How the Emergence of Capitalism in the Early Modern Period Fuelled the African Slave Trade as Britain Became an Industrial Nation

This paper was written at the end of my first semester at university in 2010. The study of history through an economic lens was new to me. It sparked an interest in US history and I picked up a second module covering Slavery and Race in the USA for my second year. I was awarded a hugely encouraging A* grade. I felt very passionate about the subject and ten years on I do feel it lacks polish. However, I’ve decided to share it in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests to remind people that hundreds of years of oppression have led to this point. It is also why we shouldn’t memorialise slave traders with statues that are, in most cases, raised on a pedestal and looking down on those who were once subjugated. 

     The Atlantic Slave Trade was the brutal taking of men, women and children from their home soil and transporting them in shackles with meagre rations on ships that were packed like sardines in a tin to be sold if they didn’t expire on the journey.  The floor of the ship would be packed out with bodies with barely room to move.  Chained together they lay in each other’s faeces, urine and blood, and disease was rife.  The air in the slave quarters came from small portholes.  In ships where hundreds of slaves at a time were held immobile in irons, the air was foul.  They had the chance of fresh air on deck only once per day and if the weather was inclement then the portholes would be closed to avoid the ship taking on water.  The death rate was high.  If they survived the horrific journey they then faced a life of slave labour in coffee, tea, cotton or sugar plantations, to name a few.

Model of a Slave Ship, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

     It was a ‘triangular trade’ (Morgan, 2000 p.9) that began in a European port such as Liverpool; goods would be shipped to West Africa, like textiles and metalwork.  Once there, the cargos would be traded for slaves and then the notorious ‘middle passage’ would begin, with the shipment of humans across the Atlantic.  The ‘middle passage’ would take about 6 – 8 weeks.  Finally, with the slaves sold in the Americas or in the islands that became the Caribbean, the ships would be loaded with goods like sugar, tea, rum and cocoa to be sold on return to home port.  

          The Portuguese were the first to use slave labour from Africa in the early modern period, soon followed by Spain.  “The first Englishman to engage in the trade was John Hawkins in 1562,” says Cameron and Crooke (1992 p.7).  He made a 12% profit on this voyage and, “On the second expedition two years later, financed by Queen Elizabeth, Hawkins shipped four hundred slaves from Africa to Panama and claimed a net profit of 60%.”  His third voyage failed.

     According to Cameron and Crooke, “The Liverpool ships ‘Lively’ made a profit of 300% on its slaving voyage of 1737 and the ‘Ann’ made a profit of 200% on its voyages in 1751 and 1753.”  And it has previously been estimated that “Of the 921 slaving vessels that cleared Liverpool between 1783-93, they made an average annual profit of over £214,000 and a total profit of £2,360,000.”  (1992 p.33)

     These returns were either put back into the slave trade and a new voyage financed or a new business venture sought in the city of Liverpool, assisting in its growth and development.  With trade being brisk between the capitalist merchants of Liverpool and the outlying areas of Lancashire and Cheshire.  Liverpool was geographically situated in an ideal location for trade between the mill towns of Manchester, Blackburn, and Bolton.  The canals and waterways that linked Liverpool with northern England supplied the Liverpool merchants with goods that they could trade in West Africa for slaves.  Birmingham supplied ironwork and guns, textiles from Lancashire and Yorkshire and copper from Cheshire and Staffordshire.  Liverpool’s astute merchants undercut the prices of the London and Bristol merchants and yet still made a larger profit than them by keeping wages low.  Their insurance premiums were also lower than the southern cities as the ships bound for Liverpool generally avoided the dangers of the French and Spanish privateers.

     Liverpool soon surpassed the slaving careers of London and Bristol and was a master in its trade.  The leading traders of Liverpool soon started to demonstrate their wealth in erecting buildings in the city and its outskirts of architectural beauty.  Many street names are named after slave traders including Penny Lane, the street immortalised by The Beatles, named after Liverpool MP James Penny.  John Gladstone, the father of the future British Prime Minister William Gladstone was a slave trader.  Many mayors of Liverpool from the mid-1700s to 1800 had links to the slave trade.

