A depiction of a typical slave plantation in Antigua circa 1820. Image: Science History Images / Alamy

On the back of slavery

The propulsive effect of human trafficking on the entire British economy is at last being understood—but there’s still no coherent thinking about making amends
January 23, 2024
Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution
Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson (RRP: £25)
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Buy on Bookshop.org

History doesn’t record much about “Mary” and “Industry”, and even those names are best understood as removable labels. But we do know that, as of 1797, this pair of twentysomething women were both field workers—and valued at £100 each. 

The slave trade required, and bequeathed, all manner of shipping and financial records, but the voluminous documentation provides only momentary glimpses into the worlds of all the Marys and Industrys who toiled within the system. The vast crime of trafficking at least 12.5m Africans across the Atlantic over three centuries was, perhaps necessarily, conducted in ways that prevented Europeans from dwelling on the implications for each of those individual lives.

Working with dry tables of data is second nature to Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson, who come to the subject not as race or slavery specialists, but as two distinguished historians of Britain’s industrial revolution. They mine an extraordinary range of numbers and blend them with contemporary testimony, marshalling all the evidence to reach one emphatic conclusion—that slavery’s role in the story of how Britain got rich was, almost literally, incalculable. 

This is contentious, and not only because of the nationalist blinkers that have obscured the UK’s long pre-eminence in the slave trade, in favour of a flattering focus on our eventual role in abolition. A comprehensive understanding has also been obscured by what Berg and Hudson describe as a narrowing “quantitative turn” in economic history during the late 20th century. Rather like the economists who specialised in elegant analysis of known and particular risks—and forgot about the unknown unknowns that would bring everything crashing down in the financial crisis—historians became fixated on exhaustive statistical tests. These held out the allure of precision where masses of data existed, but at a cost. Complex and interlocking “aspects of historical development that were difficult to measure were pushed to the periphery of the field.”

Slavery’s role in the story of how Britain got rich was, almost literally, incalculable

Despite—or maybe because of—all those ship records and Caribbean plantation accounts, this arid history was blind to the many spillover benefits that accrued way beyond the businesses directly involved. Scholars would pore over the profit rate on this voyage or the value added by that sugar plant, and conclude that the proportion of aggregate investment or national income such ventures represented was modest. One much-quoted study found that the slave trade added only 1 per cent to domestic capital formation in the 18th century, hardly a plausible spur to Britain becoming the workshop of the world. 

But Berg and Hudson reconceive the business of shipping slaves to the colonies from being a discrete industry to being what it was: the first thread around which a vast transatlantic trading web was gradually woven. British manufactures found new markets among the slave traders on the African coast; British capital and ingenuity found new application in Caribbean plantations; infant industries across the then-British colonies of the American mainland burgeoned by servicing the same plantations. 

When slave-trading truly picked up after the Restoration, with strong state sponsorship via the Royal African Company, it brought forth a wave of change that steadily broke across the entire economy. British workers developed a taste for slave-grown, hunger-suppressing groceries such as tobacco and sugar. By the time the first tremors of the industrial revolution were felt, Adam Smith described such goods as being of “almost universal consumption”. These new habits had to be funded by waged labour, rather than traditional subsistence work, a switch that would ready the workforce for the coming move off the land and into the factories.

The effects were as varied as those that have flowed from the exigencies of fighting major wars. Indeed, in no small part due to the scramble for colonial markets, the kingdom actually was at war for almost half of the time—in 70 of the 155 years between Charles II taking the throne and Waterloo. 

Those of a bean-counting disposition, including the great Smith, often argued that the huge cost of defending the Caribbean colonies wasn’t justified. From the narrow point of view of the revenue the plantations generated, they had a point. But Berg and Hudson want us to think instead about the immense “innovatory” stimulus that rippled out from, for example, every order for a “fitted, rigged and armed” 74-gun ship, whose price tag was equivalent to 16 cotton mills. Even where such spending was wasteful, it wrought huge change and primed the country for modernisation. Feeding and equipping military forces to defend the expanding merchant fleet was another crucial dynamic: during the late 18th century, “the Navy alone bought a fifth of all products traded on the British agricultural market.”

Sometimes Berg and Hudson’s point is simply one of scale: the sheer volume of activity in trades related to slavery are self-evidently a Very Big Deal. Consider, for example, widely accepted estimates that an outright majority (56 per cent) of all British trade in 1800 concerned the Caribbean and North America. Or the half-million slaves carried on voyages that set off from Bristol over the 109 years preceding the abolition of the Atlantic trade, a touch more than the population of the city today. Or the fact that Jamaica’s slave-and-sugar-based island economy had wealth worth 10 per cent of that in all of England and Wales; or indeed, how broader “plantation America has been estimated to have been three times as valuable to the British Empire as Scotland, twice as valuable as Ireland, and perhaps equivalent to Lancashire and Yorkshire combined.” 

