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Term Paper on The Contribution of Slave Trade to British Economic Development

British economic development is a subject of numerous scientific researches. Its causes and economic basis are still subjects for scientific discussions. Nonetheless, it is obvious that there were a number of factors that contributed to the British economic development, especially in 17th-19th centuries when the most dramatic change and the most rapid progress has been observed.

Many specialists indicate that one of the key elements of the progress of British economy is the development of Atlantic trade and colonization of American and African territories. But, on analysing the problem in depth, it is possible to find another important factor contributing to the rapid development of British economy and stimulating Atlantic trade in that epoch, and this factor is slavery trade, which probably not so obvious as industrialization, for instance, but also contributed significantly to the British economic development.

This is why, it is important to analyse the role of slave trade in the economic changes that took place in Britain as well as in the whole world at large, in order to understand the extent to which it contributed to the economic development that was observed in Britain, especially in late 17th-19th centuries.

Slavery as an important factor of Atlantic world trade evolution

At first glance, it seems as if Atlantic trade had no effect on economic development of Britain but many specialists (Crafts 1994) underline the fact that the expanding of Atlantic trade played an extremely important role in the successful completion of British industrialization process in 17-19th centuries. It means that it is due to the development of Atlantic trade, Britain managed to become a leading industrial power in the world, playing the dominant role not only in industrial production but in the world trade as well.
In such a situation, it is necessary to analyse the Atlantic world trade evolution and assess the role of slave trade and slavery in its development that eventually affected the economic development of Britain.

At this respect, it should be said that, initially, in the 17th century, Atlantic region was characterised by the development of agriculture. The vast majority of population of the countries of the region was engaged in agricultural production. Agricultural specialisation, in its turn, did not contribute significantly to economic development of the region, since main part of agricultural production (about ¾) was basically consumed directly by producers without reaching the market (Inikori 1989). As a result there were little opportunities for trade and development of international economic relations as well as there were no signs of coming industrial revolution that eventually overwhelmed England.

In fact there were several reasons preventing the region from economic development and trade progress. Firstly, the number population was relatively low and remained stable. Secondly, the states of Atlantic region were practically equal in size and economic power that led to political parity between them. Such a situation, eventually led to economic stagnation that was observed in Europe in the 17th century.

However, as Europeans had started to move further in Atlantic the situation had started to change dramatically for better. The merchant class in Britain as well as in other European countries searching for new sources of income stimulated the exploration of the Atlantic region and colonization of discovered lands. Naturally, this process was accompanied by the development of trade as an essential part of the economic expansion in new markets.

As a result, West African colonies and especially American colonies had started to grow rapidly. It should be pointed out that the subsequent integration of Western Europe, including Britain, West Africa and America in a “single trading system ¾ the Atlantic world trading system ¾ considerably extended the production and consumption possibility frontier of the societies in the Atlantic basin through the widening of the range of resources and products it made available” (Mokyr 1993, p.351). At this respect, it is necessary to underline that the role of Britain in this process was particularly important because this country possessed the most powerful and advanced merchant fleet as well as navy in the world (Crafts 1994). Consequently, it had certain advantages in the growing trade and international economic relations.

Nonetheless, such a rapid development of trade and economic growth in the Atlantic region had to have some basis and this basis was slavery and slave trade. At this respect, it is necessary to dwell upon specific features of the region and peculiarities of its development, in order to understand the role of slavery and slave trade in its economic development.

First of all, it should be said that for Britain in particular, the progressing trade relations in the Atlantic region were very important. Moreover, America was particularly important for Britain because it was rapidly colonised by Europeans, it possessed natural resources, and its export was crucially significant for England. And this is exactly where the main problems raised which made slavery an essential condition, a basis of trade and economic development of the region at large and Britain in particular.

To put it more precisely, American economy needed firstly a large amount of labour force that was unavailable, despite growing immigration from Europe. At least the amount of Europeans was insufficient to provide a stable economic growth, especially in export-oriented industries. Another problem was the price that could be paid for labour. The problem was that the price had to be low in order to make American export economically profitable and simply to increase export of American products to Europe. Naturally, Europeans could not and didn’t want to be a cheap labour force. In stark contrast, they preferred free labour for their own profit that was quite natural in low populated colonies.

Consequently, the only way out was to find a cheap and effective labour force in sufficient amount. Initially, native population was used with this purposes but soon the Indian population declined and “the production of commodities in the Americas for Atlantic commerce came to rest almost entirely on the shoulders of forced migrants from Africa” (Solow 1985, p.103). In other words, the only reliable labour force that could be effectively used in America were slaves from Africa. Naturally, the need in slaves in America stimulated the development of slave trade in the region, in which many European countries actively participated, including Britain.

However, the development of slave trade and slavery as the basis of Atlantic economy and trade had also another much more significant effect on the British economic development. In fact, Britain, possessing colonies in America, as well as in Africa, received all the export from its overseas territories and further re-exported the products to other European countries. In such a way, Britain turned to be in privileged position and benefited significantly from the development of Atlantic world trade because, among American exports, there were such important products as tobacco and sugar, for instance. Such products used to be unique and luxurious but with the development of trade they moved to be every day consumption goods for the masses in rural and urban areas. Moreover, “the falling prices of raw materials, such as cotton and dyestuffs, contributed greatly to the development of industries producing for mass consumer markets” (Inikori 1989, p.354) and Britain was the first country where the Industrial revolution occurred and, consequently, it benefited the most from export and further re-export of products in different forms from America.

