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On the economic importance of the slave plantation complex to the British economy during the eighteenth century: a value-added approach

  • Klas Rönnbäck (a1)


There has been a long-standing debate on the global importance of the African external slave trades. While many scholars believe these to have been detrimental to African development, they were clearly a determining factor in the development of the Americas. What role they played for the European colonial powers is, however, hotly debated. This article contributes to the debate by estimating value added in the Triangular Trade and the American plantation complex. The article empirically studies the case of British connections to the African slave trade and the American plantation complex during the eighteenth century, since these have been the focus of much previous scholarly debate. The estimates suggest that these trades grew substantially over the period, reaching a magnitude equivalent to about 11% of the British economy by the early nineteenth century.

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1 The literature on this topic is large, but important works include Rodney, Walter, How Europe underdeveloped Africa, Washington, DC: Howard University Press , 1974; Van Dantzig, Albert, ‘Effects of the Atlantic slave trade on some West African societies’, Revue Française d’Histoire d’Outre-mer, 62, 226, 1975, pp. 252269 ; Eltis, David, Economic growth and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987 ; Fage, John D., ‘African societies and the Atlantic slave trade’, Past & Present, 125, 1989, pp. 97115 ; Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘The impact of the Atlantic slave trade on Africa: a review of the literature’, Journal of African History, 30, 3, 1989, pp. 365394 ; Klein, Martin A., ‘The impact of the Atlantic slave trade on the societies of the western Sudan’, Social Science History, 14, 2, 1990, pp. 231253 ; Manning, Patrick, Slavery and African life: occidental, oriental and African slave trades, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 ; Inikori, Joseph E., ‘Africa in world history: the export slave trade from Africa and the emergence of the Atlantic economic order’, in B. A. Ogot, ed., General history of Africa 5: Africa from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, Paris: UNESCO, 1992, pp. 74112 ; Clarence-Smith, William Gervase, ‘The dynamics of the African slave trade’, Africa, 64, 2, 1994, pp. 275286 ; Inikori, Joseph E., ‘Ideology versus the tyranny of paradigm: historians and the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on African societies’, African Economic History, 22, 1994, pp. 3758 ; Thornton, John Kelly, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400–1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 ; Lovejoy, Paul E., Transformations in slavery: A history of slavery in Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 ; Northrup, David A., Africa’s discovery of Europe: 1450–1850, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 ; Inikori, Joseph, ‘Africa and the globalization process: western Africa, 1450–1850’, Journal of Global History, 2, 1, 2007, pp. 6386 ; Nunn, Nathan, ‘The long-term effects of Africa’s slave trades’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123, 1, 2008, pp. 139176 ; Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., ‘Why is Africa poor?’, Economic History of Developing Regions, 25, 1, 2010, pp. 2150 ; Whatley, Warren C. and Gillezeau, Rob, ‘The fundamental impact of the slave trade on African economies’, in Paul Rhode, Joshua Rosenbloom, and David Weiman, eds., Economic evolution and revolution in historical time, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011, pp. 86110 ; Rönnbäck, Klas, Labour and living standards in pre-colonial West Africa: the case of the Gold Coast, London: Routledge, 2016 .

2 For a good literature review, see Smith, Mark M., Debating slavery: economy and society in the antebellum American South, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 . See also Fogel, Robert William, Without consent or contract: the rise and fall of American slavery, New York: Norton, 1989 ; Smith, Mark M., Mastered by the clock: time, slavery, and freedom in the American South, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997 ; Fogel, Robert William, The slavery debates, 1952–1990: a retrospective, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006 .

3 Olmstead, Alan L. and Rhode, Paul W., ‘Biological innovation and productivity growth in the antebellum cotton economy’, Journal of Economic History, 68, 4, 2008, pp. 11231171 .

4 Johnson, Walter, River of dark dreams: slavery and empire in the cotton kingdom, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013 ; Beckert, Sven and Rockman, Seth, eds., Slavery’s capitalism: a new history of American economic development, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016 ; Baptist, Edward E., The half has never been told: slavery and the making of American capitalism, New York: Basic Books, 2016 ; Rood, Daniel, The reinvention of Atlantic slavery: technology, labour, race, and capitalism in the greater Caribbean, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017 . See also critique in Olmstead, Alan L. and Rhode, Paul W., ‘Cotton, slavery, and the new history of capitalism’, Explorations in Economic History, 67, 2018, pp. 117 .

