Empire, the slave trade, and Britain’s wealth

Will Hutton, the well-known political commentator and former Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, has gone into print in The Guardian to attack Kemi Badenoch’s recent speech in which she rightly criticised the simplistic view that British commercial wealth and industrialisation depended on slavery and colonialism. Hutton also lays into a new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs by Kristian Niemietz entitled Imperial Measurement: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Western Colonialism which, based on academic historical research conducted over several decades, provides copious evidence to substantiate Badenoch’s remarks. Hutton is not an economic historian and he relies uncritically on the recent work of Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson which was reviewed some months ago in History Reclaimed. Their book, Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution starts from the assumption that Britain is a racist society and works backwards to prove that.

Perhaps Hutton believes that if a thing is said enough times by enough of the ‘right people’ in the ‘right publications’ it becomes true. But as the former head of an eminent academic institution he should be more cautious and also better informed before rushing into print.

Hutton claims that recent historical research “has uncovered a mountain of evidence that places ever more importance on empire, and slavery in particular, as important drivers of the Industrial Revolution and the evolution of our economy.” Berg and Hudson, he writes, “place slavery at the heart…of early industrialization”. In fact, they are explicit in disavowing this very thing. As they write,

“We do not argue that slavery caused the industrial revolution. Neither do we suggest that slavery was necessary for the development of industrial capitalism in Britain. Even less does our study attempt to estimate that the gains from slavery contributed a particular percentage to Britain’s economic growth, GDP or capital formation in the eighteenth century.”

Hutton’s grasp of history and statistics should have helped him understand that the West Indies were only “co-equal with Europe as Britain’s biggest trading partner” at the end of the eighteenth century because of the French Revolution and Revolutionary War which broke out in 1793 and the subsequent Napoleonic continental blockade of British commerce. If our commerce with Europe went into decline, inevitably the proportions of British trade with other parts of the world will have increased. Hutton also asserts the importance to the British economy of trade in sugar, comparing it in the same breath to cotton, which was genuinely crucial, and thus overlooking Joel Mokyr’s comment: “In the absence of West Indian slavery, Britain would have had to drink bitter tea, but it still would have had an Industrial Revolution, if perhaps at a marginally slower pace”. We shall return to the work of Mokyr in a moment.

Hutton then asserts that “all this” – slavery and sugar – “spawned a vast boom in British shipping” between the 1780s and 1830s as if our global export trade in manufactured goods and our imports of diverse raw materials from all over the world had nothing to do with it. If Hutton knew the history of slavery better, he would be aware that it was one of the strongest arguments of the British anti-slavery movement that the slave trade specifically counted for very little of our maritime commerce and could be dispensed with without any significant economic loss. In 1804 Henry Brougham – who had just made contact with William Wilberforce and would later become a leading Whig politician – calculated in a pamphlet held aloft in approbation in the House of Commons by prime minister William Pitt the Younger, that the slave trade, three years before it was abolished, accounted for just 1/63 of the total shipping tonnage in the empire and 1/23 of the number of imperial seaman.

Hutton cites approvingly the work of the economic historian Joel Mokyr when wanting to make the point that Britain’s “liberal approach to immigration” was a driver of industrialisation, drawing technologists and engineers “from all over Europe”. It is a political point, of course, and Hutton goes on to take sideswipes at Brexit and the immigration policies of the current government. But I’ve yet to read an account of the British Industrial Revolution that makes the case that it depended on foreign expertise. The names Hutton recites in his article – James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Crompton – sound distinctively English to my ear. But we can let this pass for the real interest is in Joel Mokyr himself, the eminent Dutch-Israeli economic historian at Northwestern University, Illinois, and a winner of the prestigious Balzan Prize in 2015. Will Hutton should do a little more reading in the work of the historians he cites.

As Mokyr wrote in 1993, “It seems somehow tempting for those who do not have much sympathy for British capitalism to link it with imperialism and slavery”. That would be true of Will Hutton, of course, and of many more who have rushed to give us a history lesson in recent years. But as Mokyr went on to argue,

“It is hard to see exactly how imperial policies, which protected British merchants doing business overseas, could have had much impact on the Industrial Revolution beyond, perhaps, assuring favourable treatment in some markets.”

According to Mokyr, empire and British foreign policy “seem to have conveyed at best a slight advantage”. He points out that Britain lost the American colonies in the 1780s at the very start of the Industrial Revolution but, by the 1790s, trade had not only resumed across the Atlantic but was positively booming: we did not need a formal empire for trade to flourish. And where the imperial relationship was formal, as in India, this did not lead to overwhelming British dependence. India was an important market for British goods, certainly, but from the 1780s until the 1850s – the great age of industrialisation – it took an approximately constant 14% of British exports. As Mokyr writes “This is substantial, but Europe, the Near East, the United States, and Latin America where Britain competed on an equal base [i.e. areas outside the empire and without any imperial advantages], remained equally important markets”. Indeed, Mokyr argues that though trade with the empire “may have been central before the Industrial Revolution…it lost much of its primacy in the years after 1780”. Indeed, in the period 1784-1824 “only about 5 to 6 percent of British manufactures were shipped to the West Indies”.

Mokyr is critical of the work of Eric Williams, another of the insecure foundations on which this false economic history of empire is based: the Williams thesis that slavery and sugar formed the basis of capital accumulation and industrialisation “had long been regarded as discredited”, he writes. He cites the work of Stanley Engerman, the American economic historian, who, in the 1970s, computed the total profits from the slave trade in 1770 as, at most, £342,000 out of total British GNP in that year of £166 million. And as Mokyr goes on to argue, if slavery and Atlantic trade “were of essential importance” to the British economy it was down to slave-grown cotton from the United States.

Hutton believes that “the delicate but tough Barbadense [sea island] cotton” was a driver of industrialisation, but West Indian cotton was grown and imported in relatively very small quantities before the 1790s. Then, the invention of the cotton gin for the faster processing of raw cotton and the expansion of cotton culture across the southern states of the newly created United States saw cotton cultivation on one side of the Atlantic and the cotton industry in Lancashire on the other side, boom together. As Mokyr puts it, “without US slavery, the British cotton industry would have run into a severe bottleneck”. As Mokyr accepts, American slavery “truly mattered” to the growth of the British cotton industry in the nineteenth century, but slavery in the British empire in the eighteenth century was not the driver of industrialisation that Hutton and others would like to think.

It may be objected that Joel Mokyr published this thirty years ago. But bad history keeps coming back to delude those who should know better. The Williams thesis was discredited in the 1970s but has re-emerged because it now suits a particular politicised view of the past. Mokyr, indeed, was hardly the only historian who, in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrated that there has been a popular exaggeration of the supposed benefits of empire. Paddy O’Brien who held the Readership in Economic History in Oxford and then a chair at the London School of Economics, has published extensively on this subject and it is to be greatly welcomed that in the Michaelmas Term of this academic year, 2023-4, he gave a paper to the Global History seminar in Oxford critiquing the work of Berg and Hudson on which Will Hutton relies. O’Brien concluded in 1988 that though many individuals made gains from the empire, “the massive public expenditure upon the apparatus of imperial rule and defence was neither sufficient nor necessary for the growth of the economy from 1846 to 1914”. The great Adam Smith told everyone this in the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.

We suffer from a rash of people who rush into print to use history to confirm their views and prejudices. I have worked with Will Hutton and know him to be a good man with many skills and much generosity of spirit. But he is not a historian, though he has been in very close proximity to excellent historical scholars who could put him right.


Dr Lawrence Goldman is a Lecturer in Modern History at St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford.

This article was first published on History Reclaimed.

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