Between 1650 and 1850, England’s
economy and society underwent a radical transformation, both in scale and
in a manner the first of its kind in human history.
This unprecedented socioeconomic transformation is captured by changes
in the demographic and economic structure of England
over the two hundred-year period. This may be illustrated. In 1651 there
were only 5.2 million people in England,
who, like the rest of the world, lived mainly in the rural areas and depended
for their livelihood largely on agriculture. As late as 1700, only 17 percent
of the population lived in urban areas and 61.2 percent of male employment
was in agriculture.
But, by 1840 the urban population was 48.3 percent and only 28.6 percent
of male employment was in agriculture, with 47.3 percent in industry.
In 1851 the total population stood at 16.7 million
(more than three times the size of the 1651 population), by which time
England had a full-blown industrial economy and society and had become
the workshop of the world ¾
the first country in the whole world to achieve full industrialization,
with manufacturing mechanized and organized in large-scale factory system.
This “Great Transformation,”
to use Karl Polanyi’s expression, is explained
in the mainstream literature in terms of
internal forces in England¾
agricultural improvement, population growth, chance endowment of coal and
iron ore, progressive social structure, and/or accidental development of
with no serious examination of the contribution of African peoples.
Over half a century ago, Eric Williams had attempted to show the contribution
of Africans on the basis of profits from the slave trade and slavery, and
the employment of those profits to finance England’s
well known Williams thesis has been attacked repeatedly since it first
appeared in 1944.
I have shown elsewhere that the British slave trade was more profitable
than the critics of Williams would want us to believe, but argued at the
same time that the emphasis on profits is misplaced.
I believe the contribution of Africans to the transformation of England’s
economy and society between 1650 and 1850 would be best demonstrated in
terms of the role of the slave-based Atlantic World economy in the transformation
process. This paper presents a summary of my attempt to date in that direction.
The logical structure of the argument
may be briefly stated. The analysis centers on the economics of international
trade during the transformation process. It is argued that the growth of England’s
international trade during the period was a critical factor in the process
and that the evolution of the Atlantic World economic system, with its
expanding multilateral trading network, was at the center of this enlarged
international trade. The analysis begins, therefore, with tracing the development
of the Atlantic trading network, estimating its growing volume and value
over time, and assessing the contribution of diasporic
Africans in the Americas
and those of the African continent. Following this, England’s
transformation trajectory is outlined and fitted into England’s
quantitative and qualitative operation in the Atlantic World trading system,
and the relative weight of the Atlantic World slave economy is determined
in several ways. Important in the exercise is a comparative regional analysis
of the development of England’s
major regions over the period, which helps to bring out in sharp relief
the central factors in the process.
I. Evolution of Atlantic World Trading and Economic
use the terms, Atlantic world and Atlantic basin, interchangeably to define
a geographical area that includes Western Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal,
France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain,
and Ireland), Western Africa (from Mauritania in the northwest to Namibia
in the southwest, comprising the two modern regions of West Africa and
West-Central Africa), and the Americas (comprising all the countries of
modern Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States of America, and
Canada). Before the middle decades of the fifteenth century, these three
broad regions of the Atlantic basin operated in isolation one from another,
although there were indirect trade relations between Western Europe and
Western Africa through the merchants of the Middle East and North Africa.
The Atlantic Ocean was then a relatively quiet
sea, the Mediterranean being the main center
of water-borne international trade in the world at the time.
Also at this time, the Atlantic basin economies were all pre-industrial
and pre-capitalist. The vast majority of the populations on both sides
of the Atlantic (East and West)
were engaged in subsistence agricultural production ¾
the bulk of the output being consumed directly by the producers without
reaching the market. Elaborate craft production, which was largely part
of agriculture, also existed in the regions, making it possible for the
basic needs of the people to be internally met in the main.
major factor constraining economic development in large areas of the Atlantic
world in the fifteenth century was limited opportunity to trade. Even in Western
Europe, where trade had grown most considerably, trading opportunities
had become increasingly limited by the sixteenth century. In the first
place, inadequate local resources did not permit overall population size
to go beyond a certain level, as the crisis of the fourteenth century shows.
