Eighteenth century economics


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It was based around the activities of the Royal African Company, with headquarters in London. Trade and settlement also occurred in Asian waters. This was mainly based around the activities of the East India Company, a large joint-stock company based in London. The ships of the East India Company fleet traded mainly in bullion, textiles and tea with Bengal.

Overseas commerce was conducted within the mercantilist framework of the Navigation Acts, which stipulated that all commodity trade should take place in British ships, manned by British seamen, trading between British ports and those within the empire. Despite these developments, in Britain was still a vulnerable competitor for stakes in overseas colonies and trade - her rivals were the trading empires of France and the Netherlands, as well as Spain and her client state, Portugal.

Population growth increased rapidly after c. Agricultural productivity, proto-industrialisation, the growth of manufacturing and new mineral technologies, along with the arrival of factories, had helped the economy to industrialise. Dual occupations had largely been superseded by specialised, regular working conditions. Trade and colonisation had also proceeded apace. In most foreign commerce, by volume and value, was still conducted with Europe, but during the 18th century British overseas trade became 'Americanised'.

By , North America and the West Indies received 57 per cent of British exports, and supplied 32 per cent of imports.


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After the Royal African Company's monopoly was rescinded in , the British became the largest and most efficient carriers of slaves to the New World. Private merchant houses provided the capital for this business activity, and Jamaica, the largest British slave colony, was also the wealthiest colony in the British Empire. By Britain possessed far more land and people in the Americas than either the Dutch or the French - who were the two main northern European rivals for international power and prestige.

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The East India Company's trade also still flourished at this time, and greater settlement by the British in Bengal occurred after c. The loss of the thirteen mainland American colonies in the War of Independence was a major blow to British imperial strength, but Britain recovered swiftly from this disaster, and acquired additional territories during the long war years with France from to Various Indian states were also subjugated. By , Britain possessed a global empire that was hugely impressive in scale, and stronger in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and around their shores, than that of any other European state.

All of this had occurred within basically the same protectionist trade network as in free trade, much discussed by Adam Smith and Josiah Tucker, had failed yet to make much inroad into British economic policies. To what extent were these changes between and a case of trade stimulating empire, or of empire stimulating trade? The answer is that trade and empire went hand in hand, with a symbiotic relationship to each other. Growing overseas commerce with colonies stimulated merchants to provide ships, as well as goods for expanding settler societies. The slave trade also became a vehicle for establishing an empire of slavery in the Caribbean and southern American colonies, and emigrants sailed to the colonies in search of better material conditions.

They also, in some cases, had to emigrate to escape religious persecution.

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Rapid population growth in 18th-century North America provided a large market for British exports. In the quarter century before the American Revolution, British foreign trade changed its commodity composition to provide a wider range of textiles, notably linen and cotton fabrics. This was in addition to a range of metalware and hardware, fabricated to meet the demands of a burgeoning colonial population with less advanced industrial processes than were current in the home country, and with some restrictions on their own manufacturing.

The slave trade stimulated British manufacturing production by the derived demand for goods such as plantation utensils, and clothing needed for slaves and estates.

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Colonies became linked to the metropolis by complex bilateral and multilateral shipping routes. An integrated Atlantic economy came into being after the midth century, in which merchants in British, American, West Indian and Iberian ports established firm commercial ties and a modern, enterprising outlook with regard to making money through imperial trade.

To what extent was British hegemony in empire, trade and industry based on the growth of imperial commerce? Many historians have discussed this basic question, and disputed the level of stimulus to the domestic British economy, and hence to industrialisation, that was provided by the growth of empire.

A negative assessment would emphasise that the profits of slavery and the slave trade were more modest than the bonanza that was once thought to have taken place, and that the contribution of slavery and the slave trade to national income was marginal at best. Sceptics would also argue that British manufacturing production owed more to demand from the domestic market than from overseas customers; they would stress agricultural productivity and other supply-side factors as the vital components of British economic growth.

