Woodchopper wrote: ↑
Fri Apr 09, 2021 8:49 am
individualmember wrote: ↑
Fri Apr 09, 2021 8:13 am
Is it a coincidence that the British decided that slavery is wrong and should be abolished just at the time when an alternative source of power made a fundamental change to the need for manpower to get stuff done?
I think its very unlikely that it was a coincidence. To start with from the late 18th century on enormous wealth was being created by the industrial revolution. The relative political influence of the sugar industry was reduced.
individualmember wrote: ↑
Fri Apr 09, 2021 8:13 am
Did we already know that it was wrong but couldn’t contemplate ending slavery for economic reasons?
Slavery within the British Isles stopped during the period of Norman rule. As far as I know it was never explicitly made illegal, but was condemned by the Church.
By the 18th Century there were several judgements that slavery was not recognized as being lawful in England and Scotland. Yes, there were slaves present in the UK, which is a reflection of the lack of a criminal justice system to enforce laws. At the time a plaintive had to bring a case to a court, there weren't any police tasked with enforcing laws.
As soon as slavery and the slave trade started in the colonies it was opposed, particularly by Quakers and other non-conformists.
People didn't suddenly discover that slavery was wrong in the latter part of the 18th Century.
The classic view of the economics, up until around the 1960s, was basically that slavery financed the initial stages of Britain's Industrial Revolution, but then the maturing capitalist economy of Britain ended slavery. In particular, Spain got screwed because accidents of history meant it controlled gold and silver deposits, which trashed its own money supply, while Britain accidentally ended up with the Caribbean and North American colonies, winning the lucrative sugar industry and the supply of cotton. Sugar alone provided huge profits to the 1%, some of which was redirected to urban industrial enterprises - the Liverpool bankers notably came up with the full vertical enterprise from financing the slave trade to financing cotton plantations to financing the cotton mills. Under this theory, slavery in the New World caused capitalism in Britain.
Later theories reversed this, into capitalism caused slavery. The Industrial Revolution is now repositioned as a shift from rural industrialisation to urban industrialisation, running at far greater efficiency and capable of delivering export led growth. Cheap products could be shipped to the African coast to start the first leg of the triangle. Modern theories also concentrate more on the American colonies than the West Indies sugar trade - the American colonies led to far more complex economic trade (e.g. the colonies providing the West Indies plantations with goods). New England for example was born as a trading nation, leapfrogging straight to complex economics, while old England was still transitioning from old institutions to new global trade. Ship building and hence international trade became a massive north American industry, creating more long term prosperity than the tobacco and cotton plantations in the southern states.
As I said, I'm not sure what the latest "consensus" is. Slavery was inherently violent and needed a lot resources to be directed into the military (loosely defined), to control the African coast, defend the slave routes from European rivals, defend the Caribbean islands, prevent slave insurrection and enforce the various monopolies and tariffs. The New England colonies faced lower military overheads and prospered without a vast slave trade. It's no coincidence that when military resources were needed to eliminate "the merciless savages" the New Englanders objected to taxes imposed on their international trade to fund it all. Meanwhile, the powerful sugar lobby in England enacted protectionism to maintain their West Indies monopoly - leading to British consumers paying a far higher price for sugar than European neighbours. It's not clear whether the huge profits from sugar were due to the slavery system or due to good old rigging of the market to charge monopoly prices to consumers, while manipulating the government to fund the military protection - the privatise the profits, socialise the losses approach we now know so well. Those Jane Austen heroes with £10,000 a year might well have got the wealth from the exploitation of the British public rather than from the economics of the slave trade.
It's not uncommon in the economic history literature to see people concluding that Britain would have had higher GDP growth if it had lost its West Indies possessions in some war or other. And it's also often argued that cotton from the slave states was economically bad overall. There's some pretty good statistics on how labour supply reacted to the end of slavery in the American South - ex slaves immediately chose to work fewer hours per day, prioritising their leisure time over hourly pay. There was an immediate drop in labour supply by something in the region of 25% or 33% - making raw cotton more expensive. But it wasn't a crippling change. Raw materials are only part of the cost of the finished suit of clothes being bought in British shops after the cotton has been through the cotton mills. Slave labour was never free, and part of the reason why the plantation owner was so rich was because costs had been pushed to elsewhere in the economic system. An imaginary counterfactual where slaves didn't exist and wages were used to entice labour could well come out as favourable for combined UK-US GDP.
The other data point is that Britain and the USA soared economically after the end of slavery. If the slave system had been generating big economic growth it might be expected that its end would cause a road bump. There's no evidence of that, although of course it could be swamped by other factors like technological change. Slaves didn't disappear - they were still people doing labour - and there are plenty of other ways to exploit humans and get their labour for bargain-basement prices, as seen with the wage-earning but powerless workers of the 19th C in Britain's factories.
The economic impact of the slave trade are far more messy and complicated that the stuff we learned at school. Not only is it over simplified to see a National Trust house as being built with blood money - the actual profit might have been from ripping off fellow Brits with high prices - but the systematic exploitation of the poor through the Industrial Revolution might be a side effect. The counterfactual where the Atlantic slave trade never happened could well have seen a more prosperous Britain developing faster with bigger country houses for the 1% and better economic security for the urban poor.