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he consequences of slavery are complex. It’s difficult. Its consequences for history, society, culture, and economy go well beyond what we are taught in school. Today’s topic is the slave trade’s impact on the British Industrial Revolution. Slavery (and, by extension, the Triangular Trade) did more than just provide Britain with a source of free labor. It went far beyond that. It established a network of systemic exploitation that served as the foundation of the Industrial Revolution.

This is evident in the historical development of major cities and seaports such as London and Liverpool, as well as the rise of banking and the financial sector and the expansion of vital manufacturing industries.

Start of the Cotton Industry

William L. Sheppard – First use of the Cotton Gin, Harper’s weekly, 18 Dec. 1869, p. 813 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an excellent example of how the slave trade resulted in a positive feedback cycle of wealth and resources for Britain…

A group of enslaved laborers is purchased in West Africa and transported to work on a colonial farm. There, an agricultural crop such as cotton is grown. These colonies were either excessively taxed or prohibited from engaging in commercial manufacturing under repressive British laws.

This raw cotton is cheaply sold to Britain.

Britain takes this raw material, refines it, mass manufactures it into garments, textiles, and other items, and then resells it at a high profit to West Africa and its colonial possessions. The majority of these proceeds are subsequently reinvested in the purchase of additional slaves and raw materials from their respective merchants.

As a result, a positive feedback loop is formed…

The Triangular Trade was the name given to this system.

Between 1739 and 1759, cotton exports surged by an astonishing 800%. On average, one-third of these exports were shipped to West Africa, with the other half destined for American and Caribbean possessions.

Heavy-Duty Metal Industry

“In the Anchor-Forge at Söderfors. The Smiths Hard at Work” by Pehr Hilleström (1782) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Metal, particularly iron, was critical to the slave trade.

Most of the equipment employed by Britain’s slave traders, including chains, shackles, branding irons, and most shipbuilding materials, were made of iron.

As the slave trade flourished, the iron industry grew exponentially. Coal saw similar advantages because it was utilized in the manufacturing of iron. Furthermore, West Africa has emerged as an important export market for metal products.

Trade with their West African slavers was required in order to purchase enslaved West Africans. Guns, gunpowder, pots and pans, cutlery, enamelware, and a plethora of other metal baubles were among the most commonly traded products.

Even though they appear small and inconsequential on their own, these objects are always in high demand. They made a considerable contribution to the overall growth in iron, brass, and copper production.

The final major export market was Britain’s colonies in America and the Caribbean. Their production was primarily restricted to agricultural use by law. As a result, the majority of their planting equipment and building supplies had to be imported from Britain.

Aside from cotton, Britain benefited from the importation of a wide range of raw goods from her colonies. Tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and, most significantly, sugar were among them. The necessity to refine raw muscovado sugar from the West Indies, for example, resulted in the establishment of over 120 sugar refineries in England during the 18th century, with eighty of them located in London.

Many smaller enterprises that manufactured non-essential items benefited from these new export markets as well. Mirrors, beads, bells, bracelets, and other ornaments were extremely popular in Africa. As a result, these little industries were extremely profitable.

The Birth of Civil Engineering

Samuel Bough (1822-1878) – The Port of London – 1246533 – National Trust (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Let us now look beyond manufacturing and production to see how the Triangular Trade impacted Britain’s cities, ports, and shipping industry.

Manufacturing centers such as London, Birmingham, and Manchester enjoyed an economic boom as their main industries were linked to the Triangular Trade. Throughout the 18th century, these earnings drove infrastructure construction and development.

Similar developments occurred in seaports such as Glasgow, Liverpool, and Bristol, to the point where one contemporary writer, William Bagshaw Stevens, said that these ports were “cemented with the blood and sweat of Negro slaves.”

This broad expansion in international trade ushered in tremendous growth in the shipbuilding industry as well. These freshly constructed vessels served as the foundation for Britain’s industrial expansion to the colossal levels realised during the Industrial Revolution. What’s particularly intriguing is that many of the era’s best shipwrights, such as Baker and Dawson, had built their fortunes as slave traders.

Radical re-investments — Finance and Innovations

English School, 19th Century, Snow Hill, Holburn, London (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Increased manufacturing, exports, and overall economic activity clearly boosted the banking industry.

Loans became a common tool to obtain additional capital (which was always needed) in order to expand and maximize on industrial endeavors.

Indeed, many traders and merchants directly involved in the transatlantic slave trade made significant investments in the banking and finance industries. Barclays, Lloyd’s, and the Bank of England were all founded on the revenues made by the transatlantic slave traffic.

The insurance business is another important aspect of modern finance that is dependent on the Triangular Trade. Shipping insurance became an imperative necessity during this time due to the tremendous expansion in both the frequency and value of foreign trade.

Aside from the enterprises and banks listed previously, there are numerous other examples of major breakthroughs and entrepreneurial initiatives motivated by earnings from the Triangular Trade:

  • The William Deacon bank, founded by wealthy plantation owners, supported the development of the Boulton and Watt steam engine (a driving force behind the Industrial Revolution).
  • The Triangular Trade was responsible for a large portion of the riches of key railway investors such as Gladstone, Moss, and Geocoyne.
  • Anthony Bacon and Gilbert Franklin, two leading ironmongers, exploited revenues from their direct involvement in the slave trade to develop their economic operations. They were in charge of constructing Merthyr Tydfil, Victorian Britain’s iron-smelting capital.
  • The Welsh slate business was started by large Jamaican plantation owners, most notably Richard Pennant.

The Triangular Trade provided significant contributions to the manufacturing sector by providing abundant raw materials, high demand, and lucrative export markets for the cotton, sugar, and metallurgical sectors.

It also drove substantial economic and infrastructure growth. Profits were reinvested on developing the financial sector as well as innovations such as the steam engine that would come to define the era, in addition to the growth of industrial cities, ports, and Britain’s trading fleet.

As a result, it’s easy to understand how slavery and the Triangular Trade prepared the way for the British Industrial Revolution.

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