Australian History Curriculum


Slavery Past, Slavery Present & the Industrial Revolution - blog post image

Slavery Past, Slavery Present & the Industrial Revolution

Posted On: Wednesday, May 31, 2017  By:  Peter Ricketson


The quite extensive topic on ‘Slavery and its Consequences’ is now available on the Histoire Website.

A unit on ‘Slavery and the Global Economy’ ( extends beyond the usual 18th and 19th Century studies of slavery to take up President Obama’s 2012 speech on the continuing existence of modern slavery.

“The outrage of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name – modern slavery.”

President Obama urged modern day consumers to be more aware of the origins of what they were buying, ranging from computers through clothing and sports shoes to supermarket food.

Students who have studied the slavery topic on the Histoire Website will understand the historical context of President Obama’s challenge to confront the disturbing question of :

How many slaves support your modern lifestyle ?

Slavery and Industrialisation

One of the most popular topics on the Histoire Website is the Industrial Revolution. For students studying the Industrial Revolution there is one additional and historically controversial unit to consider.

How closely connected was the Industrial Revolution to the profits of slavery ? The Atlantic slave trade and the slave-based economies of the New World generated an enormous amount of wealth. Some historians have argued that it was this wealth that financed the Industrial Revolution.

Britain dominated the Atlantic slave trade which was at its greatest in the 40 years between the 1780’s and 1820’s. It was during these 40 years that the Industrial Revolution became established in Britain.

Industrialisation created an enormous demand for raw materials as well as creating a large home and world market for manufactured goods. By the end of the 18th century, slave-produced goods accounted for approximately three-quarters of Britain’s imports from the New World.

In return, Britain’s growing industries exported manufactured goods back to the slave economies of the New World. The historian, Eric Williams, argued in the 1940’s, that the wealth generated by slave labour was used to finance Britain’s early industrialisation. Williams introduced the idea of ‘ghost acreage’, which was the extra land in the New World that Britain could treat as its own. It was like adding another whole continent to the British economy and then adding free slave labour. A recent historian, Kenneth Pomeranz, estimated “that the acreage required to grow the cotton, sugar and timber imported by Britain from the New World in 1830 would have been somewhere between 25 and 30 million acres – or more than Britain’s combined arable and pasture land.” (quoted by Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible : Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, Verso, London, 2011, p. 110)

The raw materials imported into Britain and then converted into manufactured goods not only created the excess capital needed for industrial expansion, but enabled Britain to finance its navy and pay its sailors and soldiers. Britain’s growing economic power was therefore matched by global military power which was used to create an extensive empire right up to World War I and beyond.

Not all historians agree that there is a direct link between slavery and industrialisation in Britain. Wealth generated by slavery did not cause the Industrial Revolution, and the scientific innovations that made the Industrial Revolution possible had little to do with slavery. However, the interrelationship of slavery and the Industrial Revolution cannot be dismissed. First, the huge profits of slavery provided the capital needed to stimulate industrial development. Second, the wealth created by the Industrial Revolution and increased trade was fed back into the expansion of slavery.

The interrelationship between slavery and industrialisation can be most clearly seen in the cotton industry. Cotton was a crucial raw material in Britain’s early industrialisation process. The huge quantities of cheap, raw cotton were produced by slave labour and enabled British cotton textiles to monopolise the world market. Profits from cotton manufacturing were then used to expand the use of slave plantations in the American South.

The interrelationship between slavery and early industrialization in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries should also raise confronting questions about whether the same cycle of supply and demand existing between the ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ world today is perpetuating modern day slavery.