Is the dazzling economic growth that Western Europe experienced from the mid-18th century onwards inseparable from its colonial domination of other continents and the slavery of Africans in particular? Are slavery and colonialism the factors that best explain the current inequalities between nations and, within the richest nations, between social classes that are becoming increasingly aware of the legacy of slavery and immigration from former colonies?
These topics fraught with ideological and political implications deserved to be debated between the economist who put the question of inequality at the top of his discipline’s agenda, Thomas Piketty, and the historian who launched the debate on the origins of the “Great Divergence” between Europe and the rest of the world in the 19th century, Kenneth Pomeranz.
In Piketty’s view, A Great DivergencePomeranz’s landmark book published in 2000, and his own book A Brief History of Equality published in 2021 – “the one that best sums up the message I want to convey,” he said – do not tell two different or contradictory stories, but complementary ones. In A Great Divergencehe observed, the American historian does attribute “a very significant role” to slavery and colonization in the emergence of European power and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution: 75% of the cotton processed in Europe in the first half of the 19th century came from slave plantations in the southern United States.
But, said Piketty, Pomeranz has also shown the key role of the environmental constraint. Massive deforestation from the 14th century onwards pushed Europeans – and first and foremost the British, who devastated their forests to build their navy – to alleviate the environmental constraint by globalizing their trade to capture other resources, other lands, before purely and simply grabbing them in a second phase, through the colonial conquest. In 1830, Great Britain imported the production of the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 times more arable land than existed on its own territory.
Admittedly, economists have disputed the weight of colonial trade in the British economic boom, pointing out that it represented only 2% of the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) at that time. But Piketty prefers a material approach to this strictly monetary accounting, crediting Pomeranz’s work. How could British industry have taken off without the deportation of millions of slaves producing tons of cotton, and without the capital, social prestige and political influence of slave traders and colonial merchants?
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