HomeNewsThe Industrial Revolution and the West Indies: Did the Colonies Spark Progress in the Metropole?

The Industrial Revolution and the West Indies: Did the Colonies Spark Progress in the Metropole?

There is a renewed interest in the West Indian colonies’ relevance to the British industrial revolution and the subsequent economic transformations that substantially altered Western society’s fortunes. This literature has been provoked by the urge to challenge earlier interpretations that underestimate colonies’ value to Western countries by showing how interconnected global economies were. Colonies were expensive for Britain, and economists contend that there would have been greater benefits if funds for the imperial project had instead been allocated to domestic investments.

However, the new literature on colonialism aims to refute the observation that colonies were marginal to Britain’s economy by demonstrating that they constituted a viable source of economic dynamism. Such studies portray colonies as a vital node in Western countries’ industrialization. It is argued that plantations’ demand for slave clothing, agricultural tools, and other necessities in the Americas stimulated production in Britain and provided the impetus for the innovations that spurred industrial progress.

Colonies are considered important because they were major consumers of British exports. Throughout the decades spanning 1784–86 and 1814–16, the West Indies received one-half to two-thirds of English wares exported in the transatlantic trade, and they received 85 percent of Irish exports in the late colonial period. So, invariably, an appetite for British goods sparked high-volume industrial manufacturing that gave rise to the technologies that would shape the industrial revolution. 

Interrogating the link between Atlantic economies and the British industrial revolution, Joseph Inikori submits that it’s unsurprising that relevant innovations occurred in regions connected to Atlantic markets:

The concentration of factory manufacturing in Lancashire and the West Riding (and to a lesser extent in the West Midlands) is significant, particularly because it shows where the major technological developments of the Industrial Revolution occurred and points to the main causal factors. Simply put, retail trade and handicrafts did not foster technological development, nor did agriculture. Factory manufacturing was the lever of technological change during the Industrial Revolution.

Apart from aiding industrial manufacturing in England, Britain’s possessions in the West Indies through sugar production fueled an English consumer culture that was heavily wedded to the ingestion of sweets. To satisfy its appetite for sugar, Britain increased its imports from the North American and Caribbean colonies from 19 to 38 percent of total British imports during 1700–73, whereas its exports to the colonial territories surged from 10 to 38 percent of all British exports.

Dale Southerton remarks that the West Indies became remarkably valuable to Britain in this period:

The West Indies surpassed North America and Asia in importance to the British economy in this period. Between 1701 and 1780, up to one million slaves were landed in the British Caribbean colonies, with the largest destined for the sugar and coffee plantations of Jamaica.

To give a fuller account of the plantation complex’s impact on Britain’s economic growth, some have calculated the complex’s value-added component. Klas Ronnback estimates that the plantation complex accounted for around 11 percent of the British economy by the early nineteenth century. 

Yet despite these studies’ rigor, they neglect innovation-inducing activities in the colonies. Colonies are featured for their integration in broader economic networks rather than for their involvement promoting innovation.

Arguably, newer studies have enriched our understanding of Atlantic economies’ significance to British growth by revealing that although development was possible without them, these economies created opportunities for industrial development.

But should we assume that colonies did not establish organizations like the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge and the Royal Society of Arts? Moreover, were citizens in the colonies filing patents or were they just innocently appropriating British technologies? Many articles claiming to affirm colonies’ centrality in stimulating growth in England leave these important questions unanswered.

Nonetheless, evidence suggests that such institutions existed in the Caribbean. For example, the Bahama Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was established in Nassau in 1835. In its charter, the society listed nine objectives, which Paul G. Boultbee summarized as follows.

To collect facts and knowledge
To disseminate such facts by means of weekly, monthly, or quarterly publications
To obtain publications of similar institutions
To collect descriptions, models, and drawings
To import seeds and plants
To distribute medals and prizes
To establish lecturers
To obtain ground for experiments
To establish a small museum

Information on the society is scarce; however, we do know that the Caribbean functioned as a hub for experimentation, where new processes were invented and exported to North America and Europe. Wealthy individuals and the state even supported research projects. In Jamaica, Dr. Anthony Robinson was awarded a fifty-pound grant in 1767 to produce soap from local plants. 

Investing in technology was not rare in British colonies. Aaron Graham in a landmark paper on patenting in Jamaica illustrates the local interest in innovation:

For example, a free man of colour named John Lodge petitioned for a patent in December 1799 for his machine for grinding sugar canes faster…. To ensure that inventions were useful as well as novel, a number of Jamaican patents had licensing clauses which gave further security to local patentees in return for the rapid dissemination of the invention. Samuel Sainthill was granted a patent in November 1778 for his new method of clarifying sugar, and when he died two years later his executor offered to license the process to planters.

Later in the nineteenth century, Jamaica would establish several institutions to tackle the problems of industry, like the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Agricultural Society of Jamaica. The societies merged to form the Royal Society of Arts and Agriculture in 1864. But notwithstanding the propensity for innovation, colonies lacked the capacity to scale inventions.

Slavery and the racism of colonialism inhibited innovation by presenting difficulties for nonwhite actors. Some free people of color were educated and influential in business, but they were in the minority. Furthermore, during and after slavery, colonies encountered several economic crises that deprived them of capital that could have been allocated to innovation.

There are many speculative theories explaining colonies’ failure to scale. Now that the new economic history of colonialism has given us an appreciation of colonies’ relevance and connection to global value chains, proponents of this school should turn their attention to why colonial pursuits did not translate into a regional industrial revolution.

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