In grim detail: an illustration from 1776
of a British colonial estate in Dominica © Science History Images / Alamy In grim detail: an illustration from 1776 of a British colonial estate in Dominica © Science History Images / Alamy

Sometimes, Berg and Hudson’s emphasis is instead on place. They draw our attention from the familiar slave ports such as Liverpool and Bristol to the Birmingham and Sheffield metalworks supplying West African slave traders with tools and trinkets, or Caribbean planters with machines and huge copper cauldrons; the Staffordshire potteries that boomed as slave-grown crops created demand for sugar bowls and tobacco pipes; Ambrose Crowley’s ironworks in northeast England, one knocking out plantation hoes and cane-knives, another “chains of all kind”; and, indeed, a “negro collar manufacturer” in Wolverhampton.

Sometimes the link to wider economic development is instead elucidated via particular processes. The greatest hits of the industrial revolution—Compton’s spinning jenny, Arkwright’s mule and water frame—worked the wonders that they did only because of the specific “strong and long-stapled” Barbadense cotton strains that came from Atlantic plantations.

Financially, the Atlantic trade had to be lubricated because the planters buying slaves “demanded long credit” while the traders needed liquid funds to pay their way. Wealthy Britons stepped in as intermediaries, underwriting the deals through “bills of exchange”, in return for a cut. After parliament underpinned the system, empowering financiers to respond to defaults by seizing plantation property via the Colonial Debts Act of 1732, the work of such money men blossomed. By 1749, a pamphleteer described an army of London commission agents swirling around the business of the sugar islands, “negotiating their Bills, receiving and paying their Moneys, discounting their Tickets and Tallies”. All this activity had a bearing on our island story. For one thing, it offered a template for solving the biggest financial problem of the early industrialists, namely “easing payments” until the investments they made recouped. For another, it laid the foundations of the City as we know it.

The book is an almighty work of synthesis. A review can do no more than list the breathtaking linkages between slavery and British power documented: the 599 slaves directly owned by the Bank of England; the three Caribbean planters who became lord mayor of London; the 68 MPs in the 1770s with “West Indian” interests; the courtroom ruling that the massacre of slaves on board the Zong, for reasons connected to an insurance claim, was “as if horses had been thrown overboard.” Nor can I dwell on the myriad impetuses for learning and innovation that the Caribbean enterprise involved, such as the diffusion of double-entry bookkeeping demanded by remote landlords and the botanical collections that would evolve into the Natural History Museum. Merely listing them bears out Berg and Hudson’s conclusion that the Atlantic economy became a “fulcrum of the advance of enlightenment scientific knowledge”.

Various details of chronology seal their conviction that the business of slavery ensured Victorian Britain ruled the waves. Towards the start of the story, they point to the outgrowth of the industrial workforce from Liverpool as early as the 1750s, well before manufacturing boomed nationwide; near its end, they cite a Times editorial from 1857, 24 years after the Slavery Abolition Act, baldly stating that, thanks to links with American planters, Britain was still enjoying the “lion’s share of the profits of slavery”. 

The scholarly purpose of Berg and Hudson is to persuade their fellow historians to be as clear-eyed about the indispensability of slavery to British prosperity as the many contemporaries they quote. Their hero is Eric Williams, who was—if it’s not a contradiction in terms—a historian ahead of his time. A young Trinidadian scholar in 1930s England, his PhD anticipated many of Berg and Hudson’s arguments, but, because of his insistence that abolition owed more to the changing shape of the UK economy than moral leadership, he was snubbed. He had to wait till 1964 to find a UK publisher, and until 2022 for his Capitalism and Slavery to be reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. The two modern historians tell his story poignantly, though with a parochial focus on the British academy, saying little about his considerable standing in the US—or, indeed, about the fact that he ended up as the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. 

Their political purpose is to bring to the UK something of the reckoning that is under way in US history through such initiatives as The 1619 Project, which traces that nation’s story not to the traditional starting point of the break for freedom in 1776, but to the date enslaved people first arrived on American shores. They also embrace progressive America’s rising interest in reparations, hailing new digitised primary sources, such as the Legacies of British Slavery database, which businesses, universities and churches are using to make amends. 

While I sympathise with the impulse for restoration rather than charity, after reading this book, trying to tailor quasi-legal redress for individual institutions and families seems hopeless. Why? Precisely because Berg and Hudson have persuaded me that it doesn’t make sense to imagine the gains of slavery as accruing to identifiable traders and investors; rather, the whole population was enriched by what we might call a slavery-industrial complex, which drew everybody in. Conversely, there can be few in the Caribbean who have suffered no consequence from the strains on society and family life bequeathed by chattel slavery.

Piecemeal restitution based on particular, identifiable liabilities can never be adequate. Only wholesale transfers between entire countries make sense. For all the deep problems of organising this at the state level, it would be the only coherent way to redeem the bitter legacy of sugar.