Slavery, coerced labour, and the development of industrial capitalism in Britain

This HWO article accompanies Mark Harvey’s new History Workshop Journal article “Slavery, Indenture, and the Development of British Industrial Capitalism”, which is available on free access until 30 March 2020.

There is a national identity myth that Great Britain freed itself from the moral taint of slavery when it emancipated all British-owned slaves in 1834, a process finally completed in 1838 with the ending of ‘apprenticeship’. The celebration of abolitionists such as Wilberforce even lends credit to global moral leadership. Yet, by 1860, the British economy was more dependent on slave labour than it ever had been, and on an unprecedented scale. A flagship of the industrial revolution, the Lancashire mills and their 465,000 textile workers, was entirely reliant on the labour of three million cotton slaves in the American Deep South.

A related myth holds that the industrial revolution, a new stage of capitalism, was characterised by a market logic of capital growth dependent on free wage labour, in which exchange came to dominate and constitute ‘the economy’, driving out archaic forms of coercion, whether of slavery or serfdom. In this myth, an abstract concept of ‘The Economy’ emerged in which all economic activity is mediated by market exchanges. Yet, regardless of the coercive laws that governed ‘free’ wage labour in the metropolis, British industrial capitalism spawned and relied on novel forms of bonded labour, displacing millions into varied regimes of exploitation not only in its thriving ex-slave colonies but across the globe. The industrial proletariat had as its counterpart labour forces controlled and displaced outside the logic of freely entered into market exchanges. The abstract logic of a market-exchange capitalist economy is thus fundamentally challenged by the histories of slavery and coerced labour generated by the growth of the British industrial economy.

In my article in the new issue of History Workshop Journal, I look at the significance of three commodities connecting slavery and coerced labour regimes of exploitation with the development of metropolitan British industrial capitalism: guns, sugar and cotton. From the mid-eighteenth to the twentieth century, each was entangled with regimes of coerced labour. It was a complex process in which each contributed to this epochal transformation in different ways. I look at how and where commodities are produced, under what regime of labour, and how they then transformed patterns of consumption, especially in the industrialising heartlands. By the end of the nineteenth century, working class diet was transformed by calories from sugar, and Europe was re-clothed in cotton, reducing, although not eliminating wool, silk and linen.

Guns. The most direct link between the developing metalworking and guns industry in Britain and slavery was the trade in guns in exchange for slaves in West Africa. From the mid-eighteenth century until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, a staggering total of nearly 20 million muskets, over half of which were British, were sold in exchange for slaves, the rest from other European nations. The annual export of gunpowder likewise grew from 200,000 lbs in 1750 to two million lbs at its peak in 1791. By this time, the major British arms manufacturer, Farmer and Galton, was assembling a musket a minute for the slave trade.

In turn, this trade transformed slave-raiding and trading within Africa, contributing to the emergence of new and powerful slave states, with armies equipped with European guns. The supply of slaves captured by musket-armed raids responded to the rising demand for slaves in the New World plantations.

Finally, although British arms production was by no means primarily for the slave trade, guns were critical for the eighteenth-century wars by which Britain obtained its slave plantation colonies. Moreover, arms for the defence of these colonies, and then for the internal suppression of slave revolts, completes a picture of the complex entanglements between guns and slavery. Of course, transformations of metalworking and precision engineering, developments of standardised mass production and quality control, all important dimensions of the industrial revolution, cannot be wholly attributable to guns for slave plantation colonialization. But, slavery was right in there.

Sugar. Much of the historical debate about British capitalism and slavery has concerned the importance of profits from the ‘triangular trade’ between Britain, Africa (slaves), and the Caribbean sugar plantations. The role of these profits as a pump-primer for the industrial revolution has been largely confirmed, now with an additional emphasis on the attendant significance of banking, insurance and development of financial services.  But the perspective needs broadening further, both in time and geographical space. Although never of huge significance or scale as a manufacturing industry, by the end of the nineteenth century, sugar had become a major source of calories in working class diets. In addition to bread, by weight, wage workers bought more sugar than fats, and nearly as much as meat. The spread of slave plantation economies had almost doubled the island’s land resources for feeding and clothing an increasingly urbanised population.

Cutting sugar cane in Trinidad, 1836. Lithograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Mauritius exemplifies the nineteenth century trajectory of sugar plantation economies. A late capture from the French in 1810, it was rapidly transformed into the most important source of colonial sugar for the metropolis. Initially illegally importing 57,000 slaves after the abolition of the slave trade, it then pioneered the exploitation regime of indentured labour, transporting 453,000 Indian indentured workers over the course of the century. British Guiana and Trinidad followed the example after Emancipation, importing a further 383,000. But Mauritius had outstripped sugar imports from all the other colonies combined by 1850. British sugar consumption was thus satisfied first by slavery and then by new regimes of exploitation based on indentured labour, spanning South East Asia and the Caribbean.

