Atlantic Slave Trade: Catalyst of the Industrial Revolution?


British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade came as a result of three distinct factors: the expansion of the British Empire into new territories, the need for man power in order to operate newly established colonies and the economics of free labor that came with owning a slave. Basically, the Atlantic slave trade was merely the result of economics at work wherein the demand for labor was supplied with slaves captured from Africa.

If the rapid expansion of the British empire as well as various other continental powers had not occurred during the 16th to the 19th century it is highly plausible to assume that the Atlantic slave trade would not have occurred at all or if it did it would not have reached any considerable size due to lack of demand. What must be understood is that at this particular point in history colonialism and the demand for sugar, tobacco and other agriculturally based products was growing both within the U.K. and the European mainland.

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This demand facilitated the need for creating a means of supplying consumers with their desired products at an affordable price. Unfortunately, the only method of feasibly doing so was the expansion of the work force of agriculturally based colonies which could supply the needed agricultural products. In order to resolve this dilemma the British, French and Dutch resorted to utilizing African slave labor in their colonies as an effective means of growing crops without the need for supplying wages.

The end result was a cheap and effective means of growing crops which greatly benefitted both European businesses and their consumers. It must be noted though that as of late there has been a growing assumption that the Atlantic Slave Trade and the various agriculturally based products it provided to Britain and other countries within Europe was one of the primary reasons behind a greatly enriched Britain during the 16th to 19th century (Richardson, 1977).

It is assumed that due to cheaper prices and the amount of economic wealth brought into the country that that slave trade itself was one of the primary catalysts of the industrial revolution since it provided not only cheaper agricultural goods but substantial wealth as well (Richardson, 1977).

This paper posits that while the slave trade and the agricultural production it provided did help enrich Britain during the 16th to 19th century it was not the primary reason behind the start of the British Industrial Revolution but rather was nothing more than a minor part of a greater British economy.

Understanding the Moral Justification behind the Slave Trade

While today the concept of slavery is considered to be distinctly immoral the fact remains that many individuals who specifically dealt in the slave trade namely those who captured Africans, shipped them to buying centers, sold them and those who eventually bought them did so under the concept of humanocentric speciesism and as such they saw little moral ambiguity to enslaving another human being for their own purposes.

Humanocentric speciesism is based off two distinct concepts, the first being Humanocentrism which is described as a tendency for human beings to view the natural environment and other species from the standpoint of a distinctly human majority.

Its premise is that anything that is outside the traditional concept of being human is immediately classified as non-human or in extreme cases “alien”. Speciesism on the other hand is based on the belief that the species a particular individual or group belongs to is inherently superior to all other species (Singer, 2009).

One notable historical example of such a belief was the concept of the Ubermensch developed by the German philosopher Nietzche in 1883 and taken to its extremes by the Nazi regime. This particular brand of speciesism consisted of considering all other races inferior to Germans as the Ubermensch or master race of humanity, a philosophy that helped to contribute to genocide of the Jewish population in Europe.

In the case of the Atlantic slave trade the distinctly white Europeans who primarily dealt with the slaves did not see them as human beings but rather as beings inferior to humans due to the color of their skin as such they were categorized under the same classification as farm animals and treated in the same manner.

In fact the humanocentric speciesism view of humanity has evolved over the years into present day racism wherein anyone not part of a particular group’s race was considered a “non-entity” or someone from “outside” the defined norms of the group (Brennan, 2003). As a result of this particular distinction, native Africans were not afforded the same amount of human dignity given to other ethnicities which made their treatment as slaves justifiable in the eyes of slave traders and colonists.

Understanding the British Slave Trade Triangle

The British trade triangle primarily refers to the flow of the trade of goods between Great Britain, Africa, and the slave depots in the New World. Contrary to popular belief slaves themselves were not primarily captured by the British shipping magnates themselves but were actually traded for goods from various African tribes or European slave capturing establishments that had set up shop in Africa (Gray, 1981).

Manufactured goods from Britain such as copper, guns, ammunition and cloth were sent via ships to the ports of the Gulf of Guinea such as Congo, Angola and the African Gold coast whereby they were traded for captured African slaves (McGill, 2009).

Theses salves were Africans that were captured in the western and central parts of the African continent and were transported to the various slave ports located along the Gulf of Guinea. It must be noted that this mass exodus of people did not go unnoticed and various tribes did try to rebel however the fact remains that their disorganized nature coupled with the fact that the slave traders were armed with the latest munitions at the time meant that there was little that such a disorganized and technologically inferior resistance could do.

