The Slave Trade and British Economic Development

What could be more British than a sweet cup of tea? Has there ever been a more typical or ubiquitous presence in modern social life (until recently) than clouds of tobacco smoke? Wasn't the post-rationing rush for chocolate characteristically British? The consumption of luxury staples, notably sugar, tobacco, tea, coffee and chocolate - is part of the warp and weft of British life. Yet each and many more of these habits are British only by adoption. The peculiarly British customs associated with these staples developed in a relatively short period of time and involved commodities imported from the very edge of colonial settlement and trade, at a time of increasing mass consumption at home. All took root roughly in the years 1600-1800; i.e. in the period which saw the development of a powerful British imperial and global trading presence. They were in effect one consequence of Britain's emergence as an aggressive global power, but in the process they changed the nature of domestic British social life forever. Today Western societies take for granted cheap and readily-available commodities plucked from the far edges of the world and air-freighted to our local supermarkets for our nourishment and pleasure. Yet the history of the consumption of tropical exotica helps to explain key elements of British social life that are of interest both for comsumers and producers alike. Why, for example, did the British become attached to sweet tea (quite unlike tea-drinkers in tea's native Chinese habitat)? And why did the British come to like their chocolate heavily sweetened (in drinking form initially, later as solid eating chocolate), when the indigenous Central American consumers had mixed it with spices and chillies? Why too were those key arenas of eighteenth century male sociability - the coffee house and the tavern - shrouded in clouds of tobacco smoke?

The answer of course lies in the eighteenth-century British pre-eminence as Atlantic slave traders, and the economic importance of British slave colonies in the Caribbean and North America. Armies of Africans and their local-born descendants toiled, out of sight and generally out-of-mind, to bring forth sugar (and rum) from the luxuriant islands, and tobacco from the Chesapeake - all for the pleasure (and profit) of ?uropeans. Africa held the key. In the words of one mid-eighteenth-century commentator, Africa could yield slaves `by the thousands, nay millions, and go on doing the same to the end of time' (Rawley, pp. 231).

The Atlantic slave trade remains oddly invisible in the commentaries of historians who have specialized in the sources and causes of British industrialization in the late eighteenth century. This curiosity contrasts sharply with the perspective of eighteenthcentury strategists who, on the eve of the industrial revolution, placed great stock in both the trade and the colonial plantations as vital instruments for British economic progress. Specifically, Joshua Gee and Malachy Postlethwayt, once described by the imperial historian Charles Ryle Fay as Britain's major "spokesmen" for the eighteenth century, both placed the importation of African slaves into the Americas at the core of their visions of the requirements for national expansion. (Rawley, pp. 89) Fay also described both of them as "mercantilists hardening into a manufacturers' imperialism." (Rawley, pp. 89) For such a "manufacturers' imperialism" to be a success, both Gee and Postlethwayt saw the need for extensive British participation in the trade in Africans and in the maintenance and development of the West Indies. ...



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