Slavery, economic development in the Atlantic economy, and the Great Divergence

Research project
Active research
Project period
2018 - 2025
Project owner
Unit for Economic History, Department of Economy and Society

Short description

In this project, different aspects of the transatlantic slave trade, and its consequences for economic development in both the Americas and in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the project, the costs of exploiting slave labour are estimated in a comparative perspective, as well as how high the return on investing in slaves was. The project furthermore estimate the magnitude of the economic activities associated with slavery as share of the British economy during the eighteenth century.

This project studies the role that historical slavery in the Americas played for economic development both in the Americas and in Europe. The so-called “Williams Hypothesis”, suggested by the historian Eric Williams already in the 1940s, suggested that slavery and the slave trade played a crucial role for industrialization in Great Britain during the eighteenth century. Ever since, these issue have been heatedly discussed by scholars. In this project, I contribute with quantitative research on the magnitude of slaver-related economic activities (directly in the form of the slave trade, and in slavery-based production on plantations, and indirectly in the form of industries dependent on the former for inputs or for markets).

In recent years, there is also a resurgent debate on the role that slavery played for the development of capitalism in the Americas, often called the “New History of Capitalism”. Following this development, there is a resurgent debate on what made slavery so long-lived in the Americas, and how it could be so profitable for slave-owners to exploit labourers in the manner that slavery enabled. This project contributes with quantitative estimates of the cost of acquiring slave labour, in comparison with acquiring other forms of labour. The project also estimates the return on investing in slaves, compared with how profitable it could be to invest in some alternative investment opportunity.

Rönnbäck, Klas (2021): “Were slaves cheap laborers? A comparative study of labor costs in the antebellum U.S. South”, Labor History 62(5-6): 721-741.

Rönnbäck, Klas (2021): “Governance, value-added and rents in plantation slavery-based value-chains”, Slavery & Abolition 42(1): 130-150.

Rönnbäck, Klas (2018): “On the economic importance of the slave plantation complex to the British economy during the eighteenth century: a value-added approach”, Journal of Global History 13(3):309-327.

Rönnbäck, Klas and Dimitrios Theodoridis (forthcoming): “Cotton cultivation under colonial rule in India in the nineteenth century from a comparative perspective”, accepted for publication in Economic History Review.