The word industry (from the Latin industria, meaning "diligent activity directed to some purpose") generally refers to a combination of business operations related to a primary economic product or process. Hence, slavery industry refers to business activity related to the institution of slavery, including not just the process of supplying slaves but also the relationship of slavery-related activity to linked activity in manufacturing, agricultural production, commerce, shipping, and financial institutions. The main issue involves exploring whether Africa, the slave trade, and slavery-related economic activity—conventionally characterized as the triangular trade or what Ronald Bailey (1992) calls the slave(ry) trade—was important to the development of commerce and industry in Europe, especially Great Britain, and the United States.

An estimate of the numbers of Africans taken as slaves was produced by Harvard University’s Transatlantic Slave Trade Database in 1999. It provided up to 226 pieces of information for more than 27,233 slaving voyages. Some 11,062,000 Africans were transported between 1519 and 1867, though these numbers are constantly revised upward. About 55 percent were transported between 1700 and 1799, and 29.5 percent between 1800 and 1849. Surprisingly, about 30 percent were transported after Britain’s slave trade abolition acts of 1807.

British slave traders (including those living in British colonies) carried almost 46 percent of all slaves, and the Portuguese were responsible for about 29.1 percent. The remaining Africans were carried by France (13.2%), Spain (4.8%), the Netherlands (4.7%), and the United States (2.5%). British slave traders dominated in the all-important period in the eighteenth century when European industrialization surged. Some 280,000—about 2.5 percent of all slaves—were imported into the United States, and 48 percent of these were imported after the beginning of the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Some scholars have called the forced importation of Africans into the New World cauldron before the nineteenth century "the Africanization of the Americas," one of the most significant demographic transformations in world history. Up to 1820, Africans outnumbered Europeans by a ratio of over 3 to 1 among those people who were transported across the Atlantic: almost 8.4 million Africans and 2.4 million Europeans. This had an obvious impact on population trends in Africa (depopulation) and in the Americas. The black population of the West Indies, for example, grew from 15,000 to 434,000 between 1650 and 1770—an increase of almost 2,793 percent—while the white population remained almost static, increasing from 44,000 to 45,000. The need to "repeople" the Americas resulted in part from the demand for labor and the almost genocidal impact that European settlement had on the Native American population. Thus, African peoples composed an even larger proportion of the labor force in all of the American regions associated with expanded Atlantic commerce than is generally known.

Beyond the number of Africans who were enslaved, the most hotly debated issue has been the impact that enslaved African labor had on the economic development of slave-trading nations. This was the central thesis in a book by Eric Williams (1911-1981), historian and former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, titled Capitalism and Slavery (1944).  Both aspects of his argument continue to provoke considerable debate, especially whether or not British abolition resulted more from economic forces than from humanitarian impulses. This issue has particular relevance to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when large-scale manufacturing using machines became the dominant activity in industrial capitalist economies, especially in Great Britain and the United States, with cotton textiles as the leading sector.

For example, British colonies in the Caribbean and in the South, where slavery thrived, produced an average of more than 80 percent of the total value of British America’s exports in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Enslaved African labor played a central role in the production of rice, sugar, tobacco, and cotton and in other key sectors, including the mining of gold, silver, and precious metals. Sugar and cotton, however, are the two most important sectors, and data in Joseph Inikori (2002, p. 489) bear this out: from 1752 to 1754, sugar’s share of British American imports into Britain was 49 percent as compared to cotton’s 2 percent. By 1814 to 1816, sugar’s share was 52 percent and cotton’s only 22 percent. By the 1854-1856 period, however, cotton dominated with 48 percent as compared to sugar’s 15 percent.

Sugar and its cultivation provide the first context and a key link in the story of the evolution of racial slavery in the Americas, a point early recognized by Noel Deerr, who concluded that trying "to write a history of sugar without at the same time treating of slavery was like trying to produce Hamlet with the part of Laertes omitted" (1949-1950). Sugar was the crop for which large-scale plantation slavery was constructed, first on European islands in the Atlantic and then in the Caribbean. It was brought over to Hispaniola (now Haiti) in 1493 by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who had learned about its cultivation from his Italian father-in-law on Madeira Island, a Portuguese territory. Once transferred to the so-called New World, sugar production became a crucible with an incessant demand for labor of any type— first Native American and then European indentured servants, before the industry fastened onto African labor that was more accessible, available, abundant, and cheap. Scholars have estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of all the Africans who survived the transatlantic slave trade ended up as slaves on the sugar plantations of the Americas.

Cotton was the most decisive raw material for the British and U.S. industrial revolution in textiles, the leading industrializing sector in both nations. The industry was spurred by the invention and improvement of such technologies as the flying shuttle (1733), the spinning jenny (1764), the mule (1779), and the power loom (1785). But the labor of enslaved Africans was also crucial. In 1860 enslaved Africans working on only 3 percent of the earth’s land mass in the South produced 2.3 billion pounds of cotton, or 66 percent of the world’s total crop, up from 160 million pounds in 1820. This was the sole source for 88.5 percent of British cotton imports in 1860, and even supplied the growing needs of a rapidly expanding cotton textile industry centered in New England after 1790. African and slave-based economies in the Caribbean also provided important markets for British and later American manufactured cloth. Moreover, economist Robert North and others concluded that incomes from marketing slave-produced cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar—products "sold in the markets of the world"— shaped the pattern of regional specialization and the division of labor that helped to consolidate the U.S. national economy before the Civil War (1861-1865).

Beyond its pivotal contribution to consolidating the first global commercial and industrial economies centered around the Atlantic Ocean, the "slave(ry) trade" was also a focal point of intense national rivalries among European powers. Such rivalries were part and parcel of the rise of new nation-states, initial "testbeds" in which the policies and techniques associated with mercantilism, international diplomacy, colonial administration, and war were refined.

Many historical aspects of the slavery industry involving people of African descent from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century continue to have contemporary consequences. Slavery and the slave trade helped shape the persisting inequities that have historically existed in the economic and social conditions of peoples of African descent all over the world, a theme provocatively captured in the title of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972). Second, the slavery industry played a key role in fostering and sustaining racism, an ideology that groups human beings into socially constructed biological categories labeled races, and then treats these groups as if they are inherently "inferior" or "superior" in the allocation of economic, political, and social resources and opportunities.

Inequality based on class and race has historically been the target of social protests from the earliest days of the slavery industry and continuing through the civil rights and Black Power movements up to the present. Recent calls for reparations—which demand apologies and various forms of compensation to "repay" people of African descent for their contribution to the profits and developmental success of nations, companies, and citizens with historical ties to the slave trade and slavery—have sparked considerable controversy. Some governmental units have demanded full disclosure of corporate ties to the slave trade and slavery as a precondition for granting contracts. Other recent movements, however, do not distinguish between historical forms and consequences of slavery and the slave trade that linked African peoples to the rise of capitalism from more recent systems of exploitation and oppression, such as the growing international traffic in human beings associated with contemporary globalization. Such continuing debate and ongoing struggles will undoubtedly shape these movements for social change for many decades to come.

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