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Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution: A Dissent

Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution
Written by Lawrence Goldman

In this review of the recently published book by Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson, Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, Lawrence Goldman argues that the authors have exaggerated the importance of the Atlantic slave economy to Britain and have failed to demonstrate its major role in the Industrial Revolution, the origins of which had relatively little to do with slavery.

Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson are two eminent, well-published, and widely admired economic historians of modern Britain. They have together published a new study on Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution (Polity, 2023). Yet despite their wealth of academic experience, their book yokes together historical research and contemporary politics and in so doing undermines the authority of their arguments. It opens with an account of recent public controversies over the legacies of slavery in Britain. It ends discussing ‘lasting discrimination in Britain and restorative justice’, and links the history of slavery to continuing prejudice in the racist society that is Britain today, at least in their eyes (p. 203-6).

Few books have better demonstrated the need for History Reclaimed. It ignores the barriers that academics used to respect between objective analysis, political advocacy, and ideology – the framing of a subject in a particular way. Berg and Hudson have set out to make a case. A subject as sad and tragic as the history of slavery requires and merits a different sort of scholarship.

The rationale of the book is to place chattel slavery in the British West Indies between the late 17th and early 19th centuries – roughly 150 years – at the very heart of British and global capitalism. More or less every notable economic development in this formative period is relatable to slavery in this account. To do this Berg and Hudson synthesise recent work on the history of slavery, the Atlantic economy, and economic globalisation. The authors have not themselves gone into the relevant archives but rely upon the work and views of those authors they have chosen to use.

There has never been any doubt about the important place of slavery in the trading systems between the old and new worlds in this era. As the basis of the Caribbean economy, slavery supplied commodities in one direction, took in finished goods coming in the other direction, and made some people rich by exploiting and destroying the lives of the millions of chattel slaves carried from Africa to the Americas. Britain’s international history in this period, her eagerness to win and hold sugar islands from the early 17th century under both the Stuart monarchy and the Cromwellian Republic, demonstrates this. But Berg and Hudson want to place slavery at the very heart of almost every economic process, and in so doing they overplay their hand. Indeed, among the mountains of data they supply (so much, that a kindly reader or a wise publisher should have told them that they are in danger of obscuring their case) is material that undermines their central arguments.

Berg and Hudson begin where everyone else always begins, with the so-called ‘Williams Thesis’ set forth by Eric Williams, later a prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, in his Oxford doctorate that became the book Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944. It was comprehensively critiqued and undone by a generation of historians in the 1960s and 1970s, but in present times it has made a comeback. In a cynical exercise in historical materialism, Williams argued that Britain emancipated the slaves in 1833 when the sugar economy of the West Indies was no longer profitable. Emancipation occurred when advancing industrialisation at home offered greater and more secure returns than those to be gained from the exploitation of colonies abroad, now in decline. The half century of public campaigning by the anti-slavery movement had little to do with it, in his account. He also argued that the profits from slavery provided the necessary capital for industrialisation: that the slave trade and slave labour ‘provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution’.[1] We will return to this point later.

Although they seem to endorse Williams, Berg and Hudson are quite clear that ‘the sugar trade continued to boom right through the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth century remaining strong and profitable’ up to and beyond 1833 (p. 58), and that ‘between 1807 and the abolition of preferential sugar import duties for British colonies in 1846…planter and mercantile fortunes continued to be made from Caribbean business.’ (p. 191). As Williams’s critics always maintained, economic decline cannot explain slave emancipation because there was no such decline in planters’ incomes. If Williams had been more respectful of the anti-slavery movement, he would have learnt from studying it that in the 1820s its leaders despaired of ending slavery because the sugar economy made money. British consumers paid above market prices for their sugar as West Indian slaveholders enjoyed the benefits of a protected home market and lined their pockets at the expense of the workers as well as the slaves.

What of the claims made for the centrality of the slave economy to western modernisation? Here the problem is the nature of the data presented in the book – the use of absolute rather than relative information and values. The authors pile up data on the expansion of everything in the slave economy – more hundredweights of this, more yards of that – but the argument can’t be won in this way. To be told, for example, that the firm of Boulton & Watt sent 132 steam engines to the sugar plantations between 1803 and 1830 (p. 130) may appear to be impressive evidence of the integration of the West Indies into the new industrial economy – until set beside the estimate that as early as 1800, industrial enterprises in Britain were already using more than 2500 steam engines.[2]

We require evidence of the growing importance of the slave economy relative to other geographical sectors for British trade. We need comparative data on the volume and value of British commerce with the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Ottoman lands, and India and Asia beyond, yet the names of such places occur infrequently in this book. For example, table 7.2 (p.150) on British textile exports in the year 1770 demonstrates that the Caribbean took about 14% by value of the cloth sent to the Americas. A further 29% went to the five future southern states of the new United States where slavery was the dominant mode of production. But the remaining eight northern states, without large-scale plantation agriculture, but with larger and fast-growing populations and more diversified economies, took the lion’s share, 57%. And what of textile exports from Britain to the rest of the world? We don’t get data on this and, without it, we can’t get a sense of the relative importance of the slave economy.

