Skip to main content

Slavery's Capitalism in Galveston


1855 drawing of Galveston's Central Wharf by George W. Grover. Provided by the Rosenberg Library Museum. 

When people think about slavery, we often focus on enslaved people's labor in plantation fields, and the cruelties they suffered throughout the trans-Atlantic and then domestic trade networks. While these aspects are undoubtedly critical to the memory of slavery, historians have recently begun to do more research into the business side of the institution. How did slavery become so incredibly lucrative? What kinds of businesses were essential to overseeing the flow of enslaved people between plantations, and ensuring that cotton, sugar, and other crops that bondspeople grew made it onto shelves and into the hands of people around the world? Who, exactly, profited from the labor of enslaved people? This aspect of the history of slavery has been coined by historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman as "slavery's capitalism."1 
Galveston was the biggest city in Texas by 1860, and it was dotted by booming businesses and grand estates -- some of which still stand today. Where did the money come from? Click through the map below to read more about some of antebellum Galveston's most prominent businesses and how they participated in the system of slavery to gain wealth and social prominence. 

What did it mean to mortgage enslaved people? 

A common business transaction that fueled the financial institutions of slavery were agreements in which an enslaver would mortgage one or more enslaved people in exchange for cash or credit from a banking firm. The enslaver would have to pay back the loan they received -- which would be equal to the value of property (e.g. land, enslaved people, livestock) -- in a certain window of time or else the mortgaged property would be seized by the banking firm they contracted with. If the loan was paid back in a timely fashion, however, the enslaver would have been able to benefit financially without ever losing out on bondspeople's labor. These agreements meant that enslaved people were doubly used fueled these local credit networks and the plantation economy; enslavers and businessmen could extract financial capital from bondspeople at the same time that they reaped the profits of their labor. 
Galveston mercantile and banking firm Ball, Hutchings & Co. entered into these kinds of mortgage agreements with plantation owners. For example, on May 30, 1860, Ball Hutchings & Co. entered into a deed of trust with Abner Jackson, in which Jackson mortgaged the Retrieve Plantation in Brazoria County and all enslaved people who lived there for $34,000. The plantation was equipped with a sugar house, mill and machinery, and spanned 4,250 acres (Ball, Hutchings & Company Records, Rosenberg Library). Jackson owned three other plantations in addition to Retrieve, and in 1860 he was considered the second largest enslaver in Texas with 285 bondspeople claimed as his property (Source). The names of the enslaved people who were mortgaged to Ball, Hutchings & Co. are listed below: 
Jimmy (60 years old), Pinckey (43 years old), Prince (26 years old), Linus (22 years old), Puss (23 years old), Milee (20 years old), Hagus (56 years old), Jim (36 years old),  Antony (23 years old), Johnson (20 years old), Juke (17 years old), Phoebe (26 years old) Jinny (14 years old), Nanny (3 years old), Clarissa (37 years old) Cesar (41 years old), Henry (20 years old), Lucy (12 years old), Mary (7 years old), Elsey (30 years old), David (11 years old), Claudd (6 years old), Morris (5 years old), General (4 years old), Judy (18 years old), Ellen (4 years old), Muletta (30 years old), Bevorri (32 years old), John (5 years old), unnamed infant (4 years old). (Ball, Hutchings & Company Records, Rosenberg Library)
Because of the vast amounts of capital that mortgages could generate in localized economic landscapes, mortgages of enslaved people have been termed "slavery's invisible engine" by historian Bonnie Martin. 2 
Slavery's Capitalism in Galveston