Thus, the Atlantic world trade based on slavery was the key factor contributing to the British economic development. Consequently, without slavery and slave trade such a development would be impossible since the potential of American colonies wouldn’t be fully realised.

British economic development as a result of benefits from Atlantic trade

Obviously, in order to better realise the extent to which slave trade and slavery contributed to the economic development of Britain basically through the development of Atlantic trade, it is necessary to analyse the benefits of Britain from the Atlantic trade.

First of all, it is necessary to remind that Britain was the main beneficiary from international trade in 17-19th centuries. Basically there are two main reasons explaining such a situation. Firstly, it was England’ naval power which “enabled the country to protect and expand its American territories at the expense of other European countries” (Crafts 1994, p437). Another important reason is the unique role of British America in the network of trade, which developed over time among the economies of the New World.

Furthermore, slavery and slave trade, being the key element in the development of the Atlantic world trade, provided Britain with a possibility to enter new markets. To put it more precisely, until the industrialization, Britain was basically focused on domestic market while the development of Atlantic trade and export of goods from America open new perspectives for British industries and export. Obviously, Britain took active part in Atlantic trade that stimulated the industrialization of the country since its products could be sold not only in the domestic market but abroad as well. On the other hand, it also stimulated British export in European countries because Britain could re-export overseas products. At the same time, these products could be widely used in British rapidly growing industries.

Also it should be pointed out that industrialization that was accompanied and to a significant extent provoked by the growth of population, which was employed in constantly growing industries. Moreover, industrialization and international trade led to the growth of income of urban population. Such socio-economic changes became possible also due to the growing export demand on British industrial products. As a result, the combination of all these factors led to the creation of “the general environment for the transformation of the organization and technology of manufacturing in the export industries between the late-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century, making it possible for the process [of industrialization] to be successfully completed” (Mokyr 1993, p.474).

Anyway, it is necessary to point out that slave trade and slavery is a cornerstone of these changes since, without it, the development of Atlantic trade would hardly be possible because the export of American goods would be too expansive and they would remain Luxuries for Europeans. Moreover, Britain had nothing to re-export as well as its export to the New World and Europe as well would be doubtful because of the lack of industrial products produced in Britain and consequently low export abilities of British industries.

The difference of effect of slave based Atlantic economy on Britain and other European countries

However, it is often argued that if slave trade resulting in, or, to put it more precisely, stimulating and making real the growth of Atlantic trade and economy was so important, than why other West European countries, such as France, Holland, Spain, or Portugal involved in the Atlantic world trading system ¾ (Polanyi 1999) did not industrialize like England. On explaining such a paradoxical, at first glance, situation, it is necessary to underline that Britain was significantly different from other European countries that put the country into advantageous position if compared to its European competitors.

First of all, none of European countries “effectively combined naval power and commercial development, like England” (Polanyi 1999, p.317). Naturally, it is possible to argue that Spain used to possess a significant naval power but it was Britain who eventually defeated Spain in 1666 and gain naval supremacy in the world. As a result, possessing such advantages, Britain “secured plum territories in the Americas and at the same time entered into advantageous treaties with other powers to gain access to the resources from their American colonies” (Polanyi 1999, p.322).

Obviously, Britain amply used these opportunities for the development of its trade and industrialization of the country, improving significantly its position in the world trade and economy. For instance, not only British America controlled “the lion’s share of commodity production and trade in the Americas” (Mokyr 1993, p.522) but Britain also “intensively involved in the operation of the entire Atlantic world economic system” (Mokyr 1993, p.523) to the extent, which not any other country did.

In such a situation, it seems to be quite natural that, in per capita terms, the weight of British economy in the Atlantic world market was several times greater than any of European countries experienced. Though it should be pointed out that they also profited from slave trade but they did not have such a number of positive direct and indirect effects of the slave based Atlantic economy as Britain did.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that slave trade and slavery at large produced a significant impact on the economic development of Britain. Primarily it affected directly British colonies in America and stimulated their economic development as well as the development of Atlantic trade in global terms. Moreover, cheap labour force made export from America to Britain not only possible but also highly profitable. The development of Atlantic trade and economy contributed to the industrialization of Britain, to put it more precisely, it completed the process of industrialization in the country. As a result, Britain became the first and leading industrialized country of the world and the its economy was based on mass industrial production oriented on export of British products not only to the New World but also to other European countries. Naturally, these achievements were hardly possible without the British naval and commerce power, which, in their turn, initially helped to develop slave trade that later became the basis of further economic growth of both Atlantic economy at large and British economy in particular.


  • Crafts, Nick. “The industrial revolution,” in Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey (eds.), The Economic History of Britain Since 1700, Volume I: 1700-1860 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Inikori, Joseph P. “Slavery and Revolution in Cotton Textile Production in England,” Social Science History, Vol. 13, 1989, pp. 343-79.
  • Mokyr, Joel (ed.). The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective, Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.
  • Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The political and economic origins of our time, Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
  • Solow, Barbara. “Carivvean Slavery and British Growth: The Eric Williams Hypothesis,” Journal of Development Economics, Vol. 17, 1985, pp. 99-115.
  • Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Can Write a Term Paper on the Transatlantic Slave Trade for You!

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