British Commerce and the Triangular Trade
According to Adam Smith, the discovery of America and the Cape route to India are “the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind”. The importance of the discovery of America lay not in the precious metals it provided but in the new and inexhaustible market it afforded for European commodities. One of its principal effects was to “raise the mercantile system to a degree of splendor and glory which it could never otherwise have attained to.” It gave rise to an enormous increase in world trade. The seventeenth and eighteenths century were the centuries of trade, as the nineteenth century was the century of production.
For Britain that trade was primarily the triangular trade. In 1718 William Wood said that the slave trade was “the spring and parent whence the others flow.” A few years later Postlethwayt described the slave trade as “the first principle and foundation of all the rest, the mainspring of the machine which sets every wheel in motion.”
In this triangular trade England – France and Colonial America equally – supplied the exports and the ships; Africa the human merchandise; the plantations the colonial raw materials.
The slave ship sailed from the home country with a cargo of manufactured goods. These were exchanged at a profit on the coast of Africa for Negroes, who were traded on the plantations, at another profit, in exchange for a cargo of colonial produce to be taken back to the home country. As the volume of trade increased, the triangular trade was supplemented, but never supplanted, by a direct trade between home country and the West Indies. Exchanging home manufactures directly for colonial produce.
The triangular trade thereby gave a triple stimulus to British industry. The Negroes were purchased with British manufactures; transported to the plantations, they produced sugar, cotton, indigo molasses and other tropical products, the processing of which created new industries in England; while the maintenance of the Negroes and the their owners on the plantations provided another market for British industry, New England agriculture and the Newfoundland fisheries. By 1750 there was hardly a trading of a manufacturing town in England, which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England, which financed the Industrial Revolution.
The West Indian islands became the hub of the British Empire of immense importance to the grandeur and prosperity of England. It was the Negro slaves who made these sugar colonies the most precious colonies ever recorded in the whole annals of imperialism.
To Postlethwayt they were “ the fundamental prop and support” of the colonies, “valuable People” whose labor supplied Britain with all plantation produce. The British Empire was “a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and navel power on an African foundation.”
Sir Josiah Child estimated that every Englishman in the West Indies, “with the ten blacks that work with him, accounting what they eat, use and wear, would make employment for four men in England,” By Davenant’s computation one person in the island, white or Negro, was as profitable as seven in England.
Another writer considered that every family in the West Indies gave employment to five seamen ad many more artificers, manufacturers and tradesmen, and that every white person in the island brought in ten pounds annually clear profit to England, twenty times as much as a similar person in the home country.
William Wood reckoned that a profit of seven shillings per hear per annum was sufficient to enrich a country; each white man in the colonies brought a profit of over seven pounds.
Sir Dalby Thomas went further – every person employed on the sugar plantations was 130 times more valuable to England than one at home.
Professor Pitman has estimated that in 1775 British West Indian Plantations represented a valuation of fifty millions sterling, and the sugar planters themselves put a figure at seventy millions in 1788.
In 1798 Pitt assessed the annual income from West Indian plantations at four million pounds as compared with one million from the rest of the World.
As Adam Smith wrote: “The profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is know either in Europe or America.”
According to Davenant, Britain’s total trade at the end of the seventeenth century brought in a profit of GBP 2.000.000. The plantation trade accounted of the GBP 600.000; re-export of plantation goods GBP 120.000; European, African and Levant trade GBP 600.000; East India trade GBP 500.000; re-export of East India goods GBP 180.000.
Eric William’s Capitalism and Slavery was published in 1944. It became the foundation for many future studies of imperialism and economic development. The late Eric Williams was prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1961 until his death in 1981.
Excerpts from Chapter 3, page 51: British Commerce and the Triangular Trade.