5 See, for example, Bolland, O. Nigel, ‘Proto-proletarians? Slave wages in the Americas: between slave labour & free labour’, in Mary Turner, ed., From chattel slaves to wage slaves: the dynamics of labour bargaining in the Americas, Kingston, NY: Ian Randle, 1995, pp. 123147 . See also Rönnbäck, Klas, ‘Waged slavery: incentivizing unfree labour at Cape Coast Castle in the eighteenth century’, Slavery & Abolition, 37, 1, 2016, pp. 7393 , for a similar study from Africa.

6 Gemery, Henry A., Hogendorn, Jan, and Johnson, Marion, ‘Evidence on English/African terms of trade in the eighteenth century’, Explorations in Economic History, 27, 2, 1990 , table 1; Curtin, Philip D., The rise and fall of the plantation complex: essays in Atlantic history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 135137 .

7 The most recent studies have been undertaken by Daudin, Guillaume, ‘Profitability of slave and long-distance trading in context: the case of eighteenth-century France’, Journal of Economic History, 64, 1, 2004, pp. 144171 ; Daudin, Guillaume, Commerce et prospérité: la France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2005 .

8 For key contributions, see Engerman, Stanley L., ‘The slave trade and British capital formation in the eighteenth century: a comment on the Williams thesis’, Business History Review, 46, 4, 1972, pp. 430443 ; O’Brien, Patrick, ‘European economic development: the contribution of the periphery’, Economic History Review, 35, 1, 1982, pp. 118 ; Solow, Barbara L., ‘Caribbean slavery and British growth: the Eric Williams hypothesis’, Journal of Development Economics, 17, 12, 1985, pp. 99115 . See also further contributions to the debate, such as Darity, William, ‘British industry and the West Indies plantations’, Social Science History, 14, 1, 1990, pp. 117149 ; Engerman, Stanley L., ‘The Atlantic economy of the eighteenth century: some speculations on economic development in Britain, America, Africa, and elsewhere’, Journal of European Economic History, 24, 1, 1995, pp. 145175 ; Blackburn, Robin, The making of New World slavery: from the baroque to the modern 1492–1800, London: Verso, 1997, pp. 540542 ; Emmer, Pieter Cornelis, De nederlandse slavenhandel 1500–1850 (The Dutch slave trade 1500–1850), Amsterdam: Uitgeverij de Arbeiderspers, 2000, pp. 177178 ; Findlay, Ronald and O’Rourke, Kevin H., Power and plenty: trade, war, and the world economy in the second millennium, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007, pp. 335337 ; McCloskey, Deirdre N., Bourgeois dignity: why economics can’t explain the modern world, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010 , ch. 26; Vries, Peer, ‘The study of contrasts across Europe: an interview with Patrick O’Brien’, Itinerario, 23, 3–4, 1999, pp. 924 .

9 See, for example, Clark, Gregory, O’Rourke, Kevin H., and Taylor, Alan M., ‘Made in America? The New World, the Old, and the industrial revolution’, American Economic Review, 98, 2, 2008, pp. 523528 ; Harley, Knick, ‘Slavery, the British Atlantic economy, and the industrial revolution’, in Adrian Leonard and David Pretel, eds., The Caribbean and the Atlantic world economy: circuits of trade, money and knowledge, 1650–1914, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 161183 ; Eltis, David, Emmer, Pieter C., and Lewis, Frank D., ‘More than profits? The contribution of the slave trade to the Dutch economy: assessing Fatah-Black and Van Rossum’, Slavery & Abolition, 37, 4, 2016, pp. 724735 .

10 Beckert, Sven, Empire of cotton: a new history of global capitalism, London: Penguin, 2015, pp. 8485 .

11 Ibid., p. 374; see also pp. 131, 224.

12 See, for example, Clark, O’Rourke, and Taylor, ‘Made in America?’, pp. 525–6.

13 Riello, Giorgio, Cotton: the fabric that made the modern world, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 260 .

14 Eltis, David and Engerman, Stanley L., ‘The importance of slavery and the slave trade to industrializing Britain’, Journal of Economic History, 60, 1, 2000 , table 1.

