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 was 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. 

British slave trade was pioneered by the pirate John Hawkins in 1554. Within fifty years, Britain became a major slave trading nation. 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 were often 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.

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