Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Industrial Revolution and the Slave Trade

“The Industrial Revolution in England was financed by the profits from Liverpool slave traders.” ~ Dr. Eric Williams in his 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery. Williams led Trinidad to independence from Britain in 1962, and became the country’s first prime minister, serving till his death in 1981. I believe that Williams is right. Without slave trade, and the conquest and colonization of several regions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, Britain could not have had the industrial revolution. 

The British slave trade was pioneered by the pirate John Hawkins in 1554 (the British continue to revere him as a hero). Within fifty years, Britain became a major slave trader. By the time slavery ended, the British had transported between three to four million slaves from Africa to the Americas. Initially, London and Bristol were the centers of British slave trade. Liverpool was a later entrant. But by 1740, it had raced ahead of London and Bristol. In 1792, Bristol had 42 transatlantic slave vessels, London had 22, while Liverpool had 131.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Liverpool was giving a tough competition to the Portuguese and the Spanish in the area of transatlantic slave trade—one in five slaves was being transported across the Atlantic in a Liverpool vessel. The condition in the ships used to be so bad that about 20 percent of the slaves would die during the Atlantic crossing. Several crew members perished too. The ships would become diseased by the time they reached the Americas and in many cases they had to be burned and scuttled.

The income from slave trade was invested in the economies of Liverpool and neighboring Lancashire and Yorkshire. The ships leaving from Liverpool carried textiles and other goods manufactured in the local industries and delivered them to the African, Asian and American markets. This foreign trade led to a massive expansion of the local industries, and by the 1760s, Liverpool had become the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. Thus, slave trade and colonization were the fountainhead of the Industrial Revolution. 

The British were as brutal towards their slaves (the Africans and the natives of North America) as the Spanish and the Portuguese. But in some cases, it can be argued that the Spanish and the Portuguese were better. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Spanish and the Portuguese had the policy of freeing the slaves who converted to Catholicism; the British never freed their slaves. The Spanish and the Portuguese gave some nominal rights to their slaves; the British did not. Till the eighteenth century, the British did not consider the slaves as human beings.

The Spanish were the colonial masters of Florida from 1513–1763, and they freed a number of slaves after converting them to Catholicism. When the British took control of Florida in 1763, they re-enslaved all those who had been freed by the Spanish. In 1783, Florida went back to the Spanish and they once again enacted the policy of freeing the Catholic slaves. Until the 18th century, there was hardly any debate inside Britain about the barbaric manner in which the British were treating the natives of North America and the Africans.

For the British, the natives and the Africans were the “invisible people” and the savages who could not be regarded as humans. There was no room for the natives and Africans in British common law. There was no room for them in the British churches. They could be worked to death and killed without any legal and moral consequences. The British went on expanding their territorial possessions in North America by driving back and killing the natives. Their attitude was that the land belongs to us because the natives were not making productive use of the land.

Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane are vilified in history books as the barbarians who ravaged empires, plundered cities, and slaughtered thousands of people. But Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane had the dignity and the courage to fight against the most powerful empires of their time. Attila the Hun brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Genghis Khan had a rule—he attacked the toughest empires, and spared the weak states if they did not stand in his way. Tamerlane was constantly testing his strength against the great empires. 

Who did the British fight in the Americas? They destroyed the lives of millions of natives of North America and African slaves who were weak, who had no unity, no weapons, no modern army. Since the British imperialists oppressed and killed weak people in the Americas, their deeds are much more vile and cowardly than the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. There is no honor in oppressing and killing the weak and capturing their land and property. Yet, history is kind to the British. But that is because the British have written much of history.

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