Over the course of the 18th century, trade with Europe, which initially dominated British commerce, decreased in relative significance, particularly from the 1790s when it was interrupted by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It picked up again at the end of the Napoleonic period, of course, when the French continental blockade ended. Likewise, trade with the new United States, which dipped in the era of the War of Independence, was remarkably buoyant as soon as the 1790s. Even if, in 1797-8, when trade with Europe was so difficult, the West Indies accounted for 25% by value of total British exports (Table 2.2, p. 48), perhaps a high-water mark for Caribbean trade, this hardly suggests that the imperial slave economy was an overwhelmingly important component of British commerce at that point – in comparison, the fledgling United States was already taking a third of British exports. And the Caribbean economy was destined to decline in relative significance in subsequent decades as worldwide trade increased.

In the 1970s it was estimated by one of the doyens of the economic history of Atlantic slavery, Stanley Engerman, that, in 1770, total profits derived from the slave economy – from both the trade in slaves and the plantations – were ‘below 5 per cent of British [national] income.’[3] In this book, Berg and Hudson, using the work of other historians, estimate that the slave economy accounted for 11% of GDP at the end of the eighteenth century (p. 52). Let us grant them this. At such a level, it was significant but hardly dominant. They also tell us that Britain’s four biggest industries in 1801 were woollen textiles, leather working, building, and cotton textiles, each hovering at around 15-19% of GDP (p. 218). Of these, only cotton depended on the Caribbean economy (though some building materials would have been derived from there) and the West Indies would very soon cease to be the major supplier of raw cotton for the mills of Lancashire as cotton culture boomed in the American South. Sugaring people’s beverages and puddings – always made so central to analyses of this type – was a growing industry through the 18th century, but hardly a dominant component of the British economy overall. The slave economy was important for sure, but relative to other sectors and to other regions around the globe (about which we don’t learn nearly enough) it was just one element.

The point can be made in another way by looking at Britain’s economic relations with the United States after 1800 when the American South, rather than the West Indies, became the source of the slave-grown cotton used in Lancashire. If economic historians were to focus only on this, they would miss the significance of Britain’s even greater and more significant relationship to the industrialising northern states in the US to which British banks and other enterprises supplied the capital for American industrialisation. The American North was the single greatest destination for British investment in the nineteenth century and that is one of the reasons why Britain chose not to intervene in the American Civil War to end the ‘cotton famine’ in Lancashire. That would have antagonised the Union, and risked even greater British investments in the North states.[4] It is another case where Britain’s involvement in the economy of slavery has to be set in the context of wider patterns of economic and financial interaction. We cannot calibrate the importance to Britain of the Atlantic slave economy by focusing on it alone.

How does the Berg and Hudson model of the British economy, with its inflation of the role of the slave economy at its heart, stack up against our earlier model of economic growth and early industrialisation? A generation ago it was argued that in the crucial early period of industrialisation between 1750 and 1800 the growth of domestic demand was the critical factor. Population doubled in the 18th century; people lived and therefore consumed for longer; living standards rose thanks to better nutrition enabled by agricultural improvements; productivity increased and prices fell for finished goods under the influence of technical advances; buyers were courted by new industrialists selling durable products (think Josiah Wedgwood, who was, of course, profoundly anti-slavery); a large, consuming ‘middling sort’ emerged to hoover up the new products of British industry. Berg and Hudson refer briefly to this former account (p. 40), but never revert to it again, nor explain where it is wrong. There may indeed be a place for the enhanced role of foreign demand in our models of eighteenth century economic change and growth, but that has to be demonstrated and argued through, rather than asserted. And within any case for the enhanced role of foreign demand overall, the central place of the slave economy in the West Indies, relative to other geographical markets and sources of raw materials, requires proof rather than frequent reiteration.

This leaves the most significant problem of the book: the claims made that the slave economy was the foundation of industrialisation itself. To historians of this persuasion, ever since Williams, this has been a sort of holy grail. If it can be shown that the origins of industrialisation itself depended on slavery, then the original sin of western capitalism would be laid bare: modernity itself has been built on the backs of slaves.

