Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Fuelling the Industrial Revolution

by Dr Alan Rice & Dr Emma Poulter

'The value of goods annually supplied from Manchester and the neighbourhood for Africa is about £200,000...This value of manufactures employs immediately about 18,000 of His Majesty's subjects, men, women and children...'

Samuel Taylor, Manchester manufacturer, 1788

Plantation slavery created unique patterns of trade and systems of work. These patterns and systems were adapted and used during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed some historians have argued that the plantation slavery system was the engine which helped create the Industrial Revolution.

Agriculture to industry

The historian Eric Williams describes how key technologies such as James Watt's steam engine improvements (1784) were developed using profits from slave trading merchants. When fully developed, it was sugar plantation owners who used these steam engines to increase efficiency by replacing horses.

The huge profits that came from plantation slavery in the Americas and the new industries that were created to process goods imported from these plantations changed Britain dramatically. It went from being an agricultural economy to an industrial one in Britain in the late eighteenth century.

Manchester: city of cotton

The effect of the growth of textile industries in Manchester (known at the time as ‘Cottonopolis' that is, ‘the city of cotton') can be seen in the expansion of Manchester's population from 17,000 in 1760 to 180,000 in 1830. More specifically, the biographies of slaving ship captains and traders in the north west of England provide clear evidence of the link between the wealth earned from the transatlantic slave trade and the push toward industrialisation in the whole region.

Records show that the slaving ship captain Thomas Hinde used the profits from his and his sons' dealings in the African trade to develop a fabric mill in the village of Dolphinholme in 1795. Thomas Hodgson had earlier invested the profits from his Liverpool slave trading in the Low Mill at Caton in 1784.

Many new factories opened during this time to serve the market created by the slave trade and plantation economies. These factories provided finished goods such as clothing to exchange for enslaved Africans. They also processed the range of tropical produce that came from plantations in the Americas. Clothing for enslaved Africans was manufactured in mills such as Quarry Bank near Manchester and re-exported to the Americas. This ensured that profits stayed in Lancashire. As Barrie M. Radcliffe asserts:

 'Cheap cotton enabled Lancashire to conquer world markets'.

Slavery therefore not only boosted the Lancashire textile industries: the trade connections made by the transatlantic slave trade between England, Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean also played a crucial role in the rise of industry throughout Lancashire.

Cotton supply after abolition

Merchants found it hard to give up the huge profits they made from slavery. Even after the British government abolished the British slave trade in 1807, merchants in Manchester and Liverpool continued to supply goods to Spanish and Portuguese slave traders based in Cuba and Brazil who were active as late as the 1880s. As James Walvin asserts, ‘As long as slaves were bought on the African coast... Lancashire textiles provided a means of exchange', and these markets together with trading with the Americas were crucial to the development of industrial Lancashire.

'... Every slave in a southern state is an operative for Great Britain...and if you will have cotton manufacturers, you must have them based on slave labour.'

Thomas Cooper, South Carolina 1830