Slavery and the British Economy

Review: David Eltis on Kenneth Morgan

Kenneth Morgan, Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. x + 120 pp. $11.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-521-58814-6; $39.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-58213-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Eltis, Department of History, Queen's University.
Published by EH.NET, October 2001.

Any review of the last half dozen issues of the economic history journals will show that the impact of slavery and Atlantic trade on the pre-1800 British economy is as alive a topic today as it has ever been. Scholars at the beginning of the twenty-first century find the mix of race, coercion, economic growth and morality it offers too potent to ignore. The appearance of this slim volume summarizing the recent debates is thus certainly timely. In 98 pages of text, Brunel University's Kenneth Morgan covers a great deal of ground including all the main issues and the positions of most of the major participants. Twenty-five pages of introduction and context are followed by short chapters on first, profits of the slave trade, second, slavery and capital accumulation in Britain, and third, more broadly again, Atlantic trade and the British economy. The author then provides shorter chapters on the less contentious and arguably less central issues of the impact of business institutions on slave trading and the consequences of growing Atlantic trade for British ports. Although a cliometrician's skills are not among the author's many talents, this booklet is a model of what a short review study of a major issue involving statistics as the usual weapons of choice, should be. The summaries are accurate, the tone is judicious, the writing is clear, and the range of material surveyed is such that this reviewer found several references that were new to him. In short, students will find this booklet both accessible and helpful, but specialists will also profit from it.

The Economic History Society series of New Studies in Economic and Social History has not been the forum of choice for new interpretations, and it would be hard to pinpoint any major new insights into the topic here. Broadly, the author suggests that the current literature points to the importance of slave trading and slavery to eighteenth century British economic growth, but argues that their role was not essential to that growth, and in this he is undoubtedly correct. Profits in the slave trade were likely in the 8 to 10 percent range, competition was usually intense, and, except for short run fluctuations, the slave economy continued to flourish until at least 1815 - the decline thesis gets short shrift. Strangely, when the topic switches to the Atlantic economy as a whole in chapter 5, the interpretive tack changes sharply. While the previous chapters have argued that slavery and the slave trade were not enough to stimulate British industrialization, chapter 5 presents Atlantic trade as a whole as the major contributor to industrialization. Yet it is hard to imagine Atlantic trade without slavery and the slave trade. At the same time, the analysis, which in chapters three and four allows for both supply and demand factors in British economic growth, now enthusiastically embraces a demand-centered approach, based, of course, on increasing Atlantic trade. Thus, the possibility that the British began exporting their industrialization process by offering low-cost goods to markets everywhere as a consequence of domestic (and supply side) developments fades from view in chapter 5. Implicit in this chapter is the position that new and expanding Atlantic markets could have had no substitutes. For an introduction to the subject, and this study will obviously find its main market among students, it would have been better to maintain the course set in the earlier chapters. At the very least, a fuller discussion of the large and rapid swings in the direction of British exports, both within the Americas and between the Americas, Asia, and Europe between 1780 and 1820, would have been useful. Exposure to the Atlantic was clearly not enough to pull other European economies into early industrialization.

Specialists will note a few minor omissions. Space constraints inevitably mean that some issues are ignored. Recent revisions of aggregate British output patterns, are scarcely touched on. The chapter on ports scarcely mentions the slave trade, much less the work of Maurice Schofield and Nigel Tattersfield on the English outports. And Lloyd's List, it should be noted, began continuous publication no later than 1692, not 1734. Notwithstanding, this is a strong and extremely useful addition to the instructor's set of tools. To return to the opening remark, however, a topic that is active enough to warrant a title in this essentially historiographic series will of necessity be quickly out of date. Instructors should be aware that Cambridge will shortly publish a full-length synthesis and reinterpretation of the whole subject. On p. 44 the author points to the need for systematic new data on slave prices, when empirical studies of such prices in the British Americas by no less than five authors are in the publication pipeline. New papers on the British balance of payments and the Atlantic economy, insurance, and ownership structures will also appear in the next few months. Perhaps the new cost structures of electronic publishing will make it possible in the near future to create annual revisions of studies such as these for fields that are especially active. One suspects that Kenneth Morgan could complete such an exercise for this topic at little cost to his many other activities.

David Eltis is professor of history at Queen's University and author of The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000).

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Posted: 30 October 2001