Eric Williams was right!

In 1944 Eric Williams – a Trinidad and Tobago politician who led the then British colony to majority rule, independence and then republican status – published the book Capitalism and Slavery.

 In their 2023 book Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution Maxime Berg and Pat Hudson recount how his book was largely dismissed until discussion of the issue resumed in the 1980s and 1990s. Originally, on the basis of limited data, historians gave Williams’ thesis a minimal role in Britain’s economic history.

And all along, of course, the British were celebrating their role in the end of New World slavery although what they had actually done was to ban slave transportation and worked to interdict it. However, slavery continue to exist in the British Empire until its abolition in 1833.

The authors argue: “The gains from slavery accrued not only to elite merchants and wealthy plantation owners but also, by providing income and livelihoods, to many others throughout the British society. But the widespread connections between the exploitation of enslaved Africans and mainstream British economic history have been avoided by the bulk of historians.”

The conventional historical wisdom – focussing on things at a national level – was that inventions and coal were the keys to British industrialisation. However, Berg and Hudson focus on the growing Atlantic demand for innovative products and new supplies of slave-grown industrial raw materials and show how this favoured industrial regions with access to Atlantic trading and the capital and credit generated by it.

The authors cite many examples such as Thomas Coster (known as the Copper King) who wrote to the House of Lords during moves to regulate the slave trade that it was the African demand for copper which had persuaded him to invest in smelting works which “manufactured entirely for the African market with the slave trade taking a significant proportion of the half of copper exported to the Caribbean”.

With the iron industry the pioneering Abraham Darby (he of the development of coke smelting of iron) relied on his major investor, the Bristol merchant Thomas Goldney, who made his fortune from shares in merchant and slaving vessel to the West Indies, and who later became the company’s controlling shareholder.

Company after company made money out of the plantations selling equipment such as hoes and sugar refining vessels – all operated by slaves – and then invested it in banking and other industries. Tobacco and sugar plantations (all worked by slaves) not only financed a proportion of the development of Scotland’s development of heavy industry but also provided markets for its products.

In Newcastle Ambrose Crowley’s ironworks turned out 11,000 hoes a week for Virginia, the Carolinas and the West Indies – which were not being used by overseers or paid labour.

The ironmongers in the west midlands produce similar products. Great iron capitalists of early to mid-eighteenth-century Shropshire and Staffordshire employed 300 to 500 workers in highly developed capitalist enterprises and the richest among them – such as John Barker, Thomas Attwood and Richard Spooner became bankers.

Birmingham, a centre for gun manufacture, produced thousands of guns for use in the West African market from where slaves came. In 1754 it was estimated that the minimum import per annum was 25-30,000 a year. Between 1750 and 1807 there was a minimum import per annum of 284,000 guns with the standard slaving vessel carrying 610 guns.

Huge imports of raw cotton from the slave-plantation estates of the USA enabled Britain to become the 19th century’s leading world cotton cloth producer. Later the British destroyed India’s textile industries and replaced them with cotton imports from Britain funded by slavery profits and markets.

The new textile factories in Britain in the 1790s after the Arkwright invention found important sources of finance from wealth gained in the West Indies

As the slave trade, processing and storing of plantation produce were risky ventures the insurance industry emerged as a major financial player in the 18th century with high increases in fire insurance for properties and products. For instance, between 1757 and 1784 74 slaving voyages operated by William Davenport of Liverpool were all insured as were slaving voyages from Bristol.

When late 18th and early 19th century financial crises hit Britain slave-based trades influenced Britain’s ability to borrow as well as tax and played a role in the process of converting state debt into more liquid and tradeable private assets.

Moreover, abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 didn’t end British investments in the transatlantic slave trade nor direct involvement in trading enslaved people and the abolition of slavery in British territories in 1830 was a long process; the plantation system was not abolished; and slave labour was replaced by indentured service – a system, if not slavery, certainly not constituting freedom.

The authors devote a long section to the 20 million pounds in compensation paid to more than 45,000 slave owners accounting for more than 800,000 enslaved people. At the time it was equivalent to about 40% of government annual expenditure which today would be equivalent to around 220 billion pounds. The debt was finally settled in full in 2015 as part of debt restructuring.

“Until then regressive taxation ensured almost two centuries of subsidy from British wage earners and consumers of basic commodities to the elite holders of public debt, to the slave owners themselves and their descendants,” the authors conclude. Among those elite beneficiaries was the family of former Prime Minister David Cameron.

Many banks benefited from being trustees of major slave owners or from being mortgagers for West Indian planters. Banks that benefitted included Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclay Bevam and Tritton (forerunners of Barclays PLC), Barings and four predecessors of Lloyds TSB.

Needless to say, recipients of this largesse promptly reinvested it in other industrial enterprises including railways and some extravagant properties – many of which are now run by the National Trust or opened to the public by the owners. Individuals who benefited included the Earls of Harewood, Hailshams and other aristocrats as well as business elites, clergy, judiciary, universities, banks, MPs and members of the royal family.

One member of the royal family Prince William (later William IV) was posted to the West Indies in 1786 and amidst his naval duties formed a very close relationship with the madam of the West Indies’ most famous brothel.

…and when thinking of the controversy around the toppling of the Edward Colston statue into the docks in 2020 it ought to be remembered that Bristolians in 1833 (among them Colston) received more than 500,000 pounds in compensation and much of this was invested in railway stocks, dock and canal shares and cotton broking.

The authors conclude: “Britain’s development was not a stage process of merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism and on to financial capitalism these were combined in one process during the long 18th century and beyond. Slavery was one of the sparks that set the industrial revolution alight, but it also played a role in the longer- term economic orientation of the British economy to international trade, investment in empire, shipping, insurance and rentierism.”

Perhaps the final irony of British involvement with slavery was that John Newton, the composer of Amazing Grace, was a notorious trader of West African men, women and children but who later repented and became an abolitionist. Not many others did – just took the loot and established themselves as gentlefolk.