Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

The Slave Trade's Significance Previous Next
Digital History ID 447



Slavery played a crucial role in the development of the modern world economy. Slaves provided the labor power necessary to settle and develop the New World. Slaves also produced the products for the first mass consumer markets: sugar, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and later cotton. Slavery was an integral part of the earliest multinational systems of credit and trade that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries. The African slave trade also stimulated European shipping, manufacturing, and gun making.

During the earliest phases of capitalist development, planters, master craftsmen, and other early capitalists could not afford to pay wages. Chronically in debt, New World planters could exploit slave labor with expending scarce currency. Slavery provided the cheapest and most expedient way to meet the demand for labor in mining and agriculture.

The slave trade had profound consequences for Europe. Between the early 1500s and the early 1800s, the slave trade became one of Europe's largest and most profitable industries. Profits from the slave trade were said to run as high as 300 percent. In the mid-18th century, a third of the British merchant fleet was engaged in transporting 50,000 Africans a year to the New World.

But it wasn't just slave traders or New World planters who benefited from the slave trade. American ship owners, farmers, and fisherman also profited from slavery. Slavery played a pivotal role in the growth of commercial capitalism in the colonies. The slave plantations of the West Indies became the largest market for American fish, oats, corn, flour, lumber, peas, beans, hogs, and horses. New Englanders distilled molasses produced by slaves in the French and Dutch West Indies into rum.

While slavery did not create a major share of the capital that financed Europe's industrial revolution (profits from the slave trade and New World plantations did not add up to five percent of Britain's national income at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), slave labor did produce the major consumer goods that were the basis of world trade during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries: coffee, cotton, run, sugar, and tobacco. In addition, the slave trade provided stimulus to shipbuilding, banking, and insurance, and Africa became a major market for iron, textiles, firearms, and rum.

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