Property in People & the Complexities of Capitalism (BHC)

Business History Annual Conference, Baltimore MD, April 7, 2018

11 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2021 Last revised: 24 Apr 2021

See all articles by Holly Brewer

Holly Brewer

University of Maryland, College Park

Date Written: April 7, 2018


My years of research on the emergence of slavery in the British Empire not only supports the argument that all markets are regulated, but shows that the character of that regulation can lead to an extraordinary form of capitalism, a form that strikes at the heart of the idea of free markets. This paper explores the dilemma of slavery in the seventeenth century British Empire focusing on questions of its legality and the implications of that legality for finance. Without the ability to maintain that a person could be property, attempted claims at ownership or sale were often legally dubious, difficult to maintain and impossible to finance. England’s Royal African Company—run by the king’s own brother, James, Duke of York, went bankrupt as a consequence in 1667. The paper shows how England’s high court stepped in to legitimate the legal process of treating people as property, and explains its impact on finance and trade in enslaved people across the empire. It then connects those court decisions to the military force necessary to uphold them, and argues that there is no such thing as a “free market” in forced labor, and that all markets have to be regulated and the rules of exchange enforced. While slavery is perhaps the most crucial example of how such regulation works, this case study from the era of its emergence illuminates how modern assumptions about free markets seriously underestimate the ways in which different regulation combined with the instruments of political power can create radically different kinds of society. The infusion of legal stability—recognizing people as simple property—enabled financial empires to be built on such “property.” By paying attention to the importance of such rules, however, we also need to acknowledge the centrality of basic regulation to all markets. Someone needs to enforce contracts, to prevent theft and limit fraud, a role usually performed by the state. Without such regulation, markets collapse; we have Hobbes’ state of nature. It was for that reason that so much thinking about the nature of contracts – both political and economic – helped to define modernity.

Keywords: slavery, capitalism, free markets, mercantalism, feudalism, property, courts, law, regulation of markets, finance, torts

JEL Classification: J00, J24, J41, J47, G00, G14, K00, K11, K13

Suggested Citation

Brewer, Holly, Property in People & the Complexities of Capitalism (BHC) (April 7, 2018). Business History Annual Conference, Baltimore MD, April 7, 2018, Available at SSRN: or

Holly Brewer (Contact Author)

University of Maryland, College Park ( email )

301-405-9442 (Phone)

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