the decades leading up to 1860. This much is clearly gleaned from the link provided. Jan 26, 2016 at 5:58

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