15 Rönnbäck, Klas, ‘Sweet business: quantifying the value added in the British colonial sugar trade in the 18th century’, Revista de Historia Económica/Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History, 32, 2, 2014, pp. 223245 .

16 van Rossum, Matthias and Fatah-Black, Karwan, ‘Wat is winst? De economische impact van de nederlandse trans-Atlantische slavenhande (What is profit? The economic impact of the Dutch transatlantic slave trade’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 9, 1, 2012, pp. 329 ; Fatah-Black, Karwan and van Rossum, Matthias, ‘Beyond profitability: the Dutch transatlantic slave trade and its economic impact’, Slavery & Abolition, 36, 1, 2015, pp. 6383 ; de Kok, Gerhard, ‘Cursed capital: the economic impact of the transatlantic slave trade on Walcheren around 1770’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 13, 3, 2016, pp. 127 . See also critique in Eltis, Emmer, and Lewis, ‘More than profits?’; and response by Karwan Fatah-Black and Matthias van Rossum, ‘A profitable debate?’, Slavery & Abolition, 37, 4, 2016, pp. 736–43.

17 See, for example, Findlay and O’Rourke, Power and plenty, table 5.5.

18 See n. 8 above.

19 Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the twenty-first century, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014 , fig. 6.1.

20 Inikori, Joseph, Africans and the industrial revolution in England: a study in international trade and economic development, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 6 . See also Vries, Peer, Escaping poverty: the origins of modern economic growth, Vienna: Vienna University Press, 2013, pp. 239240 .

21 Kaplinsky, Raphael and Morris, Mike, A handbook for value chain research, Ottawa: IDRC, 2001, p. 4 .

22 Ibid., p. 53.

23 Broadberry, Stephen, Campbell, Bruce, Klein, Alexander, Overton, Mark, and van Leeuwen, Bas, British economic growth, 1270–1870, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. xxxiii .

24 See, for example, Minchinton, Walter E., ‘The triangular trade revisited’, in Henry Gemery and Jan Hogendorn, eds., The uncommon market: essays in the economic history of the Atlantic slave trade, New York: Academic Press, 1979, pp. 331352 .

25 See, for example, Richardson, David, ‘The slave trade, sugar, and British economic growth, 1748–1776’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 17, 4, 1987, pp. 739769 ; Inikori, Joseph, ‘Slavery and the development of industrial capitalism in England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 17, 4, 1987, pp. 771793 ; Inikori, Joseph, ‘Slavery and the revolution in cotton textile production in England’, Social Science History, 13, 4, 1989, pp. 343379 ; O’Brien, Patrick K. and Engerman, Stanley L., ‘Exports and the growth of the British economy from the Glorious Revolution to the Peace of Amiens’, in Barbara Solow, ed., Slavery and the rise of the Atlantic system, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 177209 ; Blackburn, Making of New World slavery, pp. 518–27; Inikori, Africans and the industrial revolution, ch. 9; Harley, ‘Slavery’.

26 See, for example, Wrigley, E. A., ‘The supply of raw materials in the industrial revolution’, Economic History Review, 15, 1, 1962, pp. 116 ; Bailey, Ronald, ‘The other side of slavery: black labor, cotton, and textile industrialization in Great Britain and the United States’, Agricultural History, 68, 2, 1994, pp. 3550 ; Blackburn, Making of New World slavery, pp. 554–8; Pomeranz, Kenneth, The great divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000 , ch. 6; Inikori, Africans and the industrial revolution, ch. 8; Riello, Cotton, ch. 11; Beckert, Empire of cotton, p. 81.

27 Transatlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD2), 2010, (consulted 18 June 2018).

28 Richardson, David, ‘Prices of slaves in West and West-Central Africa: toward an annual series, 1698–1807’, Bulletin of Economic Research, 43, 1, 1991 , appendix table, col. 8.

29 Eltis, David, Lewis, Frank D., and Richardson, David, ‘Slave prices, the African slave trade, and productivity in the Caribbean, 1674–1807’, Economic History Review, 58, 4, 2005 , data underlying table 2.

30 Schumpeter, Elizabeth Boody, English overseas trade statistics 1697–1808, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960 , tables XVI–XVII.