Secondly, the Mediterranean-based network of international trade, of which Western
Europe had been an important part since the twelfth century,
began to decline after the Black Death and "by the late fifteenth century,
only small parts of it retained their former vigor."
Thirdly, the growth of nation-states in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
none of which was powerful enough to impose its will on the others, led
to an atomistic competition for resources among the states of Western
further limited trading opportunities within Western
Europe as competition among the nation-states tended to encourage
the growth of self-sufficiency, each state employing protective measures
to stimulate domestic industrial production.
the course of the sixteenth century these policies were formalized, with
their emphasis on the balance of trade. In the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries they were further extended and consolidated, severely limiting
the growth of trade, based entirely on European products, among West European
nations. Because of its geographical size and the extent of its human and
natural resources, policies aimed at national self-sufficiency were most
elaborately developed in France.
They reached their highest level of development under Colbert in the seventeenth
century. The English system also developed extensively from 1620 to 1786.
It was these restrictive practices, together with the other factors limiting
trading opportunities in Western Europe — in
particular, the problem of inland transportation cost in pre-industrial
economies — which led to the general crisis of the seventeenth century.
foregoing evidence indicates strongly that the movement of West Europeans
into the Atlantic, where commodity production
offered immense opportunities for trade expansion, was initially triggered
by the diminishing extent of the market accessible to West European traders
and producers. The expansion of trade and the growing commercialization
of socio-economic life in Western Europe in
the late Middle Ages had given rise to influential
merchant classes. As trading opportunities ceased to expand after the Black
Death, the interests of the merchant class coincided with those of impoverished
members of the nobility (especially in Portugal) searching for new sources
of income and with the growing needs of the rising states for revenue from
trade to provide a major push for trade motivated exploration.
these West European economic and political entrepreneurs were not disappointed.
From the middle to the last decades of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese
explored and established trading posts on the western coast of Africa,
trading mainly gold but also establishing slave-worked plantations and
producing sugar on islands off the African coast. Then came
the jewel of West European expansion ¾
the exploration and colonization of the Americas
from 1492. The subsequent integration of Western Europe,Western
Africa, and the Americas
in a single trading system ¾
the Atlantic world trading system ¾
considerably extended the production and consumption possibility frontier
of the societies in the Atlantic basin through the widening of the range
of resources and products it made available.
there was a problem. Given the rudimentary transportation technology of
the time, unit cost of production in the Americas
had to be sufficiently low for American commodities to bear the cost of
trans-Atlantic transportation and still secure large markets. This meant
large-scale production requiring far more workers than family labor. Yet
no market for legally free labor in any region of the Atlantic
or elsewhere could provide such labor in the quantities and at the prices
required at the time. For one thing, population to land ratios and the
development of division of labor had not yet reached levels in Europe
and Africa that could give rise to a large
population of landless people forced into conditions that would encourage
them to migrate voluntarily in large numbers to the Americas.
On the other hand, because land was abundant in the Americas,
legally free migrants from the Old World were
unwilling to work for others; rather, they took up land to produce on a
small scale for themselves, usually subsistence production in the most
part. The widespread destruction of the Native American population resulting
from European colonization worsened the problem as it further increased
land/labor ratios in the Americas: With less than half a million Europeans
in all of the Americas between 1646 and 1665,
the destruction of the Indian populations meant that average population
density in the Americas was less than one person per square mile in the
large-scale production in the Americas
depended largely on coerced labor for several centuries. Initially, the
indigenous peoples of the Americas
were forced to provide such labor. For silver mining and the provisioning
of the European colonists, coerced Indian labor was relatively successful
in Spanish America.
