African Labor and England’s Industry

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Christopher McAuley

Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England:
A Study in International Trade and Economic Development
by Joseph E. Inikori
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002),
$29.95 paper.

FEW SCHOLARS, WHEN their work is not ignored, have so convincingly presented their side of a contested issue that even their detractors must concede many of their points. Such, I believe, is what Joseph Inikori has achieved in his latest work, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, the culmination of over thirty years of scholarly work in European archives, a wide range of secondary sources, and development economics.

In simplest terms, the debate is over these matters: the role that the growth of international trade between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries played in the evolution of the Industrial Revolution; and the degree to which the slave-based economies of the Atlantic world were the springboard of that growth.

From Inikori’s perspective, those economies were not merely elemental, but essential to the Industrial Revolution.

Slavery-Industrial Linkages

Like C.L.R. James and Eric Williams in their respective classics, The Black Jacobins (1938) and Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Inikori takes what development economists call a linkage approach to the relationship between the Atlantic slave-based economies and the English Industrial Revolution.

Linkages are the secondary or subsidiary enterprises that a particular industry supplies, or is supplied by. A well-known example of the first kind or forward linkage was that between cotton cultivation in the British Caribbean and the U.S. South and the rise of the textile industry in England.

Similarly, the very ships that transported Caribbean and North American cotton and many other commodities across the Atlantic necessarily gave rise to the second type of linkages, or backward linkages, in industries from timber to iron (nails, anchors, chains, shackles and bolts), from copper (with which to coat the underside of ships) to cordage, and in services from insurance to banking.

Inikori draws our attention to many other linkages of the slave-based Atlantic system, but these are too numerous to name here. Linkages also lent themselves to the regional specialization of goods and services in the Atlantic system.

One such network, arguably without parallel in the colonial world, developed within the British Empire and had far-reaching political and economic repercussions. In this exchange, British Caribbean sugar, molasses and hard currency (the fruit of the official and clandestine supply of slaves to Spanish America), garnered a host of British North American consumer goods: fish, soap and candles from New England; livestock, butter and cheese from the Mid-Atlantic colonies; rice and tobacco from the South; and timber and wood products from all these regions.

Through this commercial network, many mainland settlers gained the monetary means to purchase English manufactured goods. This result was ostensibly the reason why colonial officials were willing to relax mercantilist restrictions and allow colonial areas not only to engage in and profit from commercial enterprise, but also, in the cases of New Eng<->land and the Mid-Atlantic colonies, to construct their own ships for the purpose.

The distillation of rum from Caribbean molasses further increased particularly New Englanders’ demand for metropolitan goods since rum was one the commodities used in their fur and slave trades.

Slavery and European Development

On the other side of the Atlantic, slave-cultivated crops played a role in promoting European specialization. British North American tobacco and rice and British Caribbean sugar and coffee were “exported largely to the trading cities of the Low Countries and Germany, from where they were distributed to other places on the continent, especially the Baltic. In this way, the American products provided export surpluses that partly helped to pay for English import of strategic raw materials from the Baltic.” (209)

These “strategic raw materials” were naturally timber, pitch, tar, hemp and flax, the basic stuff of which ships were then made.

Among the many things that I believe Inikori would like us to appreciate, in these linkages between the Atlantic slave economies and English manufacturing and the regional specialization to which they gave rise, are the industrial possibilities, the income-generating opportunities, and the subsequent mass demand for consumer goods and housing — in short, market expansion<197>that was realized in England as a result of those economies.

Without these linkages, large areas of England may have remained marginally above subsistence production until much later. How much later, we can only speculate.

Drawing on the work of economic geographers, Inikori underscores the fact that the agrarian capitalist southeast was neither the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution nor the supplier of labor to its factories.

Rather, he presents the Industrial Revolution as a phenomenon of northern England (north, that is, of the imaginary line running from Bristol Channel to the Wash), centered in Lancashire and extending to the West Riding and to the West Midlands, where agrarian production had been unimpressive from roughly the time of the Norman conquest through the eighteenth century.

Nevertheless, the rise of industrial employment opportunities (about which we will have more to say shortly) and incomes in cities like Liverpool and Manchester encouraged local migration, earlier marriages and larger families. In short, Lancashire provided its own labor force — and, according to Inikori, it had to do so.

Taking issue with those scholars who maintain that the English economy (like the English polity) was a national one as early as the seventeenth, if not the sixteenth century, Inikori contends that until the advent of the railways in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century, England was a patchwork of regional economies that largely operated independently of each other, competed against each other, and across whose boundaries transportation costs were prohibitively high.

For these and other reasons, overseas trade promised greater returns than the supply of the domestic market. Little wonder, then, that like English woolens manufacturers in earlier centuries, English cotton manufacturers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries looked (or were forced) to satisfy foreign consumers before domestic ones.

The Case of Cotton

Because their industry did result in the Industrial Revolution, it is worth briefly recounting the story of England’s cotton manufacturers.

In the second decade of the seventeenth century, East India Company merchants began to offer East Indian calicoes to the English public. The idea came by way of Indonesia where Gujarati cottons (and Bengali silks) were used in the exchange for spices.

