Did slavery really make Britain rich?

‘It’s a sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade’, said London’s mayor Sadiq Khan. Others agree: for Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, ‘Britain was built on the backs, and souls, of slaves’. But there is a problem with this analysis; it’s wrong. Just like the story told of an island nation standing alone since 1066, it’s a myth that the monstrous evil of the slave trade made Britain the wealthy country it is today.

Slavery and sugar did not provide the sinews of finance that drove industrialisation. Total profits from the slave trade, had they been invested entirely in Britain, would have accounted for about three per cent of all capital formation in 1770. These profits, vast as they were for some individuals, were too small to change a nation, and may not have been significantly higher than those found in other industries; if sugar yielded a massively higher return on investment, amoral capitalists would shift their money out of other industries and into it. As a share of the British economy, the sugar industry was roughly equivalent to barley, hops, and brewing. Yet you will find very few people willing to argue that without the profits generated by beer industrialisation would not have happened (although you will find some claiming that civilisation would not have arisen without beer)…

And for the country as a whole, the Caribbean colonies were not profitable. They functioned because the government levelled tariffs on cheaper sugar produced by competing European powers, and because the costs of naval protection were borne by the taxpayer. British national income would arguably have been considerably higher if the colonies had been given away; this is a story repeated across the old Empire. So why did Britain bear these costs? Put simply because the interests of wealthy plantation owners and traders were well-represented in a Parliament where seats could be bought.

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