Published by EH.NET (October 2003)

Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xxi + 576 pp. ?55 or $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-81193-7; ?19.95 or $29 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-01079-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kevin H. O’Rourke, Department of Economics, Trinity College Dublin.

This is a big book in every sense of the word. Drawing on more than two decades of scholarship in the field, Joseph Inikori (University of Rochester) has written a provocative, occasionally frustrating, and ultimately convincing monograph on one of the classic issues in our field, the causes of the British Industrial Revolution. His argument is that international trade was crucial to the success of that revolution, in particular trade with the Atlantic Basin (Africa, the West Indies, and the Americas); and that Africans on both sides of the Atlantic were central to this process, both as consumers and producers. As he shows, the notion that trade was a driving force behind the Industrial Revolution is hardly a novel argument, but it comes as a welcome contrast to the domestically-focused “west is best” arguments that are so common in the literature nowadays. What is more original is his attempt to quantify the volume of “African-produced” commodities entering the Atlantic trade, using occasionally heroic assumptions. The book is also marked by a constant emphasis on the demand-side consequences of international trade for economic growth, with the link being endogenous technological progress caused by the exigencies of producing for the overseas market.

The author makes frequent reference to the literature on “import substitution industrialization” (ISI), a concept introduced in Chapter 1, as a framework which he feels is useful when interpreting the British experience. A novelty of the treatment here is that Inikori shows quite persuasively that in many cases English industrialisation followed a path of “re-export substitution industrialization,” or RSI, with English merchants eventually selling British-made goods in Atlantic markets where previously they had sold Continental or Asian goods. While references to ISI, backward and forward linkages and so on may set some readers’ hackles on edge, as a description of what happened — and without necessarily going into issues of cause and effect — the concept is clearly quite useful.

Chapter 2 provides a very long run overview of English economic history from 1060 to 1850. A fairly standard account of economic and institutional developments up to 1660 is followed by an account of the industrial transformation the book is seeking to explain, with a heavy regional emphasis. Essentially, Inikori’s strategy is to argue that the various regions of England were largely disconnected from each other until the advent of the railroad (i.e. well after the Industrial Revolution had gotten under way); if this is the case, then they can be regarded as separate observations, and the variation between them can be used to “test” various theories of the Industrial Revolution. For example, arguments stressing the agricultural revolution fail his test, since the agricultural revolution was a southern phenomenon, whereas the industrial revolution was a northern one. At this point, the cliometrician will look for quantitative evidence to support the hypothesis of regions which were autarkic vis a vis each other, but some of which were linked to overseas markets: price evidence springs immediately to mind, but the reader will not find it here. Nor will the reader find much evidence on the internal integration (or lack thereof) of English labor markets, which is clearly important for the author’s strategy.

Chapter 3 will probably become the most widely read section of the book, and ought to become standard fare on graduate and advanced undergraduate reading lists. It contains a survey of the historiography of the Industrial Revolution, from Toynbee to today. Inikori shows that the literature on what caused British industrialization has moved from being largely focused on external trade (before the Second World War), to more internalist explanations after 1945, and that the pendulum may now be swinging back again. Inikori is impressively well-read (a quality which emerges throughout the book), and the chapter is elegantly written and entertaining.

Chapter 4 is in many ways the core chapter of the book. After a brief account of the development of the Atlantic economy, the book brings together a wide range of estimates of trans-Atlantic trade, as well as a more speculative allocation of this trade between trade in goods produced by Africans and other trade. The numbers seem big, although it would have been nice to have been given a yardstick to measure them by. Later chapters do, however, show that the flows of raw materials and manufactures into and out of Britain were very large when compared with the size of the sectors most concerned — a point made elsewhere by O’Brien and Engerman (1991), who also point out that these were precisely the sectors which were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. And while the author’s technique of presenting an assortment of qualitative and quantitative evidence, and then reaching conclusions such as “export production in French America … was produced 100 percent by Africans” (p. 191) will certainly strike some as cavalier, Inikori’s overall conclusions regarding the very large share of international trade involving goods produced by Africans are surely correct.

