Textiles were the most important merchandise in the barter trade for Africans destined for slavery, serving both as a consumer good and as a currency. Throughout the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, fabrics of all sorts made up about 50 per cent of the value shipped to Africa. Leslie Clarkson states that cotton figures most prominently in the literature relevant to the history of textiles, as a commodity which Europeans have always desired and which has been prominent in early intercontinental trade (including in the barter trade for enslaved Africans), in the slave-based economy of the American South, and in the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. At the same time, she concludes that linen has been almost entirely overlooked by scholars – although the fabric was ubiquitous in Europe, for clothing, bedding, tablecloths, packaging, canvas, and more. Even a more recent essay collection on the European linen industry treats mainly the British, Irish and North American aspects, and hazards some glances into Sweden, Belgium and nineteenth-century Germany, when linen was already in irreversible decline; the omnipresent linen trade of seventeenth and eighteenth century northern France and Central Europe is completely ignored. Its importance has been taken into account by a number of German scholars, but their studies on some particular textile regions, published in German, have not had the impact they deserved.
It is true that homespun linen lacks the glamour of silk, the ornaments and the brilliant colours of calicoes and the dignity of woollen cloth, but in spite of all its inconspicuousness it was one of the products that closely linked the peoples around the Atlantic basin with those in Atlantic hinterlands, and it did so over centuries. A history of linen can very well illustrate how distant regions established trade relations and thus constituted a wider, previously non-existent, socio-economic fabric. This chapter will first introduce the overall importance of export-oriented linen production for certain regions of the Holy Roman Empire. It will then scrutinise the conditions which helped to make the landlocked province of Silesia one of the major suppliers of textiles on Atlantic markets, and the living conditions of the textile workers in the region. The formerly Austrian, then Prussian province of Silesia is of particular interest because there the institution of serfdom survived well into the nineteenth century, in contrast with Germany's more western textile regions, such as Westphalia, the Rhineland or Swabia.