By Mouhot, Jean-Francois
History Today , Vol. 58, No. 8
Most of us approach slavery with the underlying assumption that our modern civilization is morally far superior to the barbaric slave-owning societies of the past. But are we really so different? If we compare our current attitude to fossil fuels and climate change with the behaviour of the slave owners, there are more similarities than one might immediately perceive.
Historians have long argued that there are numerous links between the commerce of slaves and the Industrial Revolution. Slavery encouraged early industrial production in a circular way, by channelling demand for goods and providing capital for investments. The slave trade stimulated production: slaves were exchanged against goods produced by manufacturers in Europe, such as textiles or firearms; the demand for padlocks and fetters to chain slaves represented a significant market for burgeoning industrial cities like Birmingham. Goods grown by slave labour and exported by planters helped create the first mass consumer markets and made Europe dependent on imported commodities. Plantation agriculture also resembled the 'factories in the field' that prefigured the manufacturers of the future. Finally--though the importance of this phenomenon is still debated--some of the capital accumulated by slave traders and planters fuelled investment in new machinery, which helped to kick start the Industrial Revolution. Slave traders therefore played a significant--if perhaps indirect--role in the establishment of the industrialist system at the core of our contemporary societies.
Ironically, there are also connections between the Industrial Revolution and the demise of slavery. A striking correlation exists between the rise of anti-slavery movements and the advent of steam-driven machines. A few industrialists at the time perceived that steam power might ultimately reduce the need for slaves. For example, Birmingham manufacturers Boulton & Watt, who opposed slavery on moral grounds, supplied steam engines to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, in the hope that that would reduce the need for slave labour.
The idea that steam power could replace the work of a large number of people can be traced back to Aristotle, and in the nineteenth century many Luddites held similar views, believing that labour-saving technologies triggered unemployment by reducing demand for labour. In 1832 the former US president and prominent abolitionist John Quincy Adams reported to Congress that 'the mechanical inventions in Great Britain were estimated [in 1815] as equivalent to the manual labor of two hundred millions of people'.
In a lecture given in 1848, Robert Dale Owen, son of the socialistic idealist Robert Owen and himself a social reformer who supposedly had some influence with Abraham Lincoln prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, clearly equated steam-powered machines with slaves, and their owners with masters:
Great Britain may be said to have imported, from the vast regions of invention, two hundred millions of powerful and passive slaves; slaves that consume neither food nor clothing; slaves that sleep not, weary not, sicken not ... slaves patient, submissive, obedient, from whom no rebellion need be feared, who cannot suffer cruelty nor experience pain ... That aid ... sent down from Heaven ... to assist man in his severest toils, must have rendered him a master instead of a slave, a being with leisure for enjoyment and improvement, a freeman delivered from the original curse which declared that in the sweat of his brow should man eat bread all the days of his life.
The connection between steam-powered engines and the demise of slavery is not, however, a straightforward one. Machines were not advanced enough in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries to replace effectively the work done by slaves. Most slaves in the USA worked in cotton fields where machinery started to appear on a large scale only much later. …