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Slavery did not create Britain’s wealth

A bogus narrative is obscuring history and diminishing our national pride

In a recent speech, Britain’s business and trade minister, Kemi Badenoch, sent the collective left into meltdown.  It “worries me”, she argued, “when I hear people talk about wealth and success in the UK as being down to colonialism or imperialism or white privilege or whatever”.

In response to the speech, the Guardian pointed out that a University of the West Indies study concluded that the UK owed a staggering $24tn (£18.8tn) in reparations for transatlantic slavery. Its claim to be one of the most methodologically sophisticated reports ever produced rested on its alchemist-like capacity to quantify variables such as ‘intergenerational trauma’ and a lack of employment opportunities for Black people. 

Not to be outdone, the race-grifting Runnymede Trust lambasted Badenoch, whose speech was a “gross erasure of how the UK built its wealth. The C of E, Guardian and Lloyds are prominent examples that openly show how our church, media and financial systems are rooted in colonialism and slavery. This is not a matter of conjecture but fact”. 

The claim that slavery made Britain rich is a powerful one. This “original sin” underpins the moral power of the progressive critique of capitalism, western civilisation and its broader political goal of institutional capture and cultural restructuring. Are the church, media and financial systems really rooted in colonialism and slavery? 

It is undeniable that small groups of individuals in Great Britain, often drawn from economic and political elites, personally benefited enormously from slavery. However, whilst profits were huge for a small number of individuals, these were not big enough to change the economic fortunes of Britain as a whole. As Mokyr argues, the development of British capitalism and the industrial revolution is only tangentially linked to slavery. He argues that it is “hard to see exactly how the 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”. 

In the West Indies, slavery as an institution was “important to Britain as a source of products that could not be produced locally”. However, and in no way diminishing the brutality of Caribbean slavery, in its absence, Mokyr argues that “Britain would have had to drink bitter tea, but it still would have had an Industrial Revolution, if perhaps at a marginally slower pace”.

Eltis and Engerman have shown that the slave trade only constituted a small portion of British overseas commerce. In 1792, 204 vessels of an aggregate of 38,099 tonnes left British ports as part of the transatlantic slave trade in what they argue was its most significant year. However, in the same year, were 14,334 ships registered in Britain, grossing 1.44 million tons. So, only 1.5 per cent of British vessels and three per cent of cargo were involved in the slave trade. They continue that if “economic activity on so modest a scale could contribute significantly to industrialisation, we might expect Europe’s first industrial economy to have been Portugal, not Britain. Though Portugal had less than one-third the population of Britain in the late eighteenth century and a total national income which was no doubt still lesser, the country’s nationals nevertheless managed to carry nearly two-thirds again as many slaves across the Atlantic than did the British throughout the slave-trade era”. 

Moreover, the logic of capitalism itself would suggest that if sugar, the primary commodity produced by slaves on the major Caribbean islands, yielded a massively higher return on investment, markets would shift their assets into the sugar industry during this period. However, sugar “was just one of hundreds of industries in a complex economy, and while sugar was one of the larger industries, its linkages with the rest of the economy and its role as an “engine” of economic growth compare poorly with textiles, coal, iron ore, and those British agricultural activities which provided significant inputs to industry”. 

In short, the sugar industry was equivalent to barley and hops in terms of economic output. While some individuals made huge profits by trading a commodity popular with the rich, it was not central to the Industrial Revolution. Would anybody argue that Britain’s Industrial Revolution would never have happened without beer?

Aside from the above, the argument that Britain is uniquely rich because of slavery must also contend with the fact that slavery is common across human history. If slavery was the critical enabler for Britain’s wealth, how do we explain the fact that other states and kingdoms that also practiced mass slavery remain desperately poor today? 

For example, the Sokoto Caliphate was a West African Empire and one of the largest slave societies in modern history, with  “over 1 million and perhaps more than 2.5 million” slaves. Similarly, the Kingdom of Dahomey was an African kingdom in modern-day Benin. Known for its military might, the kingdom’s slave trade was primarily focused on the Yoruba Empire of Oyo, which was conquered by Dahomey and became a significant source of slaves for the kingdom. It was not until 1851 that a British naval blockade of Dahomey saw its terrible trade in human souls finally end. Bizarrely, Dahomey was celebrated in a Hollywood Wakanda-like blockbuster called The Woman King in 2022. 

In short, slavery has been common throughout history and is not the critical enabler of British wealth

In short, slavery has been common throughout history and is not the critical enabler of British wealth. The Caribbean colonies mainly functioned due to Great Britain’s tariff barriers on cheaper sugar produced by competing European powers and because the taxpayer bore the naval costs of transatlantic slavery. Indeed, one analysis concludes that the possession of the British West Indies had the effect of retarding the growth of Great Britain’s economy. The “income of Englishmen would have been at least £500,000 higher in the absence of the West Indies from the empire”. 

The left’s invocation of history is both simplistic and overly Eurocentric. It erases the complex (and often brutal) history of non-European peoples, civilisations, and states. It reproduces a simplistic binary of European evil vs non-European good when the record is not only far more mixed, but the British were active anti-slavers following abolition across Africa and the wider global South.  

Kemi Badenoch is right; slavery did not create Britain’s wealth, and to the extent we are concerned about helping drive global prosperity, we must concentrate on what did: markets, freedom and the rule of law. 

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