31 Barbara Gaye Jaquay, ‘The Caribbean cotton production: an historical geography of the region’s mystery crop’, PhD thesis, Texas A&M University, 1997, table 6; Edwards, Michael M., The growth of the British cotton trade, 1780–1815, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967 , tables C/1–C/3.

32 Ryden, David, West Indian slavery and British abolition, 1783–1807, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 , table A.7. The price data have been extrapolated for the period prior to 1752.

33 John McCusker, ‘The rum trade and the balance of payments of the thirteen continental colonies, 1650–1775’, PhD thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1970, table E-44; Sheridan, Richard B., Sugar and slavery: an economic history of the British West Indies 1623–1775, Barbados: Canoe Press, 1974 , appendix V; Morgan, Kenneth O., Bristol and the Atlantic trade in the eighteenth century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 , table 7.10.

34 Gregory Clark, ‘England, prices and wages since 13th [century]’, 2006, (consulted 18 June 2018).

35 US Census Bureau, Historical statistics of the United States, colonial times to 1970, Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975 , series Z579, Z583.

36 Peter Lindert et al., ‘Pennsylvania spliced series, 1720–1896’, 2008, (consulted 18 June 2018).

37 Clark, ‘England’.

38 Lindert et al., ‘Pennsylvania spliced series’.

39 Wadsworth, Alfred and de Lacy Mann, Julia, The cotton trade and industrial Lancashire 1600–1780, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1931 , appendix H; Clark, ‘England’.

40 Eltis and Engerman, ‘Importance of slavery’, table 1.

41 Deane, Phyllis and Alan Cole, William, British economic growth, 1688–1959: trends and structure, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962 , table 42.

42 See, for example, McCusker, John and Menard, Russell, The economy of British America 1607–1789, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985 , tables 6.1, 7.3, and 8.2.

43 Schumpeter, English overseas trade statistics, table V.

44 Shepherd, James and Williamson, Samuel, ‘The coastal trade of the British North American colonies, 1768–1772’, Journal of Economic History, 32, 4, 1972, pp. 783810 , esp. table 2.

45 Gemery, Hogendorn, and Johnson, ‘Evidence’, tables 1–4.

46 Eltis and Engerman, ‘Importance of slavery’, table 1.

47 Mitchell, B. R., British historical statistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988 , ch. XIV, table ‘Prices 1’.

48 Broadberry et al., British economic growth, pp. xxxiv–xxxv; see also appendix 5.3 for the data.

49 O’Rourke, Kevin H., ‘The worldwide economic impact of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, 1793–1815’, Journal of Global History, 1, 1, 2006, pp. 123149 ; Rönnbäck, Klas, ‘An end and a new beginning: disintegration of inter-continental commodity markets during the revolutionary era, 1770s to 1820s’, Jahrbuch für Überseegeschichte, 12, 2012, pp. 5378 .

50 Inikori, Africans and the industrial revolution, chs. 6–7.

51 Draper, Nicholas, ‘The city of London and slavery: evidence from the first dock companies, 1795–1801’, Economic History Review, 61, 2, 2008, pp. 432466 .

52 Solar, Peter M. and Rönnbäck, Klas, ‘Copper sheathing and the British slave trade’, Economic History Review, 68, 3, 2015, pp. 806829 .

53 Dalrymple-Smith, Angus and Frankema, Ewout, ‘Slave ship provisioning in the long 18th century: a boost to West African commercial agriculture?’, European Review of Economic History, 21, 2, 2017, pp. 185235 .

54 Sheridan, Richard B., ‘The crisis of slave subsistence in the British West Indies during and after the American revolution’, William and Mary Quarterly, 33, 4, 1976, pp. 615641 ; Mandelblatt, Bertie, ‘A transatlantic commodity: Irish salt beef in the French Atlantic World’, History Workshop Journal, 63, 1, 2007, pp. 1847 .

55 Acemoglu, Daron, Johnson, Simon, and Robinson, James, ‘The rise of Europe: Atlantic trade, institutional change, and economic growth’, American Economic Review, 95, 3, 2005, pp. 546579 .

56 Allen, Robert C., ‘Progress and poverty in early modern Europe’, Economic History Review, 56, 3, 2003, pp. 403443 .


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On the economic importance of the slave plantation complex to the British economy during the eighteenth century: a value-added approach

  • Klas Rönnbäck (a1)


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