Chapter 5 examines Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and shows that Britons were responsible for shipping a very large proportion of all the slaves forcibly transported across the Atlantic, not just those shipped to British possessions overseas. There is also an interesting discussion of the losses sustained by the British slavers. Chapters 6 though 9 then look in detail at various channels through which the extensive Atlantic trade previously documented affected the development of the British economy. Chapter 6 shows that, not surprisingly, the English shipping industry and its ancillary industries were largely dependent on the Atlantic trading system for their growth, in part because of the high depreciation rates associated with maintaining ships off the African coast line. Chapter 7 argues that the risks associated with overseas trade, and the large needs for working capital not only of merchants but also of plantation owners and domestic exporters, stimulated the development of the British insurance industry and capital markets, which were heavily dependent on the Atlantic economy. Chapter 8 documents the obviously vital role of raw material imports produced by Africans in the New World and West Africa for the rapidly developing textile industry, while Chapter 9 looks at the equally obvious importance of the Atlantic market for the textile and metal industries, which were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

Inikori’s method is that of the old-style economic historian, and this book shows the virtues of the approach. There are no “killer” econometric or simulation results, clinching a particular argument about causality, but rather an accumulation of archival evidence and data which end up convincing the reader that trade with the Atlantic basin was indeed hugely significant for the key sectors of the rapidly industrializing British economy. Old-style history’s comparative advantage is in generating facts, and the facts presented here make one wonder how scholars could ever have thought about the Industrial Revolution without making trade a central component of the analysis. New-style history’s comparative advantage, on the other hand, is in assessing arguments about causality, and while this reviewer is convinced by the argument that absent international trade, there would hardly have been as much innovation and investment as in fact took place during the Industrial Revolution, a lot of cliometricians will probably conclude that Inikori’s argument is not as yet proven. The model of endogenous technical change central to his argument that trade drove invention is never precisely spelled out, and it is not clear what the key mechanisms were: is it competition with other nations in the competitive West African market (p. 428), or skilled labor scarcity in particular sectors, caused by booming export demand, giving rise to an incentive to mechanize (p. 464)? Should we regard this as muddled thinking, or a much-needed acknowledgement that the world is a complicated place? ? chacun son go?t.

Inikori is at considerable pains to stress that overseas demand was causally prior to domestic technical change. The regions which succeeded industrially were those that succeeded in exporting: QED. Of course, he acknowledges that successful regions may in principle have been good at exporting because they were successful at adopting new technology, but dismisses this based on timing: “northern counties became leaders in overseas sales before they became leaders in technological innovation. Hence, it was their leadership in overseas sales that led to their leadership in technological innovation” (p. 478). The preceding chapters make the case in greater detail for particular industries; this cliometrician could have done with more systematic evidence on the point. More generally, the debate between demand and supply-siders strikes me as beside the point: both should matter in general equilibrium, even in the complicated, dynamic general equilibrium environment of the real world. In order to industrialize, Britain needed to be able to generate innovations on the supply side, and in order to innovate it needed to sell the products thus produced on the demand side. Why prioritize one blade of the scissors over the other?

Inikori hasn’t answered all the questions, then: so much the better for the rest of us. But with the publication of this book, histories of the Industrial Revolution which neglect the roles of maritime power, colonial conquest and slavery ought to become a thing of the past.


O’Brien, Patrick K. and Stanley L. Engerman (1991), “Exports and the Growth of the British Economy from the Glorious Revolution to the Peace of Amiens,” in Barbara L. Solow (ed.), Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Kevin O’Rourke is Professor of Economics at Trinity College Dublin, a Research Fellow at the CEPR and a Research Associate at the NBER. He is currently an IRCHSS Government of Ireland Senior Fellow. He is the co-author of Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (MIT Press, 1999, with Jeffrey G. Williamson), and is currently working on a history of international trade in the very long run (with Ronald Findlay).