The importance of tropical crops

The climate and land in the West Indies were suited to the growing of luxury crops such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton. The most important of these was sugar. 70 per cent of slaves worked producing sugar.

Sugar and tobacco grew very popular in the 18th century, and Britain made large profits from trade in these fashionable products.

As a result there was a dramatic change in the pattern of exports. Exports of manufactured goods to the Atlantic economy increased massively during the 1700s.

British exports in 1700 and 1800:

17001800
Europe82%21%
North America (a)6%32%
West Indies (b)5%25%
Africa (c)2%4%
Atlantic economy (a + b + c)13% (6 + 5 + 2)61% (32 + 25 + 4)

In 1700, 80 per cent of British trade went to Europe from ports on the east and south coasts.

By 1800, 60 per cent of British trade went to Africa and America, often sailing from the three main west coast ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. British exports in 1800 were four times higher than in 1700.

Were these changes due to the slave trade?

The Atlantic ports grew in part because so many of the slave ships sailed from these ports. But they grew as much from their general involvement with the Atlantic economy as from trading in slaves.

This provokes a ‘what if’ question. What if there had been no enslaved Africans in the Caribbean?

It is safe to guess that the trade would still have taken place. Trade regulations made sure that exports to the colonies came from Britain. But without the Atlantic slave trade it would have taken many, many years for a workforce to be established in the colonies. The growth of exports to the colonies would have been much, much slower.