The Economic Impact of the Slave Trade on Great Britain and the rest of the world

Dominating primarily from the 17th century to the 19th century, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade shaped history in ways beyond one could imagine. During this time, we saw this sort of agricultural revolution take place in which the New World was cultivating many crops that were demanded on the global scale.  The increase in demand for these crops such as sugar, tobacco, cotton, and many more gave more prominence to the slave labor market in needing wide-scale labor to keep production up with demand (Hogendorn, 1984).  As this was a trade system, while slaves were being transported in mass numbers to the New World, West Africa was receiving things such as weapons, rum, textiles and more that they had not previously been able to acquire (Hogendorn, 1984). I give this brief history to give background to the Atlantic slave trade as a way of helping better understand what I am trying to convey. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was vital in shaping history by changing the economic and social culture of countries across the world. The image below is powerful in showing just how massive the Atlantic slave trade was and the millions of enslaved people that were transported.

            In studying the economics of the slave trade, researchers have looked at the effects of these mass numbers of slave laborers on country’s agricultural production. Researchers Ralph Austen and Woodruff Smith discuss the effect of the Atlantic slave trade on the British economy, and specifically how the slave trade and sugar trade was vital in affecting this culture by changing British food consumption for a long time (Austen and Smith, 99). They show statistics on how in the late 17th century consumption was at around 4.6 pounds per person, and then show how in less than a century that number spiked to 16.2 pounds per capita (Austen and Smith,99). How does the slave trade factor into this? By the exchange of slaves into South America, Central America, and the Carribean allowing for much greater production of sugar and therefore provided greater trade opportunities that Great Britain acted upon as demand for sugar rose.

           These vast changes in consumption derive from changes in eating and drinking culture in Great Britain. Seen during this time period were different uses for sugar that were greatly popularized such as using in tea, coffee, in the production of chocolate, and much more. The graph below shows the consumption changes of tea during this time period in Great Britain and the great increase is directly correlated to the great increase in sugar production and consumption previously mentioned. Austen and Smith detail how this change in consumption changed the culture of Great Britain in this sugar consumption being a sign of respectability and higher social class (Austen and Smith 105). Sugar changed the way people interacted, and became a luxurious commodity in not only Britain but many European countries. Without the prominence of the slave trade, it is difficult to say if there would have been such a large economic and consequential cultural impact on Great Britain and the rest of Europe.

            An additional way in which the Atlantic slave trade transformed the culture and economy of Great Britain was through the British textile industry taking off. Joseph Inikori details in his work the statistics behind the textile industry’s growth in that it was one of the sparks of the Industrial Revolution. He specifically argues that while this industry boomed in Great Britain itself, the export market part of it proved difficult but was able to get itself off the ground through the Atlantic slave trade in many ways (Inikori 157). Inikori provides statistical evidence in that these cotton checks were able to produce goods that were valuable to the people of West Africa in the trade as well as providing much of the clothing material for slaves being transported across the world (Inikori 157).  By being a way to spark the export market in the textile industry in Great Britain, the slave trade was instrumental in facilitating the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that changed the future of production and economies not only in Great Britain but across the entire world. This map, opposed to the other map, gives much better description what was being traded and how the textile export from Europe and Great Britain specifically was an instrumental component of this massive trade network.

            On top of these specific examples of the economic impact of the Atlantic slave trade on not only Great Britain but around the world, more generally the slave trade set the framework for the economic potential of a slave labor system. This of course translated to the system of slavery seen in the United States for many decades as well as many parts of South and Central America that were plagued with intensive slave labor systems.  When reflecting upon this time period and the effects of the slave trade system, one must first acknowledge the moral horror of this time in the human race’s history as millions of innocent lives were thrown away at the expense of production. The slave trade though is responsible for providing many countries with a new economic impact through agriculture that transformed modern industrial systems as well as affecting countries’ cultures specifically through aspects such as social class hierarchies. In more ways than a few, the Atlantic slave trade changed the path of history as we know it.

Works Cited

Atlantic Slave Trade [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE

Austen, R. A., & Smith, W. D. (1990). Private Tooth Decay as Public Economic Virtue: The Slave-Sugar Triangle, Consumerism, and European Industrialization. Social Science History, 14(1), 95-115. doi:10.2307/1171366

Engerman, S. L., & Inikori, J. E. (2007). The Atlantic slave trade: Effects on economies, societies, and peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.

Hersh, J., & Voth, H. (2009, September 3). Tea Consumption 1690-1850 [Digital image]. Retrieved from

Hogendorn, J. S. (1984). The Economics of the African Slave Trade. The Journal of American History, 70(4), 854-861.

Slave Trade from Africa to the Americas [Digital image]. (2011, November 14). Retrieved from

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