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Accounting for slavery during the Enlightenment: Contradictions and interpretations

Lookup NU author(s): Professor David McCollum-Oldroyd



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).


This paper discusses Enlightenment principles and describes how many of them were manifested differently by competing parties in the debates on slavery. It then analyses the role of accounting during the slave era in the U.S. and British West Indies. In both cases the key areas identified for discussion are property rights, the humanity of slaves, economic incentives and self-improvement. The paper finds that belief in progress through reason, the common denominator of Enlightenment thinking, was not generally evident in the management and accounting practices on plantations, and that the utility of accounting to slaveholders was limited because of the inherent contradictions of slavery. With few exceptions, these practices were not geared towards improving productivity. Instead, short-term gains were achieved by driving the slaves harder, or longer-term ones either by treating slaves more benevolently to extend lifespans or by acquiring new plantations to expand capacity. However, the rate of productivity on plantations tended to be governed by established social norms and was not susceptible to change; nor was it noticeably impacted by accounting.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Tyson T, Oldroyd D

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Accounting History

Year: 2019

Volume: 24

Issue: 2

Pages: 212-235

Print publication date: 01/05/2019

Online publication date: 19/03/2018

Acceptance date: 07/11/2017

Date deposited: 08/11/2017

ISSN (print): 1032-3732

ISSN (electronic): 1749-3374

Publisher: Sage Publications Ltd.


DOI: 10.1177/1032373218759971


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