Previous version published 28 October 2020
The industrial revolution in the British Isles was in some measure built on the trafficking of enslaved Africans, until the trade was banned by Britain in 1808. Ironware and textiles were sold to Africa, enslaved people were bought, they were sold in the Americas, plantation products like tobacco, cotton and sugar were bought, these products were processed in Britain. Profits were reinvested. Irish industry profited from the products of slavery in America. Ireland developed a tobacco industry. It had a short lived cotton industry which helped the development of the linen industry.
Nearly all the sugar imported into Britain was produced on slave plantations in the Caribbean. Some was produced in Louisiana, USA. It was a highly desired product but very expensive. It was sold in sugar loaves. These were not produced in the Caribbean. Rather raw, dark liquid sugar was brought to Britain to be refined into the loaves. This was because of an import duty system designed to support British manufactures. The sugar loaves were wrapped in blue paper to emphasis its whiteness. The loaves were very hard and pieces had to be cut off using sugar nippers. The sugar might then be carefully crushed. None was wasted as it was so expensive.
Advances in cotton production in the late 1700s caused a massive expansion of plantation agriculture over the southern states. Only small amounts of long staple cotton was grown before Eli Whitney made improvements to the cotton gin around 1780. The improved cotton gin could take seed out of short staple cotton which could be grown across the southern states. This created an increased demand for enslaved people in those states. This expansion developed the export of cotton to Britain. New technology in spinning allowed this process to be industrialised and the spinning wheel was not needed. There were cotton spinning mills in Belfast. The thread was put out to weavers in the Ulster countryside to weave. However Manchester took over as the centre of the cotton industry and cotton weaving declined across Ulster.
Tobacco was a favoured on plantations in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The wealth of the Rogan house at the Ulster American Folk Park was built on tobacco production. Unlike cotton farmed in the Deep South it relied to some extent on the skill of the enslaved people working in the fields. Although the enslaved people were highly valued for their skills it also meant that families were more likely to be split up. In the Deep South family groups were more likely to be sold together. Life expectancy of enslaved people was shorter in the South as their cost as lower. It is unlikely that many people in Ireland though about that when they smoked tobacco in a clay pipe or pulled on a cotton shirt.
Event: Sunday 17 October 2021
Hear more about these stories and how Ulster migrants interacted with African Americans on a curator led tour, talk and discussion on these marginalised histories at the Ulster American Folk Park.