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  • Slavery, Indenture and the Development of British Industrial Capitalism
  • Mark Harvey (bio)

The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776.1

The slave does not come into consideration as engaged in exchange at all. But in production based on capital, consumption is mediated at all points by exchange, and labour never has direct use value for those who are working. Its entire basis is labour as exchange value and as the creation of exchange value.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1857–8.2

By contrast, in slavery 'wealth confronts direct forced labour not as capital, but rather as a relation of domination; thus the relation of domination is the only thing which is reproduced … and which can therefore never create general industriousness'.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1857–83


Across a wide spectrum of political economy, as it emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a shared conception that industrial capitalism, as it too emerged, was existentially founded on free wage labour. The development of mass production for mass consumption, mediated by the market, presupposed markets for wage labour. Capital grew, commodities circulated, wages purchased commodities, supply responded to demand, all in a dynamic and expanding circuit generating the 'wealth of nations'. This article challenges both this understanding of the British [End Page 66] industrial revolution and this conception of the economy as a closed-circuit market economy. As some recent American scholarship has emphasized,4 violence combined with exchange was characteristic of the emergence of capitalism in the United States: the original violence of capture in Africa and the transAtlantic transport of slaves on the Middle Passage; the subsequent violence of taking slaves to market from the Old South to the Deep South chained in coffles; the violence of the cotton plantation regimes of labour exploitation. Moreover, the violence of colonization of the New World and the wars of capture and defence of colonies by European powers were preconditions for slave-plantation regimes. Sven Beckert strangely characterizes this as a discrete phase of war capitalism,5 as if war as a means of economic competition ended with the eighteenth century. In short, there is more to the emergence of industrialism's mass markets than the expansion of market exchanges.

This article assesses the significance of slavery and other forms of coerced labour – different regimes of exploitation – for the British industrial revolution and vice versa. It is an argument for distinct historical trajectories, eschewing general models of capitalism or pan-global stages of capitalism. The trajectory of British industrialization involved specific entanglements with slavery and other forms of servile labour over the course of more than two centuries. The trajectory of US industrialization, with its domestic plantation slavery, highlighted earlier by North6 and recently by the 'The New Histories of Capitalism' school,7 contrasts with the British trajectory with its 'slavery at a distance', and indeed trajectories of other European nations.

Moreover, as this article will discuss, the development of British industrial capitalism is marked by internal heterogeneity: the stories of guns, sugar and cotton analysed here reveal different combinations and transitions between metropolitan wage labour, slavery and other forms of coerced labour, indenture and sharecropping. As a first example, the industrial development of metalworking and the arms industry in Britain was significantly stimulated by the massive expansion in demand for guns to trade for slaves in Africa from the mid eighteenth century. The wider use of arms to acquire, defend and control colonial plantation economies, whether in the Caribbean or Asia, in turn sustained the industrial development of the arms industry over the longer term. In the case of British Caribbean sugar plantation regimes, slavery was widely replaced by indentured labour after...


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