Slavery and the Industrial Revolution

Topics: Slavery, Caribbean, British Empire Pages: 29 (9006 words) Published: December 9, 2012
Journal of Development Economics 17 (1985) 99-115. North Holland

T he Eric W i l l i a m s Hypothesis
B a r b a r a L. S O L O W *

Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA
Received February 1983, final version received July 1983
The paper supports the hypothesis advanced by Eric WilIiams that slavery in the British West Indies contributed significantly to English industrial growth in the second ha[f of the eighteenth century. Objections are raised to earlier criticisms of the Williams hypothesis, and a simple C obb-Douglas model is used ~o demonstrate how the slave colonies contributed to home country growth and that this contribution was quantitatively important. The paper concludes t hat cokonial slavery increased British national income and the pool of investaNe funds and resulted in a pattern of trade that encouraged industrialization.

L ~ ntroducdon
I n his v a l u a b l e survey of C a r i b b e a n h i s t o r i o g r a p h y , G r e e n (1977) r e m i n d s u s t h a t s c h o l a r l y w o r k for the last three decades has centered a r o u n d one a u t h o r a n d one book. G r e e n writes: 'Since the p u b l i c a t i o n of C apitalism and S lavery, h istorical writing on the British W e s t Indies has, to a large extent, i nvolved a c o n s c i o u s c o n f i r m a t i o n or refutation of (Eric) W i l l i a m s ' several t heses. 't The a t t a c k on Eric Williams's w o r k was begun by Anstey (t968). P a p e r s by T h o m a s (1968) a n d C o e t h o (1973), t h o u g h not specifically directed a t his work, were t h o u g h t to have d a m a g e d his thesis irreparably. E n g e r m a n ( 1972, 1975) has c o n t i n u e d the criticism, a n d m o s t recently Drescher (1977) h as v i g o r o u s l y a t t a c k e d his b o o k )

T hese criticisms have been directed at very different aspects of Williams's w ork, a n d there is no u n a n i m i t y a m o n g the critics. F o r example, s o m e argue t hat C apitalism and Slavery o verestimates the c o n t r i b u t i o n of the British W e s t Indies to British e c o n o m i c d e v e l o p m e n t , while others argue that the c olonies were a source of significant a n d u n d i m i n i s h e d profitability until the *! would like to thank my sons, Andrew R.-and John L. Solow, for assistance in producing the mathematical results, and my husband, Robert M. Solow, for assistance in producing the S ONS,

~Williams (t966), Green (1977).
2See Anstey (1968), Thomas (1968), Coehtho (I973), Engerman (1972,1975), and Drescher (1977).
0304-3878/85/$3.30 © 1985, Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. (North-Holland)


B.L. Solow, Caribbean slavery and British growth

e ra of abolition. [n this state of affairs, it is dear that the last word or~ the Williams thesis has not been spoken.
[t is even possible that Williams's case for the importance of the c onnection between slavery and European expansion goes beyond his English example. The perception of this connection revolutionizes what every s choolboy thinks he knows about European expansion. A fair summary of the conventional wisdom would be illustrated by the following quotation from an eminent authority:3

' The westward expansion of Europe after 1492 rested on the foundation o f eighty years of Portuguese enterprise in the Atlantic. Portugal was the A tlantic pioneer, colonizing Atlantic islands and exploring and trading d own the west coast of Africa. [t was in Portugal that a body of ocean sailing and navigation was built up during the fifteenth century, and it was almost accidental that at the climax of Portuguese pioneering e nterprise the most crucial of aH the discoveries was made by a Genoese in the service of Spain.'

gn fact the westward expansion of Europe after t 492 rested on the f oundation of the expansion of Europe from the time of the First Crusade, p rimarily by ~taJians from Venice and Genoa. T he e conomic aspec~ of this e...

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Indies, 1768--1772, Explorations in Economic History 10.
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