In short order these products took, primarily because their price “created in England new demand for cotton goods among the poorer classes, who previously could not afford the expensive woolen and silk goods produced in England.” (430)

Understandably threatened by the “Indian craze” as the vogue for calicoes was then called, British woolens and silk manufacturers pressured Parliament to prohibit the sale of both imported East Indian calicoes and English imitations on the British market.

The result of their political efforts was a 1722 law “prohibiting the consumption in England of calicoes printed, painted, stained, and dyed from plain East India calicoes. Printed East India calicoes could still be imported and printed for export. But the home market was closed for these goods.” (432)

These protectionist measures against Indian and even English-worked calicoes put English cotton printers-cum-manufacturers in a fix. On the one hand, they were in the process of completing what development economists would later call the first phase of import substitution industrialization, save industrialization. On the other, they were denied access to the most logical and convenient market — the domestic one — in which to sell their products.

Thus, if English printers and cotton manufacturers intended to remain in those lines of business, they would have to find alternative export outlets. Fortunately, they did have one: Western Africa. Greater, even, than arms and metals, East Indian cottons and English imitations thereof were the leading trade articles for African captives in the second half of the eighteenth century.

As Inikori reports, “Between 1750 and 1802 the export of English cotton checks to Western Africa was less than 50 percent of the total in only 16 years, and for most of these 16 years the African share was above 40 percent. For the rest of this period of 53 years, the African share varied between 50 and 94 percent and often was 70 percent or more.” (437)

A further significant portion of the checks that Western African elites did not purchase went to clothe African slaves in the Americas.

Labor Shortage and Innovation

Lancashire was already at pains to meet this demand. Rural migration to the cities and natural increase, however, were often unable to satisfy the labor needs of the fast growing cotton industry.

The challenge for cotton manufactures was to maintain, if not increase, production levels with an insufficient labor supply. The industry’s response, as we know from textbook economic history, was the classic illustration of necessity being the mother of invention: Hargreaves’ “spinning jenny” (1764), Arkwright’s water frame (1769), Crompton’s “mule” (1779), and Cartwright’s power
loom (1785).

That these inventions occurred in such quick succession demonstrates how they necessarily built on each other because once one was introduced to the cotton manufacturing process, the resulting increase in output at that stage of production engendered the need for other machines to increase output at earlier and later stages of the processing chain.

Hence Inikori’s remark that “Had the [cotton] industry been limited to production for the protected narrow domestic market of eighteenth century England, as many unsuccessful import substitution industries did in the more recent past, there would have been little incentive or market opportunity to profitably adopt new technology.” (449)

The cotton industry’s contribution to industrialization did not end there, however, and Inikori is sure to draw our attention to its backward linkages in the metal and energy industries. As metal parts fast replaced wooden ones, particularly in the wake of Watt’s steam engine in 1785, the needs of machinery production required the increase in metals production.

Thus, by 1825 “there were about 24 iron foundries and 37 machine-making firms in Manchester, besides numerous roller-makers and spindle-makers. In the same year, Oldham had 10 iron foundries and 21 establishments making machinery, besides five producing rollers and spindles.” (454)

Accordingly, coal production grew to heat not only industrial furnaces but working class ones as well. From a linkage approach, then, the reach of the Western Africa and the American slave-based economies extended to places far removed from both of them.

On the Rise of Industrial Capitalism

In the third chapter of Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, Inikori provides a detailed review of the scholarly treatment of the origins of the Industrial Revolution since Arnold Toynbee’s first systematic study of the phenomenon more than a century ago.

In his mapping of the explanatory trends since then, Inikori notes that there have been three fairly distinct periods. In the first, spanning from the 1880s to 1945, scholars underscored the role of British commercial expansion in the evolution of the Industrial Revolution.

In the second, beginning at the Second World War’s end and coming to a close in the mid-1980s, historians of the Industrial Revolution privileged “internally located forces, such as population growth, agricultural progress, mineral resource endowment, and autonomous technological change.” (91)

Of the two periods, Inikori sees the last period as the more ideologically driven, emerging as it did from the memory of the Great Depression, the independence movements in the colonial world, the resistance of European colonial powers to those movements, and the attraction of some portion of the Soviet-model to the Third World generally. Separately or in combination, these factors led to the scholarly downplay of international trade in the theory and practice of industrialization.

In the current period (beginning in the mid-1980s), Inikori has detected in the scholarship a return to the initial commercial foundation of the Industrial Revolution, but one which recognizes those socioeconomic developments that were independent of international trade.

He makes only passing reference to his own role; but at the risk of appearing to subscribe to a “great man” theory of intellectual history, I believe that it can be said without exaggeration that, of all the scholars currently engaged in this debate, Inikori deserves the most credit in this “paradigm shift.”

For as I stated at the opening, the force of his arguments derives not only from his long record of investigations in the relevant archival sources and secondary materials, but also from his application of contemporary economic development theory (particularly of the latest findings on import substitution industrialization) to the English case.

Among other rewards of the project, we gain a new appreciation of the role that Africans on both sides of the Atlantic played in this momentous development, the Industrial Revolution.

ATC 102, January-February 2003