This book does an excellent job of showing exactly how the development of British capitalism was dependent on slavery. The author is Eric Williams, an obscure PhD student at the time of writing, but later in life to become Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago.
Williams goes through his evidence in systematic detail, examining British economic and political development in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and showing the role of slavery at every turn. Great banking families like the Barclays and the Barings got their start as slave traders. Insurance firms like Lloyd’s of London made big profits from insuring slave traders against the death of their cargo.
Britain made fantastic profits from the Triangular Trade – manufactured goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to the West Indies, sugar from the West Indies back to Britain. The towns of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow grew rich on this trade – Bristol’s West India trade in the 18th century, for example, was worth twice as much as all its other overseas trade combined.
More than that, the Triangular Trade gave an impetus to other British industries. Birmingham alone exported 100,000 muskets a year to Africa, most of them exchanged for slaves. Sugar refining became a major industry in Britain (it was banned in the colonies). The wool and cotton industries got a massive boost, both from the import of the raw material from the West Indies and later mainland America, and from the new markets for the export of their finished goods.
The Industrial Revolution itself was financed largely from the profits of the slave trade and slave-produced sugar. James Watt, for example, depended on capital accumulated from the West Indian trade to finance the development of his new invention, the steam engine. A key figure in the development of the slate industry, Lord Penrhyn, made his money from sugar plantations in Jamaica. The Bristol West India interest played a prominent role in the construction of the Great Western Railway. And so on. Williams documents so many ways in which the development of British capitalism was dependent on the capital reaped from slavery.
Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and emancipation of the slaves in 1834 are presented not as humanitarian achievements, but as driven by economic imperatives. Slavery was essential in the early development of the West Indian colonies, when labour was scarce. English migrants would want land of their own, not to work in extremely harsh conditions on a sugar plantation, and in any case the numbers were not sufficient. A supply of slaves from Africa allowed the sugar industry to grow as it never would have otherwise.
But by the early 19th century, the situation had changed radically. The plantation owners had become so rich and powerful that they held Britain to ransom. West Indian sugar held a monopoly in Britain, and the plantation owners used that to their advantage, deliberately limiting supply so as to drive up the price. With free labour and a guaranteed market, they made huge profits, even though their production was inefficient. With no incentive to modernise, they remained hopelessly outdated compared with other industries and nations, but made money anyway.
Britain had changed too. The Industrial Revolution, financed by capital from the colonial trade, created booming industries which demanded ever more markets for their goods. Free trade, not mercantilism, was now the order of the day. The wealthy industrialists wanted to trade with India, Brazil and other markets around the world that could offer cheaper raw materials, and resented the fact that the plantations in the West Indies were propped up by slave labour and a guaranteed market. They also resented the diversion of capital to these now unprofitable islands. A final imperative was to obtain cheap labour for their own factories, and this was difficult when the cost of basic goods like sugar was so high – they wanted to import it more cheaply from other sources.
There’s so much in this book, so many details and statistics to back up the basic thesis: that slavery played a big role in financing the Industrial Revolution, and that mature industrial capitalism then helped destroy the slave system which was no longer in its interests.
All of which leads me to wonder why, studying history at Oxford in the late 1990s, I never learned any of this. I actually studied eighteenth century British history in depth, under the tutelage of one of the experts in the field, and yet I don’t remember the West Indies or the slave trade coming up very often at all. It wasn’t that their existence was denied – it was just that they weren’t mentioned very much. The Industrial Revolution was presented as an internal British occurrence. The north American colonies were studied in more detail, yes, but Barbados? Jamaica? Those unfortunate dealings on the African coast? Strangely absent. Given that Williams wrote this book back in 1944, the arguments he makes are hardly new, and yet they felt new to me, and I find that shocking.
Of course I take responsibility for my own ignorance – at university level, you can decide what to read beyond the set reading list, and I could have discovered all this for myself. Yet I wonder how such a glaring gap could exist, and whether history is still being taught like that at Oxford today. Coincidentally, my wife was watching the BBC show The Great British Bake-Off recently, and it included a segment on the history of sugar. The segment talked about the high price of sugar and the conditions of the poor British sugar refiners, but neglected to mention the conditions of the people cutting cane in the Caribbean. In fact, it neglected to mention where sugar came from at all. Now I know a cooking show is just entertainment, but it’s that gap again. Are we really so fragile that we can’t handle even a brief mention of the truth?