Britain’s Atlantic slave economy, the market for knowledge and skills, and early industrialisation: a response to Joel Mokyr’s ‘Holy Land of Industrialism’

by Nuala Zahedieh

05 Nov 2021
Journal of the British Academy, volume 9 (2021)
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Abstract: Joel Mokyr attributes Britain’s precocious industrialisation to an enlightened economy in which a tiny elite of intellectuals, and uniquely competent artisans, supplied the necessary knowledge and skills which were, themselves, the product of a flexible, and high-quality, training system. Mokyr pays little attention to the demand side of the human capital market and is especially dismissive of the view that the Atlantic slave economy might have played a critical role. This comment argues, on the contrary, that it was the British Atlantic slave system that transformed the market for knowledge and skills. The extension of the market, itself, encouraged more division of labour and specialisation. Moreover, the technical imperatives of making the Atlantic trading system work incentivised the accumulation of the high quality mechanical and metal-working skills which allowed more intensive use of slack resources and played a critical role in shaping Britain’s industrial revolution.

Keywords: Britain, industrial revolution, skills, Atlantic, Caribbean, slavery, knowledge economy, mechanics, metallurgy, metalwares.

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