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Slavery and the new history of capitalism

Burnard, Trevor; Riello, Giorgio


Giorgio Riello


© 2020 Cambridge University Press. The new history of capitalism (NHC) places a great deal of emphasis on slavery as a crucial world institution. Slavery, it is alleged, arose out of, and underpinned, capitalist development. This article starts by showing the intellectual and scholarly foundations of some of the broad conclusions of the NHC. It proceeds by arguing that capitalist transformation must rely on a global framework of analysis. The article considers three critiques in relation to the NHC. First, the NHC overemphasizes the importance of coercion to economic growth in the eighteenth century. We argue that what has been called 'war capitalism' might be better served by an analysis in which the political economy of European states and empires, rather than coercion, is a key factor in the transformation of capitalism at a global scale. Second, in linking slavery to industrialization, the NHC proposes a misleading chronology. Cotton produced in large quantities in the United States came too late to cause an Industrial Revolution which, we argue, developed gradually from the latter half of the seventeenth century and which was well established by the 1790s, when cotton started to arrive from the American South. During early industrialization, sugar, not cotton, was the main plantation crop in the Americas. Third, the NHC is overly concentrated on production and especially on slave plantation economies. It underplays the 'power of consumption', where consumers came to purchase increasing amounts of plantation goods, including sugar, rice, indigo, tobacco, cotton, and coffee. To see slavery's role in fostering the preconditions of industrialization and the Great Divergence, we must tell a story about slavery's place in supporting the expansion of consumption, as well as a story about production.


Burnard, T., & Riello, G. (2020). Slavery and the new history of capitalism. Journal of Global History, 15(2), 225-244.

Journal Article Type Review
Acceptance Date Jul 15, 2020
Online Publication Date Jun 25, 2020
Publication Date Jul 1, 2020
Deposit Date May 26, 2021
Publicly Available Date Jun 1, 2021
Journal Journal of Global History
Print ISSN 1740-0228
Electronic ISSN 1740-0236
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 15
Issue 2
Pages 225-244
Keywords Capitalism; Consumption; Great Divergence; Industrial Revolution; Slavery
Public URL


Article (334 Kb)

Copyright Statement
©2020 The authors. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder

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