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Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660-1800

Author(s):Morgan, Kenneth
Reviewer(s):Eltis, David

Published by EH.NET (October 2001)

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.

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).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century