It is estimated that by the end of the slave trade well over 9.4 to 12 million African slaves had been taken from Africa however the problem with these numbers lies with the fact that a large percentage of the slaves did not actually survive the journey and were subsequently thrown overboard in order to prevent the spread of disease (McGill, 2009).

The British were actually not the first civilization to exploit Africa for slaves, as early as the 1400’s and the beginning of the spice trade, various nations such as the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and French had actually explored the African continent and set up various ports and colonies in order to exploit the availability of slaves and various African resources (McGill, 2009).

It must be noted though that a system of slavery did exist in the African continent before the start of European exploration however such a system did not primarily rely on the concepts of slaves as a method of forced labor rather such individuals were put in such a capacity in order to pay off debts and were subsequently given their freedom afterward.

Going back to the topic at hand, British involvement in the slave trade actually began in 1562 with the actions of Captain John Hawkins who helped to set the ground work for the British incursion into the slave trade.

Initially the British supplied slaves to various Spanish and Portuguese colonies scattered throughout the American continent however as the British empire expanded and grew more aggressive various areas in the Caribbean and North America were either colonized by the British or fell to the strength of the British army during the numerous wars it fought against the Spanish, Dutch and French (M’Baye, 2006).

As a result of the subsequent British expansion this increased the demand for slave labor as a means of supplying British colonies with the manpower needed in order to continue agricultural operations.

It was this demand that established the second arm of the slave triangle, as manufactured goods in Britain were sent via ships to the Gulf of Guinea the cargo holds of the ships themselves were subsequently loaded with captured slaves to be shipped to slave ports located in either the Caribbean islands, Cuba or ports located in the Americas (M’Baye, 2006).

It must be noted that these slave ports acted as staging grounds where slaves were bought en masse depending on their perceived quality with strong African males often commanding higher prices than boys, girls or women. After purchase, slaves were then subsequently loaded once more into ships to be offloaded into other ports for distribution into the various colonies.

One of the reasons that slave ports were created in the first place instead of shipping slaves directly to colonies was more due to aesthetics and perception than anything else. Seeing males, females and children brought from the ships chained and shackled to each other and sold on an open block was often viewed negatively by various colonial residents as such slave ports needed to be located in areas where the processes behind slavery were not immediately seen.

It is rather ironic that such practices were abhorred when seen in a colony yet many of those individuals owned slaves themselves. The third side of the slave triangle involved the trade of products such as cotton, sugar, molasses, rum, tobacco, basically any manner of agricultural product for slaves that were brought from Africa (M’Baye, 2006).

These products were then subsequently shipped back to Great Britain completing the trade triangle. The reason why such products are being grown in colonies outside of Europe instead of within Europe itself is based on the fact that it is simply cheaper and easier to grow such crops in colonies rather than in Europe. This is based on the land being much more fertile, having a more constant temperature and the fact that slaves can be easily brought in to grow crops.

British Colonies, Plantations and the Economics of Slave Labor

As it was mentioned earlier, as the British Empire expanded so did the number of its colonies which produced primarily agricultural goods to be shipped back to Great Britain. The inherent problem with this scenario lies with the fact that agricultural operations require extensive amounts of manpower in order to properly grow crops which unfortunately the various colonies lacked.

It must be noted that the colonies themselves were often times funded through private investors who expected a return on their investments via produced crops, with a distinct lack of manpower these colonies needed to utilize an immediate source of labor otherwise they would be unable to meet the expectations of investors and would lose their sources of funding and resources (Sweet, 2009).

While initial attempts to use the natives of various areas succeeded the practice eventually wiped out the native populations as a result of both overwork and European diseases that the immune system of native population could not properly handle. This created a demand for a more robust form of slave that would not tire or get sick easily, Africa proved itself as a viable source of slave labor for these colonies and as a result the practice of slave labor began.

The various plantations in North and South America primarily relied on slave labor as a form of manpower in order to produce products such as sugar, tobacco, and coffee which were then subsequently shipped of to Great Britain (Sweet, 2009). McGil notes, in his examination of the Atlantic Slave Trade, that “of all the products produced sugar, which was the most labor intensive crop, was also the most heavily consumed by the British population” (McGil, 2009).

McGil further states that “it was actually estimated that one out of every twenty pounds that was circulating in the British economy during the 1700’s was a direct result of the slave trade and West Indian plantations that produced the much desired West Indian sugar” (McGil, 2009). It is due to this that it can be assumed that one of the driving factors behind the continued use of the slave trade was the overwhelming demand of the British for cheap sugar exports.