But it was unsuitable in most other areas of production. As the Indian
(Native American) population declined, the production of commodities in
for Atlantic commerce came to rest almost entirely on the shoulders of
forced migrants from Africa. Subsisting partly
on the provisions from the small plots they stretched themselves to work
in their leisure time, their labor cost to the slaveholders was below subsistence
cost. Hence, because of the cheapness of their labor and the scale of production
they made possible, prices of the American commodities fell sharply over
time in Europe. Products, such as tobacco and
sugar, moved from being luxuries for the rich to every day consumption
goods for the masses in rural and urban areas. The falling prices of raw
materials, such as cotton and dyestuffs, contributed greatly to the development
of industries producing for mass consumer markets.
is thus no surprise that commodity production in the Americas
for Atlantic commerce expanded phenomenally between 1501 and 1850, increasing
from an annual average of £1.3 million in 1501-1550 to £8.0
million in 1651-1670, £39.1 million in 1781-1800, and £89.2
million in 1848-1850.
The estimated percentage share of these commodities produced by diasporic
Africans in the Americas
is put, respectively, at 54.0, 69.1, 79.9, and 68.8.
Based largely on the American commodities, the annual value of multilateral
Atlantic commerce (exports plus re-exports plus imports of merchandise
and commercial services) grew equally explosively during the same period:
from £3.2 million in 1501-1550 to £20.1 million in 1651-1670,
£105.5 million in 1781-1800, and £231.0 million in 1848-1850.
the imperial nations of Western Europe integrated their American colonies
into their mercantilist arrangement, the American products by law had to
go to the respective European mother countries — Spain, Portugal, England,
France, and Holland — through which other European countries received them
as re-exports. European products from non-mother countries going to the
American colonies also had to go through the same mother countries as re-exports.
In this way, through direct and indirect stimulation, intra-European trade
expanded at rates that were a multiple of the rate of growth of Atlantic
commerce itself, and the Americas
became a major factor in the commercialization of socio-economic life in Western
Europe between 1500 and 1800. As one writer has noted, "Because
much of the increase in trade within Europe
[between 1350 and 1750] was related to overseas colonies and markets, it
is difficult to separate long-distance and intra-European trade."
1650 and 1850, England’s
international trade was the main beneficiary of the expanding multilateral
Atlantic commerce and intra-European trade. Two major factors were responsible
for this. One was England’s
naval power which enabled the country to protect and expand its American
territories at the expense of other European powers, especially France
and Holland, and secure
advantageous treaties with Portugal
treaties that practically linked English trade to the dynamic forces emanating
from Portuguese Brazil and Spanish America.
The other is the unique role of British America
(especially New England and the Middle Atlantic
territories) in the network of trade which developed over time among the
economies of the New World. On this point,
my analysis of the evidence has led me to the following conclusion:
developments in northern mainland British America, dependent on trading
opportunities provided by the plantation and mining economies of the Americas
as they did, created an important development zone with the capacity to
suck incomes from the plantation and mining zones, and with social structures
and an income distribution pattern which gave rise to mass consumption
of manufactured goods. Because of colonial arrangements and cultural attachment,
the incomes gathered in the hands of producers and consumers in northern
mainland British America were spent on imports
. . . This was a unique phenomenon in the Atlantic basin. No other European
power was similarly situated during the period.
Socioeconomic Change and Industrialization in England
course and character of socioeconomic change and industrialization in England
between 1650 and 1850 show clearly the importance of the developments in
the Atlantic World already outlined. For several centuries preceding the
seventeenth century, the wool trade with Northwest Europe
and population growth had been the central factors in the process of change
economy and society, especially in the southern counties. Commercialization
of agriculture and the development of woolen textile manufacturing as an
import substitution industry, with its main market in Northern and Northwest
Europe, were the major accomplishments of this early process.
The development of political institutions, particularly
the evolution of an effective parliamentary system of government, were
also important achievements. By the mid-seventeenth century, although the
growth of the woolen industry had significantly reduced England’s
dependence on Northwest Europe for manufactures,
the country still lagged behind the major centers of manufacturing in the
Low Country and the GermanStates.
