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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Treadwells 7th August

Stephen Grasso has sent me a copy of the talk he is to give at Treadwells this Tuesday 7th August 2007. It is a powerful and challenging piece of work, one which will take me some time to absorb. So rather than write to Stephen’s talk, I will write around it.

Slavery and the Industrial Revolution.

Between the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobites in 1746 and the Great Exhibition of 1851, Britain went through an industrial revolution. The popular image of this revolution would be rows of soot blackened brick built terraced houses clustered beneath the smoking chimneys of a ‘dark satanic’ cotton mill.

The story of the industrial revolution is usually told as a series of ingenious , indigenous feats of engineering, as in Watt and his steam engines or Stephenson and his steam trains. Of progress through technology ( vorsprung durch technic as they say in the German), as if technology existed apart from its social and economic context.

What was this context? A large part of it was the triangular Atlantic trade. It was this first global economy which stimulated Britain’s industrial revolution. The origins of the Atlantic trade lay in the Spanish conquest of south America. The Spanish discovered huge quantities of silver in south America and began mining it. At first they used the native American population, but soon found that African slaves made better - stronger and more resistant to disease - workers. The Africans also made better agricultural workers and thus the trans-Atlantic slave trade began in the 16th century. At first the British simply pirated the Spanish treasure ships , but gradually they became more involved in the slave trade, especially after they seized Jamaica and its sugar plantations in 1655. In north America, the British began growing tobacco and used African slaves as a way to cut their costs.

It was called the ‘triangular trade’ because of the way it linked Britain , Africa and America. A British ship would load up in Bristol, Liverpool or Whitehaven (or even small ports like Dumfries or Kirkcudbright) with trade goods - cloth, cheap guns, cast iron pots, brass wire, rum, gunpowder, tobacco etc and sail to the west coast of Africa. Here the trade goods would be exchanged for slaves. Then with a cargo of slaves the ship would take the ‘Middle Passage’ to America where those slaves who survived the crossing were sold. Finally, a cargo of sugar or tobacco (later cotton) produced by slaves would be taken back to Britain.

Up until 1765 (according to Frances Wilkins; Dumfries and Galloway and the Transatlantic Slave Trade: 2007), the cotton cloth used as trade goods in the Liverpool slave trade came from India via the Isle of Man , which was a centre for smuggling. In 1765, the Isle of Man was bought from the Duke of Athollin an attempt to stop the smuggling. The loss of this source of cheap Indian cotton stimulated the British cotton industry. [Eventually this led to the collapse of the Indian cotton industry].

Cotton was easier to mass-produce than wool or linen cloth. It was in demand both as a trade good to be exchanged for slaves and as cheap clothing for slaves. It could also be produced on a large scale on slave plantations in America. As more slave produced cotton was grown, its price fell, giving an advantage over wool and linen. To maximise profits on cheap cotton, factories filled with machines tended by women and children (cheaper and more ‘biddable’ labour) had to be built and run 24 hours a day. Water power was not reliable enough, so steam power was employed, in factories lit by gas light. This stimulated demand for coal and put pressure on the existing transport systems. At first, canals were built, but the quest for efficiency led to the development of railways - like the Liverpool- Manchester railway which was opened in 1830. This connected the cotton factories of Manchester with the port of Liverpool. Although Britain had outlawed the slave trade in 1807, the cotton this railway transported was still produced by slaves in the USA - and continued to be so until the 1860s.

To conclude, although Eric Williams wrote ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ back in 1944 - see http://www.socialismtoday.org/33/slavery33.html for background, and Robin Blackburn [ |The Making of new World Slavery 1492- 1800: Verso: 1997] has more recently argued the case, the connections between the industrial revolution - which created capitalism/ was created by capitalism - and slavery are still ‘occult’ I.e. hidden.

The links are occulted because if properly explored, they would undermine the idea of ‘progress through enlightenment’. Rather they would reveal the modern world’s ‘heart of darkness’, the black holocaust that was New World slavery.



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