‘The doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt’: slavery, empire and Mokyr’s industrial revolution

by Aaron Graham

05 Nov 2021
Journal of the British Academy, volume 9 (2021)
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Abstract: Responding to Mokyr’s recent article on early modern Britain as the ‘Holy Land of Industrialism’, this article considers how far the role of slavery and empire may have been overlooked, and what these can contribute to explanations of British industrialisation. It notes the case for their role as markets for manufactured goods, and second-order effects such as the development of corporate expertise and the creation of a financial system capable of collateralising and reinvesting plantation profits. Focusing on Mokyr’s argument that the quality of British human capital was the decisive factor in industrialisation, it notes that this too had a colonial dimension, based on the circulation of knowledge and artisans throughout the British Atlantic in the 18th century. This was reflected by the trans-imperial nature of patenting and innovation during this period. Britain may have been the ‘Holy Land’, but the industrial revolution was therefore also marked by ‘the doings of the land of Egypt’.

Keywords: Industrialisation; Britain; empire; slavery; finance; patenting; innovation.

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