This perspective needs broadening further still. To create the British cup of sweetened tea, Indian black tea displaced Chinese green tea as the dominant British beverage. Assam led the new plantation tea economy, with coerced internal migration within India, and peculiarly Indian forms of bonded and indentured labour.

The imperialist nostalgia of Brexiteers is thus clinging to an ikon of national identity founded on slavery and coerced labour.

Brexit campaign publicity image, 2016.

Cotton. Already by the 1830s, cotton clothing was becoming the dominant apparel for the British working class, being even the preferred option for poor relief. The growth of the British cotton textile industry from the late eighteenth century depended first on Brazilian, British Guianan, and French Caribbean slave plantations, and then, overwhelmingly on those of the US Deep South. There was almost total synergy between the growth of British cotton textile manufacture and the expansion of Deep South slavery. By the 1850s, over 70% of the total American cotton crop went to Lancashire, and by 1860, conversely, 88% of British cotton textiles were made from Deep South slave cotton. The numbers of slaves employed – reaching three million – grew in direct proportion to the number of textile wage workers in Britain – reaching 460,000 by the 1860s.

Moreover, British banks were instrumental in providing credit for land and slave purchases facilitating the expansion into the Deep South, and then for the necessary credit to plantation owners, with British and North American banks having first call on the sale of the cotton crop. Notoriously, there was also deep British involvement in support of the Southern secession during the Civil War. Britain provided ships and arms for blockade busting in exchange for cotton, and William Gladstone himself not only bought Erlanger bonds to finance the Confederate Army but supported the formation of secessionist Southern slave states.

Finally, within 10 years of Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, American cotton exceeded its pre-war levels for British industry, now based, not on free wage labour, but on various forms of sharecropping and debt peonage that persisted until the 1940s and beyond.

The re-clothing of the British and European working class in cotton textiles was thus based on a long history combining regimes of wage labour exploitation in the metropolis with slavery and bondage in the United States.

Combined regimes of exploitation. Of course, even given the premier role of the textile industry, the revolution in British industrial capitalism is much more than a story of guns, sugar and cotton. Nonetheless, this epochal transformation can only be understood in terms of an imperialist economy that combined, in novel and ever changing ways, regimes of metropolitan wage labour with slave and coerced labour across the globe. Heterogeneity and hybridity of different regimes of exploitation characterise this evolution in ways that fundamentally challenge the vision of an economy as a closed capitalist system mediated by market exchanges alone, let alone free choice. Coercion and violence in the exercise of power over labour was a significant feature in the long history of British industrial development.  Reparations for these crimes against humanity can take many forms

The historical work of making visible the scale and spread of racialized capitalisms, shaping economies that to this day remain white-dominated hierarchies of inequality, is one form of reparation. And from research through to school education, much reparatory historical work remains to be done.


  1. Band wagon jumping? I wish slavery had never been invented by Britain, we could have been just like the innocent Egyptians and Romans and Chinese and Dutch and Portuguese and Arabs and Germans and every other country that has never exploited any other to grow commerce

    1. It’s not that Britain and Europeans generally invented slavery, they didn’t. What’s different about their form of slavery, is that it was based entirely on race. Enslaved Africans were dehumanized and reduced nothing more than chattel. Slavery in any form is horrific. The form of slavery as practiced by Europeans was most despicable.

  2. No mention of the white indentured workers and the work houses in Lancashire, or the Irish and Scottish who were cleared off their land during the Highland clearances, or the Lancashire cotton famine where white working class people were left to starve to death when cotton couldn’t be imported or exported as a result of the American civil war. Also no mention of the Irish who were made to work in work houses after leaving Ireland during the potato famine. Your version of history obscures what the world was really like during the industrial revolution. Try to be more intellectually honest when writing about the UK and it’s history. Your version is clearly politically bias.

    1. Did the Truth hurt your Feelings???So now you understand that Slavery built your Industrial Revolution….that means everyone White benefitted from Slavery

      1. Slavery exists today almost in every country. Look at the tea plantations of Sri Lanka run by British companies like Liptons using Tamils.
        China removing Muslims to work in factories.
        Sweatshops in India and Taiwan.
        Construction workers in the Middle East.

  3. The reality is that of the whole situation, it is mans greed and lack of spirituality that drew the world into deepening levels of degradation. Africans and Indians in the Americas had also taken their part in this process.
    Although of course bore the brunt of the European leaders insatiable need for more and more. This is as true today as back then.

  4. Thanks Mark for this well written article. Another aspect of the catastrophe of sugar of course, is its terrible effect on the health of consumers in the UK and elsewhere, most obvious of which of course it painful rotten teeth. Im retired now, but when a GP, I advised patients to get sugar out of their diet as much as they could, and the results were startling in terms of weight loss, undiagnosing diabetes and people actually feeling better. Sugar surely has a role in alcohol based fuels, but has been a colossal human as well as environmental disaster.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *