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The Slave Trade: British Industrial Revolution

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The debate over whether west African slave trade fueled the British industrial revolution or not has gone on for quite some time and will continue to do so for many more years. Research has been done, claims have been made, and there are arguments benefitting both sides of the debate. West African slave trade did, in fact, fuel the British industrial revolution and this can be found by researching the profits made by slave trade practices, the growth of two major British banks as the result of the profits, the growth of the transportation industry, the increase in overseas trade, and the support of the British people.

The profits made by slave trade practices have been disputed by many historians with the argument that they have been "grossly overstated." However, Barbara Solow, as cited by William Darity, Jr., uses the following quote to say just the opposite: "If slave trade profits were eight percent of investment in Britain in 1770, is that 'small' when today total corporate profits amount to forty percent? No industry manages as much as eight percent." Solow's quote was made in 1980, so with the knowledge that no single industry was able to produce revenue of eight percent then, when industry was continuing to grow, it can be safely inferred that west African slave trade did provide significant profits that were used to promote the industrial revolution.

Not only were the profits made by African slave trading large, but they were frequently invested into banks and textile factories, both of which were a huge part of the industrial revolution. Two of Britain's largest and most successful banks, Barclay's and Lloyd's, each received a large amount of slave trade profits throughout the eighteenth century. Both of these banks, among others in Liverpool and Manchester, became very important to the industrial revolution as they were able to provide credit to new British industries as they were getting started. Although it is impossible to say that Britain's industrial revolution would never have taken place if it had not been boosted by the profits provided by slave trade, it is easy to believe that it would have been postponed for a lengthy amount of time.

The banking industry was not the only one that was launched during the time of slave trade. The transportation industry also grew. The growth of the transportation industry is quite easy to see in eighteenth century Britain because in order to go through the motions of triangular trade it was necessary for British crewmen to have access to ships. As more and more ships were built and then bought for use in triangular trade, it made it possible for the transportation industry to grow and, in turn, provide more capital for Britain and its growing industries, along with employment opportunities for British men.

Although slave trade played a pivotal role in eighteenth century Britain, there were other things taking place that had a significant impact on society. Triangular trade, taking place between Britain, Africa, and North America, also played a part in Britain's industrial revolution. According to David Richardson, "the official value of British exports rose almost six fold over the century while imports increased over fivefold." An increase that large in the value of British exports results in another set of great profits being made, and many of the products that were exported could be tied directly back to the manual labor of west Africans purchased during the slave trade. Had the slave trade not taken place, Britain's exports, imports, and trade in general would not have had the opportunity to grow as it did.

Finally, the slave trade had the support of the British people. In 1788, Parliament held hearings on the slave trade practices and sought information to determine whether or not it should be abolished. Various people either testified or wrote letters to convey their feelings about the slave trade, and many expressed the view that abolishing slave trade would be detrimental to the health of Britain's growing industries and society. James Penny wrote such a letter, and expressed his opinion by saying, "Should this trade be abolished, it would not only affect the Commercial Interest, but also the Landed Property of the County of Lancaster, and more particularly the Town of Liverpool, whose fall, in that case, would be as rapid as its Rise has been outstanding." A second letter read, "The effects of this trade to Great Britain are beneficial to an infinite extent and there is hardly any Branch of Commerce in which this nation is concerned that does not derive some advantage from it." As these are real quotes from British citizens during the time of the slave trade, it becomes obvious that the men working in the newly industrialized version of Britain felt that the country's industrial success came about because of the slave trade.

As mentioned earlier, the debate over whether the slave trade truly fueled Britain's industrial revolution is not new. However, there is significant evidence pointing to west African slave trade having a profound effect on British industrialization, and this evidence can be seen in the profits made by slave trade practices, the growth of British banks as the result of the profits, the growth of the transportation industry, the increase in overseas trade, and the overall support of slave trade by the British people.


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