The Economic History Review

Eric Williams and William Forbes: copper, colonial markets, and commercial capitalism

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Authors: Nuala Zahedieh
Published online: January 23, 2021DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13050

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Eric Williams placed the Caribbean centre stage in discussions of Britain’s industrial revolution and historians are increasingly persuaded by his intuition that the Atlantic trading system, underpinned by enslaved labour, played a major role. Early critics focused discussion on the profits of the slave trade but his thesis was broader, and more sophisticated, than they acknowledged. It left room for linkages of many kinds and it is now time to take a broader look at the connections between the rise of merchant capitalism, in which slavery played a central role, and British economic growth. This study looks at one small, fast‐growing industry, wrought copper, largely through the lens of William Forbes, a London smith. Quantitative data from output and trade records are combined with Forbes’s business records to show how the demands of sugar cultivation, a particularly concentrated form of agro‐industrial activity, stimulated the development of a supply network which chained thousands of workers in Cornwall, South Wales, Bristol, and London to enslaved labour in the fields and factories of the Caribbean. Market opportunities allowed Forbes to amass great wealth but also directed investment, innovation, and the accumulation of skills that shaped Britain’s particular path to industrial revolution.