Did slavery cause the British Industrial Revolution?

  • Themes: History

While the case that slavery was critical to the Industrial Revolution is solid when it comes to capital and markets, it is not easy to establish with technology. And the Industrial Revolution was, by definition, about technology.

Eighteenth Century Ironworks at night.
Eighteenth Century Ironworks at night. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Slavery, Capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, Maxine Berg & Pat Hudson, Polity, £25

Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson collaborated to publish Slavery, Capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution (Polity, 2023). Two top historians with a record of writing pathbreaking books on British and global history tackle a fundamental and, in the current climate, deeply controversial question in economic history: did slavery contribute to the British Industrial Revolution?

What is the debate about? On one side stand scholars who answer the question with a ‘yes’. The Trinidadian writer and politician Eric Williams is the most famous in the set. His Capitalism and Slavery (1944) is an awkward book to use in a scholarly debate because of its obvious political intent. It is still a classic for making two points that shaped later discourses on the subject. First, economic calculations were the main reason for British imperial support for slavery in the British West Indies.

And second, the slave-sugar nexus contributed to English industrial and economic growth in the mid-to-late 1700s. Through a one-sided transaction – enslaved people created value, and planters transferred that value to Britain – British capitalism impoverished the rest of the world. The value transferred was significant. Jamaican planters were the wealthiest British capitalists in the eighteenth century and major benefactors-investors in urban infrastructure, education, and banking.

Decades later, scholars tested these propositions with more and better statistics. Some of the most influential writers confirmed the Williams thesis. ‘Colonial slavery,’ Barbara Solow wrote in a 1985 research paper, ‘increased British national income and the pool of investable funds and resulted in a pattern of trade that encouraged industrialisation.’ Solow was the most prolific writer on the subject in North America.

Another American scholar, Joseph Inikori, in his Africa and the Industrial Revolution, stressed the role of slavery in creating a world market. The ‘evilness,’ Inkori wrote in an article restating the argument, ‘crowds out studies focused on… contribution of Atlantic slavery to the rise of the capitalist global economy, a far more difficult subject to deal with than its morality.’ For Inikori, slavery expanded phenomenally the Atlantic trading system in the nineteenth century. ‘With the use of its naval power, mercantilist Britain dominated the rapidly growing Atlantic markets, which ultimately created the conditions for the Industrial Revolution.’

Historians on the other side of the debate argue that the British Industrial Revolution was fundamentally about technology. Joel Mokyr, a historian of technological change, thinks the process was dependent on patterns of transactions in practical and theoretical knowledge. The possibility that such exchanges would lead to dramatic consequences in the shape of textile machines, or the steam engine, stemmed from the social dynamics of eighteenth-century England, not any factor external to Britain. Mokyr accepts that the Atlantic system made a difference, but Atlantic trade ‘in and of themselves would have done little to drive the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution had there been no prior high level of engineering competence’.

Mokyr is not alone in stressing causal factors that emerged from the British or Western European conditions rather than external drivers. A brief (and incomplete) list of other factors that were essentially local and played a big part in Europe’s emergence would include constrained state power, common law, energy intensity, marriage patterns, ‘industrious revolution’, fiscal state, high wages, overseas trade, intergenerational transfer of cultural traits, financial revolution, protectionism, and an agricultural revolution.

Berg and Hudson’s book confirms Williams’s claim that slavery and the Caribbean contributed to the British Industrial Revolution, but stops short of saying that slavery caused Britain’s transformation. Instead, it was ‘formative in the timing and nature’ of the Industrial Revolution. The caution is justified. The case that slavery was critical is solid when it comes to capital and markets. It is not easy to establish with technology. The Industrial Revolution was, by definition, about technology. Capital accumulation, market expansion, and exploitation of enslaved peoples do not in any direct way explain innovation in production methods.

Their book advances the debate by saying that Caribbean slavery generated massive multipliers – via trade, (some) technology, the forging of global ties, and financial development. Capital stimulated banks and insurance and reduced and spread risks. Further, the Indian and Atlantic oceans became interdependent. ‘Trade between Britain, Africa and the Americas is often referred to simplistically as a triangular trade… the model might be viewed as a diamond-shaped trade that integrated the Indian and Atlantic Oceans during the eighteenth century.’ This is a radical idea, except that it rests largely, and unsteadily, on one product: Indian textiles, sometimes used as a means of payment in slave trades.

Bringing in Asia brings two critical problems for the Williams thesis. First, British capital was active in both slave-based and other trades. Both had similar agencies in Britain. How do we assess their relative roles? How do we know that the other fields did not make a bigger difference to capital accumulation and market expansion? If the sugar-slave nexus implies a one-sided transaction, in the East India Company’s trade in Asia, making money was impossible without partnerships and collaborations with local merchants and agents, who shared the profits. The story that British capitalism impoverished the rest of the world fails beyond the Atlantic islands.

Second, as Gwyn Campbell, the historian of Madagascar, says, ‘the Indian Ocean World slave-trade peaked [in the nineteenth century]. Unlike the transatlantic slaving system, indigenous agents funded and ran the slave-trades’. This is a far-reaching point. Atlantic historians rarely notice that slavery existed in Africa and Asia. This statement suggests that it expanded when Atlantic slavery did. Asian and Islamic slavery is often posed as a more benign, or at any rate, a different form of employment than the Caribbean system. The truth is, we do not know enough about that difference.

It is likely that the resurgence of slavery in Asia and Africa happened partly in capitalistic sites. It made money for local economies. In any case, the slave traders made money. Why did that money not generate similar multiplier effects as the Caribbean capital did in Britain? Not only did slavery exist – and rose – outside the Atlantic, it also lasted much longer. Legal slavery was abolished in Mauritania as late as 1981. The conditions of persistence are as little researched as the economic legacies.

Unlike two generations before, most historians now see the British Industrial Revolution as a process connected with economic change in the rest of the world. The writers who extended the Williams thesis ensured that. But the world was considerably larger and more diverse than the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. The trade in enslaved people was larger and more diverse than Atlantic slavery. The explanatory power of slavery and what it explains will not be obvious to many, even after reading Berg and Hudson’s excellent book.


Tirthankar Roy