     Approximately three-quarters of the slaving ships that left Europe came from Liverpool from the mid-1700s to abolition.  It was recorded that over 5,000 voyages set off from Liverpool during the height of the slave trade although the exact number cannot be known as during the early years adequate records were not kept and during later years, after abolition, some ships were set sail under the flag of a nation that had not abolished slavery. (Cameron and Crooke p.96)

     To illustrate Liverpool’s exponential growth we just have to take a look at the first Gores Liverpool Directory, “in 1766 it was 40 pages long and had 31 merchants listed.  By 1790 it was 256 pages long and required 112 pages to list the merchants.  By 1807 it was 270 pages long with a list of 246 members of Liverpool’s business community.”(Cameron and Crooke 1992 pp.45-46)  Liverpool had become a thriving capitalist city and even when slavery was abolished the trading contacts that the merchants had established across the globe continued to provide work for the city and its sons.

     While the traffic in human beings still flourished, other trade across the nation had started to prosper and the Industrial Revolution was upon us.  This broad term described how the country expanded from a mainly agriculturally based nation to an industrial one with urban towns and cities developing during the Georgian era.  People who had previously worked from home in ‘cottage industries’ were suddenly working in the first factories as urban towns grew around the manufacture of goods.  

     Industries were burgeoning forth; the textile industries of cotton and wool manufacture, the pottery industry, the iron industry, shipbuilding industry and mining.

     Richard Arkwright patented the spinning jenny in 1769.  This facilitated mechanical weaving, unfortunately making previously high paid weavers without the need for their trade.  He then opened a factory near Derby and soon employed 300 people.  Employment like this was a new thing; people had to start and finish work at a certain time when they had previously worked at their own pace at home.

          Thomas Newcomen invented a steam engine that was used to pump out water from coal mines.  The first recorded Newcomen engine was used at a coal mine in the West Midlands in 1712. (Hart-Davis 1996 p.235)  Although popular, it was unreliable and kept breaking down.  In 1769 James Watt had improved the steam engine greatly.  His engine was used to power machines in factories, thus improving the profit of each factory as output increased.  James Watt together with his business partner Matthew Boulton, “Formed the first company for the manufacture of steam engines.” (Heilbroner and Milberg 1998 p.62)

     It was at this time that inventions and innovations improved the productivity of many factories in England and its merchants prospered like never before.  Mill and factory owners enlarged and improved continually and their wealth grew. Only the rich could afford the machinery and so the poor became the employed.  It was the birth of the proletariat.  As Heilbroner and Milberg said in their book The Making of Economic Society (1998 p.63) “None of the great industrial pioneers came of noble lineage; and with few exceptions, such as Matthew Boulton none even possessed money capital.”

These men saw a product was needed and marketed it successfully.  These entrepreneurs were the first true capitalists.  

     The factories with machinery were able to produce a surplus quantity of goods to then be exported around the world.  Consumerism was beginning to emerge as people earned their wages and wanted to spend them at the end of the week.  People working twelve-hour days could not make all their own food and so another need was noted.  People could buy their bread in shops on the way to and from work.  Business opportunities continued to be noticed and acted upon and commodities bought and sold.  

     To do this the product had to be transported.  Miles of canals were dug out to facilitate the transportation of coal and other goods.  The Duke of Bridgewater financed the first canal, asking engineer James Brindley to design one for him.  It cost a massive £25,000.  The resulting canal finished in 1761 halved the cost of coal in Manchester.  It was 1776 before canals from Manchester to Liverpool, Warrington and Runcorn linked Lancashire.  

     Momentum gathered during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and a movement was begun to abolish slavery, most notably by MP William Wilberforce and Josiah Wedgewood.  Adam Smith is quoted in Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers; “Best abolish slavery since to do so will probably be cheaper in the end.” (1999p.71) Smith covered the topic in his work The Wealth of Nations, “Work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is the dearest of any.  A person who can acquire no property can have no other interest than to eat as much and to labour as little as possible,” quoted from Liverpool – Capital of the Slave Trade, by Cameron and Crooke. (1992 p.71)

     Heilbroner noted in his book The Worldly Philosophers that “It was no accident that industrial capitalism dates from the Industrial Revolution, for as Marx made clear, technological progress is not merely an accompaniment of capitalism but a vital ingredient.”  Marx commented on the class society in his Communist Manifesto and saw that the bourgeoisie needed the proletariat to survive.  He argued that the proletariat would eventually fight against the tiered society and form a rebellion against capitalism.

     The men named above; Newcomen, Watt, Arkwright, Brindley and the Duke of Bridgewater are only a small sample of the men that drove the Industrial Revolution and in turn capitalism.  Without their knowledge, foresight and tenacity Britain today may have looked a very different place.  Their persistence drove science and innovation to new heights and their efforts formed the Britain that we see today.

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