The full, unedited story of Britain’s Industrial Revolution

When I was taught about the Industrial Revolution in school, I was told it emerged spontaneously from great British inventions like the steam engine and the flying shuttle. Turns out the real history is significantly darker, and much more violent, than this fairy tale admits.

Remember, the core commodity of the Industrial Revolution was cotton. But cotton does not grow in Britain… or anywhere in Europe. To get it, the British stole land from Indigenous Americans to build plantations, massacring those who resisted.

Image Courtesy www.historic-uk.com

Disinclined to pay wages for cotton plantation work, Britain’s industrialists relied on the labour of enslaved Africans instead. Millions of souls were shipped across the Atlantic for the purpose, during 200 years of state-sponsored human trafficking.

Back in Britain, industrialists needed cheap labour to staff the textile factories. To get it, they dispossessed peasants from the commons (in a process known as the Enclosure movement) in order to force them into the labour market, where they worked for pennies.

In order to shift the population from agriculture to industry, the British needed to import food. For this, they relied on their two key colonies: Ireland and India. In both cases, British appropriation of land and food led to famines that killed millions in the 19th century.

British industrialization also relied on sugar, which became a major source of the calories that fed British industrial workers. But where did the sugar come from? Again: it was grown by enslaved Africans on land stolen from Indigenous Americans.

Britain needed markets for all of their manufactured goods. The problem was they couldn’t compete with India and China, which had their own industries. So they destroyed those industries by imposing unequal tariffs (in India, by colonial power; in China, with the Opium Wars).

In India, colonizers used the tax system to plunder up to $45 trillion. Britain used this money to buy key materials required for industrialization, and also to finance the industrialization of settler colonies like the United States, Canada and Australia.

Revenues extracted from India and other colonies made up over half of Britain's domestic budget. That money was used to pay for roads, public buildings, the welfare state… all the markers of British "development". Click To Tweet

Jason Hickel

Dr. Jason Hickel is an anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Virginia, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the MA in Anthropology and Cultural Politics.

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