There is a generalised and simple version of this argument that runs through this book and other academic work in this genre: that as Britain got richer on the proceeds of slavery, so people had more money to buy the products of industry. But of close connections between slavery and industrialisation Berg and Hudson produce relatively few examples. We learn about slave-derived investments in the textile mills of Robert Owen in New Lanark, of Samuel Greg in Cheshire, the Ewarts of Liverpool, the Hibberts of Manchester, and some others as well (pp. 156-8). We might have expected that great industrialists were also great (or even minor) slave owners; that capital raised in the West Indies would be directly and frequently invested in the new enterprises of industrial Britain; that new banks founded to service industrialisation had droves of directors who had made their wealth in the Caribbean and brought it back with them to invest in mines, mills, textiles, canals, steam engines. But of this kind of intersection between slavery and industry there is relatively little discussion or evidence, because it didn’t exist at scale.

Berg and Hudson write, somewhat opaquely, at this point: ‘In the absence of more systematic study, the multiplication of examples of investment funds flowing from slavery to the textile industry can only be indicative of its importance’. (p.157) That rather sounds like an admission that the number of outstanding examples of West Indian investments in the lead sector of Britain’s Industrial Revolution is small.

That’s because these were two more or less separate economies, based on entirely different social groups, divided by class, region and religion. The slave economy, as Berg and Hudson admit, is part of what is called ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, the economy of landholding, banking and merchanting as explained in the 1980s and 1990s by Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins.[5] It is here that we find the integration of slave-derived and domestic wealth. But the emerging industrial economy was the work of small provincial entrepreneurs who developed local enterprises based on capital networks that extended only as far as their own kith and kin and co-religionists. As T. S. Ashton and others showed long ago, the Industrial Revolution was the work of non-conformists – Unitarians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers – and not Anglicans.[6] It was the latter who bought the slaves, not the dissenters. And crucially, the emerging industrial economy was anti-slavery, not pro-slavery. These were the people who joined local anti-slavery societies, signed petitions, boycotted sugar. The slave economy and the industrial economy were two different worlds and the absence of their interconnection in this book is the proof of that.

The authors know this. Berg and Hudson are simply too good as historians to uphold the pretence. In the coming months you will be told that this book proves that the Industrial Revolution was the work of slavery. So I quote the authors at length to ensure that everyone knows the truth:

We do not argue that slavery caused the industrial revolution. Neither do we suggest that slavery was necessary for the development of industrial capitalism in Britain. Even less does our study attempt to estimate that the gains from slavery contributed a particular percentage to Britain’s economic growth, GDP or capital formation in the eighteenth century. (p.7)

In sum, this book has told us what we knew already: that the slave economy was a significant component of the national economy and its proceeds made a contribution – significant again – to the rise in national and personal wealth across the eighteenth century. But it played little or no direct role in industrialisation which is still best explained in terms of all the traditional factors employed by earlier generations of historians: local capital formation, scientific inquiry, technological tinkering, entrepreneurship based upon the desire to succeed among excluded religious and social groups, cheap coal and other resources, and rising domestic demand. And in the process of reaffirming what we knew already, Berg and Hudson have disproved the Williams thesis: they join a distinguished band of economic historians and historians of slavery who did it before them and have been ignored. That part of the title of this book which reads ‘and the Industrial Revolution’ is really an offence under the old Trade Descriptions Act (1968). Put another way, this book doesn’t do ‘exactly what it says on the tin’.

In 1833 compensation was paid to 45,000 owners of slaves in the British empire. We can legitimately speculate that there were at least ten times as many declared opponents of slavery, however, during the half century between the 1780s and 1830s. The authors have little time or respect for the anti-slavery movement: that would give credence to the traditional narrative in which many Britons, after the cruel exploitation of millions of transplanted Africans, led the world in recognising the horror as well as the impolicy of slavery and worked to bring both the slave trade and slavery to an end. But the anti-slavery movement could teach Berg and Hudson a lesson in deploying evidence without exaggeration.

Zachary Macaulay in the Anti-Slavery Reporter, founded in 1823, Henry Brougham in his speeches in and outside Parliament, and Thomas Clarkson lecturing to audiences across the nation with his diagram of the slave ship ‘Brookes’ at hand, won the public’s support by presenting copious and accurate information about slavery. There was no need to exaggerate because the truth, and the statistics, were so awful and so compelling. They could be trusted, therefore. What everyone requires at this moment is a history of slavery on which they can rely. And what the brutalised slaves deserve as one of their memorials today is a sober, restrained history of the economy they built and its place in world commerce.

[1] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944) (1961 edn.), vii, 52-5.

[2] Mark Cartwright, ‘The Steam Engine in the British Industrial Revolution’, World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2166/the-steam-engine-in-the-british-industrial-revolut/

[3] Stanley Engerman, ‘The Slave Trade and British Capital Formation in the Eighteenth Century: A Comment on the Williams Thesis’, Business History Review, vol. 46, no. 4, Winter 1972, p. 442.

[4] Jay Sexton, Debtor Diplomacy. Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era 1837-1873 (Oxford, 2005).

[5] P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism. Innovation and Expansion 1688-1914 (London, 1993)

[6] T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (London, 1948)

About the author


Lawrence Goldman