Slavery, the British Atlantic Economy and the Industrial Revolution

Apr 2013 | Number 113

Authors: C. Knick Harley


Modern economic growth first emerged in Britain about the time of the Industrial Revolution, with its cotton textile factories, urban industrialization and export orientated industrialization.  A period of economic growth, industrial diversification and export orientation preceded the Industrial Revolution.  This export orientation revolved around an Americanization of British trade for which the slave colonies of the Caribbean were central.  The Eric Williams' explored the extent to which this export economy based on West Indian slavery contributed to the coming of the Industrial Revolution.  His claim that profits from the slave trade were crucial to the Industrial Revolution has not stood up to criticial evaluation.  Nonetheless, modern speculations regarding endogenous growth plausibly postulate that manufacturing, urbanization, and a powerful merchant class all have a favourable impact for growth.  These hypotheses need careful consideration.

What set the British colonial empire aside from its rivals was not the quality of its sugar colonies but the involvement of the temperate colonies on the North American mainland.  Unlike the slave colonies created to exploit staple exports, English emigrants to the northern mainland sought to establish independent settlement.  These colonies lacked staple products and residents financed imports by exploited opportunities the empire provided providing for shipping and merchanising and compensating for the lack of European market for the timber or temperate agricultural products by exporting to the sugar colonies which, in turn, concentrated on the export staple.  The British Empire was unique and its development provided an important and growing diversified and relatively wealthy market for British manufactured goods that all other empires lacked.  Although the mainland colonies financed their imports of British manufactured goods by intergrading into the slave-based British Atlantic, it seems likely that in the absence of opportunities in the slave colonies the mainland colonies would have imported similar amounts of British manufactured goods.


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