From the late seventeenth century, the woolen industry faced difficulties
at home and in North and Northwest Europe: exports to the latter stagnated
as the states there developed their own industries, while growing import
of Oriental cottons and silks encroached on the industry’s domestic market
in England. What is more, England’s population had moved back and forth
since the subsistence crisis of the fourteenth century, unable to break
through the six million ceiling imposed by available resources. From the
Restoration (1660) to the early decades of the eighteenth century, major
changes in economy and society came from agricultural improvement, leading
to significant export surpluses in the first half of the eighteenth century,
and the growth of service incomes connected with entrepot
additional foreign exchange accruing from the agricultural export surplus
and from the export of services in the entrepot
trade helped to pay for imported manufactures, which expanded the domestic
market for manufactured goods and created the necessary conditions for
import substitution industrialization on a broad front in the early decades
of the eighteenth century.
Thus, the early years of the industrialization process in eighteenth-century England
centered on efforts by English entrepreneurs to develop local industries
aimed at capturing the domestic market for manufactures created largely
by the developments of the decades 1650-1740. But, like the more recent
import substitution industrialization process in the non-Western world,
the domestic market of the small economy of eighteenth-century England
could not sustain long-run expansion of manufacturing needed for a radical
transformation of the organization and technology of industrial production
to successfully complete the process. The early expansion quickly reached
the limits of the pre-existing domestic market. Thereafter, manufacturers
struggled to secure markets overseas.
already mentioned, the pursuit of mercantilist policy by the states of
Northern and Northwest Europe, as they built
up their own industries, foreclosed those regions as major markets for
the products of the developing English industries. In fact, England’s
traditional manufactured export to Northern and Northwest
Europe, woolen textiles, declined absolutely from approximately
£1.5 million in 1701 to £1.0 million in 1806.
It was in the Atlantic world that those industries found their export markets.
Sustained growth of sales on the Atlantic markets created growing employments
in the export manufacturing regions and those linked to them, which stimulated
population growth, ultimately overcoming the ceiling imposed for centuries
agrarian society. Growing population, concentrated in urban centers with
growing incomes from employment in industry and commerce, combined with
export demand to create the general environment for the transformation
of the organization and technology of manufacturing in the export industries
between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century, making it possible
for the process to be successfully completed.
view of England’s
industrialization is borne out by the regional character of the process.
Several regions in southern England
had been involved in proto-industrialization (the so-called putting out
system) since the sixteenth century and earlier. East
Anglia and the West Country had been major
centers of agricultural and industrial development long before the eighteenth
century. For several centuries they were the main centers of the woolen
industry, with export markets in Northern and Northwest
Europe. Similarly, from the sixteenth through the seventeenth
century, the Weald of Kent was a major proto-industrial region, producing
glass, iron, timber products, and textiles. More than 50 percent of the
blast furnaces in England
by 1600 were in the Weald. For centuries the southern counties remained
far more developed in agriculture, manufacturing, and social organization,
while the northern counties, especially Lancashire
and Yorkshire, remained extremely backward
in agriculture, manufacturing, and social organization. Feudal elements
were still to be found in the agrarian structure and society generally
in Lancashire in the seventeenth century. Because
of these differing levels of development, the ten richest counties in England
were continuously in the south between 1086 and 1660.
1660 and 1850 the regional distribution of manufacturing and wealth in England
was radically transformed. Lancashire became
the leading region in large-scale mechanized manufacturing, with the cotton
textile industry, machine and machine-tools production, all concentrated
there. Second to Lancashire in large-scale
mechanized manufacturing was the West Riding of Yorkshire, where the woolen
industry now concentrated, away from the earlier centers in East
Anglia and the West Country. These two
northern counties were followed by the West Midlands
in large-scale mechanized manufacturing. In fact, the Industrial Revolution
was, first and foremost, a phenomenon of these three English regions. Meanwhile,
the earlier leading agricultural and proto-industrial regions in the south
failed to transit to modern industrialization. They had to wait to be pulled
into the modern era by the dynamism of the leading regions following the
construction of the railroads and the creation of the Victorian empire,
both of which were the products of mechanized industry.
reasons for the changes in the economic fortune of England’s
regions, outlined above, are to be found in the geographical reorientation
international trade between 1650 and 1850. As England’s
export markets in Northern and Northwest Europe
stagnated, the Atlantic markets became the main outlets for English manufactures.
