Slavery, slums and empire: How British capitalism developed

December 5, 2016
Young boys working in a cotton mill.

Earlier this year, a poll found the British public were generally proud of their country’s role in colonialism and the British Empire. The YouGov poll from January found 44% were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, while only 21% regretted it. The same poll also asked about whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing: 43% said it was good, while only 19% said it was bad. 

Below, Ken Cotterill looks at the role of colonialism and empire in developing British capitalism — an ugly history of theft, exploitation and slavery. To varying degrees, the wealth of other European nations has a similar source.


The savagery of early British capitalism can be illustrated by looking at the slave trade, the slums, the cotton industry, child labour and the destruction of the cotton industry in British India. They all played a role in making early British capitalists extremely wealthy.

Money was to be made in the slave trade. In the 1770s, it was British ships that transported the greatest number of slaves to the Americas. Ships from Liverpool carried about 1.5 million African slaves to the New World where slaves were needed for labour to work on ever-expanding plantations.

Merchants in Liverpool, Bristol and London paid good money to hire ships, a captain and dependable crew. Goods were then purchased such as cloth, silks, glass beads, rum, brandy, axes, tools, knives, firearms and ammunition to trade for slaves.

The well-loaded ships then set sail for West Africa. There, the goods were exchanged for slaves. Although slavery had existed in West Africa well before European involvement, it intensified with European encouragement. The slaves were mainly victims of inter-tribal warfare, captured by tribes so they could be exchanged for the many goods brought by the ships from Britain.

The slaves were taken on board the ships, chained below deck and stacked like books in a library. They were only allowed up on deck intermittently. Many died due to the foul, cramped conditions, while others jumped overboard at the first opportunity.

The destination for these horror ships was the West Indies, Virginia and the Carolinas in North America. Once the ships neared port, the slaves were cleaned up ready for the slave market. They were washed in clean water and rubbed with bees wax, lime juice and oil. Profits from the sale of a good ship of slaves, both male and female, were large.

In 1807, an act of British parliament abolished the slave trade. However, British slavers continued to trade in slaves under foreign flags. In 1833, slave ownership in British colonies was abolished. Incredibly, the slave owners were compensated with the equivalent of about £17 billion, paid to about 3000 slave-owning families for the “loss of property”.

The ancestors of British writers George Orwell and Graham Greene, former British prime ministers William Gladstone and David Cameron (and wife Samantha), and actor Benedict Cumberbatch all shared in the huge compensation payout.

The slaves themselves, apart from domestic staff, were mainly used for labour in the expanding sugar plantations of the West Indies and the cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice plantations of the southern states of North America. The cotton industry in England benefited greatly from slave labour.

By 1870, more than 20% of the elite families in Lancashire derived their wealth from the cotton industry. Liverpool merchants were strong supporters of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War of 1861-65.

The raw cotton picked by slaves in the Southern states was transported back to Britain. The raw material was sold in Liverpool and transported to the various cotton-mill towns of Lancashire.

The damp climate of Lancashire was suited to cotton manufacturing because it made yarn spinning easier. With new machines like James Hargreaves’ Spinning-Jenny, Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame and Samuel Crompton’s Spinning Mule, the raw cotton was turned into clothing that was comfortable, popular and fashionable.

To find workers for the cotton mills, the ruling class had to invent ways to entice people off the land.

Britain was still a largely rural society in the 1800s. The bulk of the population lived in villages and made a living by farm work, labouring or as small artisans. They also had the right to graze what livestock they had on common land.

The various Enclosure Acts (many passed between 1795 and 1812) reduced access to common land. That, coupled with the lure of wages from work in a cotton mill, forced thousands of people into the cities.

Cottage cotton producers were also priced out of the market because the new equipment and the raw materials were far too expensive for rural cottage spinners and weavers. So, like pawns being moved on a chess board, rural workers were lured into the cities to work in the new mills.

In the city, workers were housed in filthy, ramshackle tenements that made profits for negligent landlords. The Little Ireland slum in Manchester was one of the worst slums in Lancashire. The mills were also thick in cotton dust, which led to lung and chest diseases.

Discipline was harsh, with workers being hit by a strap, children having weights hung on them and having their ears nailed to tables. Orphans from the various workhouses were in big demand by factory owners. The children slept in barracks attached to the factories and worked in continuous 12-hour shifts, with children vacating a bed that was then filled by a child who had just finished a shift.

One of the cotton mills in Manchester was owned by Hugh Birley, the commander of a 60-strong troop of yeomanry. Led by Birley, this troop was responsible for the Massacre at St Peter’s Field, better known as the Peterloo Massacre, in 1819.

Textile workers had seen their wages slashed by mill owners and gathered in St Peter’s Field to protest this and other grievances. Fifteen protesters were killed and hundreds injured.

Once made, the cotton goods required a market. As capitalism requires an ever-expanding market, a bigger market than provided inside Britain had to be found. Fortunately for the cotton barons, Britain just happened to have a potential big market: India. The mass-produced machine-made fabrics from the Lancashire mills out-competed the handloom fabrics of India.

Restrictions were introduced on the import of Indian cotton goods into Britain. By flooding the Indian market with cheaper mass-produced cotton goods and restricting Indian goods exported to Britain, the British crippled the Indian cotton industry.

By the 1880s, India had become an exporter of raw cotton rather than a cotton manufacturer. In turn, the land set aside for cotton exports reduced the amount of land for food agriculture, thus contributing to the famines and food shortages that affected the sub-continent during this period.

So, thanks to slavery, raw cotton, underpaid workers, child labour and the destruction of Indian cotton manufacturing, British capitalists made a fortune. The slave ship owners also left their mark on history.

It was Slave ship captain John Newton who wrote the haunting hymn Amazing Grace, while fellow slave ship owner James Penny of Liverpool had a lane named after him, which later became the subject of a very popular song.

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