Slavery and the British Economy: A New Book

June 19, 2023 | Blog
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Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson are emeritus professors at the University of Warwick and Cardiff University respectively. Both are Fellows of the British Academy. Their main research interests are the history of industrialisation and global trade connections. In this blog post they  introduce the arguments developed in their new book, Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, published on 16 June 2023 by Polity.

The forces set in motion by the products and profits of transatlantic slavery affected almost every aspect of the British economy and society for almost three centuries. Although it remains difficult for many to acknowledge, these forces remain with us today in the nature of our economy, in race-based and regional inequalities and in systemic racism. Unearthing the links between historic slavery and present society is a vital challenge for historians of Britain, but many have chosen to look the other way.

In the summer of 2020, when the statue of Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol and the Black Lives Matter protests were in full swing, the absence of an up-to-date, accessible study of the place of slavery in British economic history became glaringly apparent. In publishing Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution we attempt to remedy that absence.

The slave trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not exist in isolation. It was the foundation stone of new multilateral global trading that linked the Indian and Atlantic oceans, Europe, north America and south America, as well as the Caribbean colonies. African peoples were enslaved in exchange for colourful cottons imported from India and cowrie shells from the Maldives, as well as manufactured goods, including textiles, metal wares and guns from Britain and Europe. Britain’s Atlantic colonies became uniquely populous and prosperous providing a key source of demand for new British manufactured goods: lighter and brighter textiles that emulated fabrics from Asia; basic cloths for use by the enslaved; specialised tools and equipment, including copper stills and steam engines, for plantation agriculture and for the refining and processing of crops. British North American colonies traded fish, timber and plantation supplies to the Caribbean earning the income to spend largely on British manufactures.

All of this depended not just on the actions of slave traders, plantation owners and merchants, but also on the British state. It used tariffs, taxation, monopoly companies, the Navigation Acts, the Royal Navy and changes in law to promote Atlantic colonial trade and to keep the proceeds in the hands of British merchants, shippers and financiers. Caribbean colonies, including those newly exploited after wartime gains in the 1790s, remained an important source of trading and profits through to the 1840s.

Slavery was a source of profits for traders and plantation owners. Their wealth improved agricultural and urban estates, built grand country houses, and developed canals, railways and some manufacturing. But this alone was insufficient to provoke radical economic change domestically. In addition, the livelihoods of millions of Britons depended upon slavery through the many stages of importing, processing and retailing slave-grown crops; in running plantations; in building, operating and defending Atlantic shipping; in commercial finance, credit, mortgage-lending and marine insurance; and in manufacturing using slave-grown raw materials, especially sugar and cotton. Everyone in Britain, and in the rest of Western Europe, also benefitted from new cheap consumer goods that were the product of enslaved labour: tobacco, sugared tea, coffee, chocolate, ginger, rice, and the Atlantic dyes and raw cotton that produced colourful mass-produced clothing.

Sugar was by far the most important British import of the eighteenth century. It revolutionised tastes and consumer culture, wholesaling, retailing and stockbroking practices, and stimulated new refining and manufacturing industries. It was the first globally important commodity, long before cotton. British glassware, porcelain, silverwares and ceramics developed to serve new tastes for sweetened hot beverages and alcoholic drinks made with sugar. The new tastes and goods of this consumer revolution stimulated capitalist development just as much as changes in production.

Slave plantations were fully a part of Britain’s agricultural revolution. New forms of labour- and capital- intensive agri-business in the Caribbean brought managerial and accounting innovation as well as new sugar-processing technologies. Plantations utilised seeds and plants, labour, capital, skills and knowledge from across the globe and were a central force in the rise of a trans-national knowledge economy that included the skills and expertise of Amerindians and enslaved Africans.

British manufacturing benefited from an early stage. The iron and copper industries of the midlands, north, Scotland and south Wales developed new technologies and diversified in response to American and African markets. These markets, together with slave-grown Caribbean cotton, and dyestuffs also stimulated the precocious industrialization and spinning inventions of the textile north-west, long before US slave-grown cotton came on stream after 1800.

The impact of slave-based Atlantic markets and raw material supplies was felt above all in the west-coast Atlantic ports and their hinterlands. It is no accident that the structural change and rapid population growth fundamental to industrialisation occurred first in the large manufacturing hinterlands of Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. This brought a geographical reorientation of the industrialising economy. The refining, manufacturing, banking, credit dealings, insurance, broking, shipping, commercial intelligence and new transport infrastructure that served the plantation trades spilled over into all aspects of the regional transformation of the north and west.

Industrialisation in Britain also rested on revolutions in public and private finance intimately connected to slavery. Slave-based Atlantic commerce spawned innovations in the national debt, in multilateral payments systems, in long distance investments, insurance, stock trading and stock broking. It extended the fiscal capacity of the state and raised the rate of return on investment across the board. Slavery bolstered London’s growing role as a centre for global finance as the City of London developed insurance, financial trading and mortgage markets to promote distant and risky investments in enslaved people.

Slavery was foundational to the trajectory of the British economy and society well beyond emancipation in the 1830s. Profits from slavery promoted an elite of colonial rentiers and initiated a polarisation of wealth that was endorsed by the proceeds of later imperial investments and ventures.
Slavery thus had a long-term impact on the structure and nature of the British economy: industrialization, financialization, elite formation and embedded inequalities. The slave trade and slavery initiated a pattern of the use of racially-based coerced labour to extract key primary products found across many parts of the British empire in later decades. And they created the legal, commercial, financial and ideological infrastructure that made this possible. Slavery gave British capitalism some of its fundamental structures of production, consumption and investment. It also promoted inequalities of race, class and geography that have characterised Britain and the rest of the world for the last three centuries.


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