Mercantilism

Others would suggest that the protectionist trade network led to the Caribbean colonies becoming a burden on the mother country, once defence and administration costs are considered, and that trade with India, with an imbalance between imports and exports, was a similar drain on British capital. Those wishing to downgrade the role of overseas trade in industrialisation also argue that gains by British financial services, both from trade and empire, were essentially derivative and parasitical. Although there is no space in this article to cite detailed data, a more positive assessment of the impact of trade and colonies on British development can, however, be made.

Revenue from slavery and the slave trade filtered back into the British economy in indirect ways, with bankers, insurance specialists and country gentlemen all participating as active investors.

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Some historians think that the profits of slavery and the slave trade, as a proportion of national income, were impressive. They had to barter with highly desirable goods since discerning African brokers were known to reject the goods that Europeans brought across. The list of commodities imported from Europe into Africa included textiles, iron, brass, military goods, cowrie shells, beads, and alcoholic beverages. Indian cotton textiles comprised a large proportion of the imports. In the case of Anglo-African trade, piece goods of Indian cottons were the most important trades in exchange for African slaves, making up 30 per cent of the total export value in the mid-eighteenth century.

The value of Indian textiles was well established in pre-colonial Africa. In the Senegal River region, Indian textiles replaced an earlier currency of locally woven textiles and were established as a new regional currency in the late-eighteenth century. Golberry, who visited West Africa in the s, observed that the distinct smell of indigo guaranteed the blue cloth as authentic currency, one the Europeans could not imitate. In the early modern world, Indian cotton textiles continued to be highly reputed because of their affordability and quality, particularly their bright colours that did not fade when washed and exposed to sunlight.

West Africa imported Indian textiles of various kinds such as bafta, brawl, calico, chintz, guinea stuffs, nicanee, photaes and tapseils. The wide range of imported textiles reflected the diverse preferences of African consumers, which varied over time and from place to place. It was essential, therefore, for European merchants to understand the changing tastes of African consumers, and Indian artisans were expected to customise their textiles to cater to regional demands. Oscillations in the demand for slave labour in the New World directly affected the Euro-Asian trade in Indian textiles.

The English East India Company therefore wrote a letter to Fort William in India 15 February requesting that more textiles be sent to London for use in African markets to purchase slaves. In the City of London, the Company auctioned the textiles to wholesalers and merchants, both British and foreign.

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Thomas Lumley, a major London merchant at the turn of the nineteenth century, bought Indian cotton textiles from the Company and resold them to merchants in London and Liverpool who in turn invested in the Atlantic slave trade. This was one route through which Indian cotton textiles travelled from India to West Africa. Indian manufactured textiles also reached African consumers via other European ports. In the eighteenth century, merchants had extensive business networks that were based on kinship beyond their home countries. In the case of English merchants, for example, the Dutch port cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam played an important role in supplying Indian fabrics and military goods to be exchanged in Africa.

Similarly, Manx merchants imported Indian textiles and cowrie shells from Holland to Douglas in the Isle of Man, which was known for being a tax haven until the mid-eighteenth century.

Douglas attracted Liverpool-based slave traders, and trade there helped the city emerge as a major hub of the slave trade. Maritime connections with India and trade in Indian cotton textiles, which enabled Europeans to purchase slaves in pre-colonial Africa, thus played a key role in the development of the eighteenth-century Atlantic economy, and the subsequent rise of the West in the following century. I am working with an organisation called Stepney Community Trust to deliver a project called How Villages and Towns in Bengal Dressed London Ladies in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

During our research we came across information on the vast amount of Indian textiles exported by the East India Company to the UK, most of which came from Bengal, was re-exported to Africa to purchase slaves. I am the secretary of Brick Lane Circle and during our next Bengal History Week October during October Black History Month, we will be undertaking a small event exploring the link between hard working weavers in Bengal and India and Africa slave trading.

I am looking for more information on this link and would appreciate very much if anyone can suggest possible sources.

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