These new markets were captured largely by producers in the northern counties
and the West Midlands. Thus, while the latter
counties’ manufacturers served expanding export markets, those in the southern
counties had to contend with stagnating export markets. These differing
experiences also had repercussions for the growth of the domestic markets
in these two sets of regions. Growing employment in manufacturing and commerce
led to growing population and rising wages in the export manufacturing
regions, while population and wages stagnated in the second set of counties.
Hence, the domestic market grew much faster in the former than in the latter
important fact to note in this scenario is the regional nature of the markets
before the railroad age. The eighteenth-century transport improvements,
particularly the canals, were strongly regional in their impact, thus limiting
effective competition at home among England’s
manufacturers to the regional economies served by these regional transportation
networks. Thus, the fast growing regions had their expanding export and
domestic markets to serve, while the lagging regions had their stagnating
export and domestic markets to serve. It is no surprise that changes in
organization (the factory system) and technological innovation were concentrated
in the fast growing regions of Lancashire,
the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the West Midlands.
evidence is thus clear enough that the slave-based Atlantic world economy
was a critical factor in the transformation of England’s
economy and society between 1650 and 1850. It is pertinent to note that
apart from the contribution outlined in this paper, England’s
shipping, marine insurance business, and credit institutions owed much
of their development during the period to the operation of the Atlantic
Their development helped to establish England’s
supremacy in international trade in commercial services in the nineteenth
century. It is clear from the comparative regional analysis that mainstream
arguments based on agriculture, social structure, and population have little
empirical foundation. Agricultural improvements and progressive social
structures were attained very early in the southern counties of England,
while Lancashire and Yorkshire
retained much of their feudal backwardness. Yet it was these backward counties
that produced the Industrial Revolution instead of the agriculturally and
socially progressive southern counties. And they did so without depending
on the agricultural south for market or for labor, the bulk of their manufactures
being exported to Atlantic markets and much of their labor was internally
generated through natural increases, as shown earlier. Similarly, mainstream
argument concerning accidental development of technology will not wash,
given the evidence of our comparative regional analysis. The correlation
between rapid technological advancement and large-scale manufacturing for
growing mass markets abroad and at home in the northern counties, on the
one hand, and between technological stagnation and small-scale manufacturing
for stagnant export and domestic markets in the southern counties, on the
other, is just too strong to be accidental.
question frequently asked is why, if the slave-based Atlantic world economy
was so important, France,Holland, Spain,
the other West European powers involved in the Atlantic
world trading system ¾
did not industrialize like England.
The difference is clear from our evidence. None of these other countries
effectively combined naval power and commercial development like England.
secured the plum territories in the Americas
and at the same time entered into advantageous treaties with other powers
to gain access to the resources from their American colonies. Not only
did British America control the lion’s share
of commodity production and trade in the Americas,
but also England
was far more intensively involved in the operation of the entire Atlantic
world economic system than any of the other countries did. In per capita
terms, the exposure of England’s
economy and society to the developmental weight of the Atlantic world market
was several times greater than any of the other countries experienced.
It should be mentioned, however, that all these other countries gained
immensely from the operation of the slave-based Atlantic world economy
during our period. Even the GermanStates
and Northern Europe that were not directly
involved still benefited from the growth of trade within Europe
generated by the Atlantic world trading system. The critical difference
we have emphasized is that England
got the lion’s share and so launched the first Industrial Revolution in
the whole world.