Lhe assumption that the industrial and economic rise of Europe was based on slavery and the exploitation of nearly 12 million Africans is not new. In his work Capitalism and slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, who later became Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago after his country’s independence from the British Empire, already maintained that the transatlantic slave trade and slavery played a determining role in the capital accumulation that financed the industrial revolution. This idea also helps to understand why the United Kingdom was the first European country to industrialize: it was well ahead of its competitors in the transatlantic trade, transporting nearly 3 million people, far ahead of France (1.27 million), according to data from the site slavevoyages.org, which lists the archives of the triangular trade.
So far, economic historians have failed to substantiate this idea. Indeed, quantitative studies on the subject tend to show that the trafficking of men, women and children was not a more lucrative trade than the others and that the slave economy was rather inefficient.
But in an article published in September 2022 (Slavery and the British Industrial Revolution, NBER Working Paper 30451), researchers Stephan Heblich, Stephen Redding and Hans-Joachim Voth show that the combined effect of the slave trade and the exploitation of enslaved people did indeed contribute to the accumulation of capital and the industrial development of the United Kingdom. The authors manage to determine the location and wealth (in number of slaves) of slaveholders and their ancestors based on the registers assembled in 1833 to determine the compensations paid by the British government to slaveholders during the abolition of the slavery. Payments that represented nearly 40% of the state budget – or 5% of GDP – and the debt thus contracted by the government was only fully repaid in 2015!
An underestimated impact
The main pitfall of a study of this type, besides the collection of data, is that it is quite simply possible that the localities where the slaveholders resided were already the richest and most dynamic and would have experienced growth and industrialization. faster even without slavery. But several elements invalidate this alternative explanation.
First, the localities where the slaveholders resided were not wealthier than the others before the start of the slave trade; they did not become so until afterwards. This tends to prove that nothing in particular predisposed them to become pioneers of the industrial revolution. Second, the authors exploit the fact that the duration of trips from Africa to the Americas could vary due to the vagaries of the climate, and in particular the winds. The trips being made on board sailing boats, the absence of wind could considerably slow down the trip. However, a slower journey led to a lack of water and food, as well as the proliferation of diseases, therefore an increase in mortality on board. Thus, an “unlucky” slaver would derive less profit from a voyage, even to the point that he could even go bankrupt and abandon this activity. By exploiting only the variation in slave wealth due to the vagaries of mortality during voyages, the authors indeed establish the causal impact of this wealth on economic development.
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