Slavery and Anglo-American capitalism revisited

9 04 2019

I was unable to attend this year’s Economic History Society conference, which took place last week in Belfast. In fact, I didn’t even apply to present because I knew that I would be spending the semester here at Copenhagen Business School. However, I really wish that I could have been in Belfast to hear Gavin Wright of Stanford deliver what appears to have been a very important and thoughtful assessment of the claims various scholars have made about slavery’s role in the emergence of capitalism. Since one of my current research projects is about slavery, it would have been particularly interesting to talk to Prof. Wright.

The Long Run

by Gavin Wright (Stanford University)

This research will be presented in the Tawney Lecture during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.

Slaves_cutting_the_sugar_cane_-_Ten_Views_in_the_Island_of_Antigua_(1823),_plate_IV_-_BL Slaves cutting sugar cane, taken from ‘Ten Views in the Island of Antigua’ by William Clark. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

For decades, scholars have debated the role of slavery in the rise of industrial capitalism, from the British Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century to the acceleration of the American economy in the nineteenth century.

Most recent studies find an important element of truth in the thesis associated with Eric Williams that links the slave trade and slave-based commerce with early British industrial development. Long-distance markets were crucial supports for technological progress and for the infrastructure of financial markets and the shipping sector.

But the eighteenth century Atlantic economy was dominated by sugar, and…

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