The economics of the slave trade focuses around the perceived cost of production without slaves and the actual cost of production with slaves. The fact is most forms of labor have an equivalent cost in the salaries and benefits accorded to the people working at a particular form of business, for the agricultural industry the perceived cost of operations without slaves would increase exponentially if they were to hire their own fellow citizens to work in the fields thus increasing the overall cost of the finished product.

On the other hand the actual cost of a product with slaves is exponentially lower since slaves are not paid wages and the cost required for keeping them sheltered and fed is much lower as compared to hiring the same amount of people to do the same type of work (Sweet, 2009).

Plantations that did not use slaves could not compete with the prices of those that did, as a result of basic economics plantations simply chose to employ slave labor because of their inherent cost saving measures. This in turn benefits British consumers since prices of product that is in demand continues to remain low. If the various British colonial plantations had stopped using slave labor British consumers would merely turn to other producers that are able to provide cheap sugar using slave labor such as the French.

Who Benefited From the British Slave Trade?

In terms of profitability the slave trade resulted in considerable profits for various sectors in the British economy which contributed immensely towards its continued use for up to four centuries. British slave ship owners often reached profit margins exceeding 20 to 50% on most trips due to the amounts made from the sale of goods traded for slaves (Soodalter, 2011).

Plantation owners, as a result of the free labor from slaves, were able to make vast sums of money from their plantation operations and often times reinvested the money towards establishing businesses in London’s growing industrial revolution (Sweet, 2009).

The various colonies that relied on slave labor became markets for factory owners in Great Britain with various textiles and manufactured goods being sold to not only slave colonies in the New World but also to various African ports due to their subsequent relations with slave traders.

The banks in London were able to gain large profits through fees and interest rates added on to loans merchants used to finance slave ship enterprises, often times such loans were considered safe for banks due to the sheer profitability that the slave industry provided.

Overall the sale of agricultural goods in Britain that came as a result of free labor in colonies through the purchase of slaves actually made the price of basic commodities far cheaper than what they should have been. This of course directly benefited the consumers in Great Britain and contributed to the expansion of their consumerist society.

Did the Atlantic Slave Trade Cause the Industrial Revolution?

Richardson notes that “in terms of its overall impact the slave trade and the various West Indian plantations had on the British economy, they only accounted for 5% of the total national income Great Britain accumulated during the time of the Industrial Revolution” (Richardson, 1977).

As such to assume that the slave trade directly contributed to the start of the Industrial Revolution is actually erroneous despite various claims that it did. While it is true that it contributed to the financing of the Industrial Revolution in no way was it actually the reason behind the start of the Revolution itself.

Socio-political factors as well as the expansion of the British economy through subsequent imperial expansion were actually the primary reasons behind the Industrial Revolution. Various proponents over the years have claimed that towards the end the slave industry actually lost its profitability and that was one of the main reasons behind its cessation.

This paper refutes that idea; free labor is and always shall be a method of creating large amounts of profit and as such from start to finish the slave trade itself was profitable. It was only due to the development of a distinct social consciousness for the plight of the African people that slavery truly came to an end, not as result of economic considerations but rather the development of empathy from the human spirit (Muhammad, 2004).


Based on what has been presented in this paper it can be seen that while the slave trade greatly enriched Britain during the 16th to 19th century it cannot be considered as the primary catalyst of the industrial revolution. While it may be true that it provided substantial agricultural goods and labor to the British economy the fact remains that overall the slave trade and the produced agricultural products only accounted for 5% of the total British economy.

While this may be considered substantial in terms of wealth created there are actually few connections that can be feasibly created between the small amount of wealth created by the slave trade and agricultural production with the start of revolution. It can be considered though that the slave trade could have acted as secondary financial catalyst since it provided wealth to certain sectors of the British economy which did eventually facilitate the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Furthermore, various historians also agree that the primary catalysts behind the industrial revolution was Britain’s subsequent imperial expansion and various socio-economic factors such as increases in the local population, greater concentrations of individuals within certain areas and the development of new forms of technology.

While it may be true that from a historical perspective the slave trade was one of the reasons behind the proliferation of the African race and culture the fact remains that in terms of its overall economic impact and as a means of facilitating the industrial revolution which gave birth to the modern day industrial culture that is present today, it is highly infeasible to suggest that the slave trade played any major role based on the facts that have been presented.


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