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Mercantilism, Enlightenment, and Slave Economics Essay

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Updated: Jan 18th, 2022


The mercantilist economic theory was appeared in Europe in the 15th century and was a fundamental theory until the mid-18th century. This theory was widely accepted, and it influenced economic development, in particular, trade. Slave trade was an important branch of European economics. It flourished in all European countries’ colonies until the end of the 19th century. William Wilberforce was a politician in the British Empire and one of the activists against the slave trade. According to Wilberforce’s article, it could be stated that mercantilism advocated the slavery system due to its economic benefits. It is important to understand the influence of mercantilism on the slavery system in Europe, in particular, on the slave trade in the Caribbean region for sugar production needs.

Mercantilist Economic Theory

The mercantilist economic theory is a particular case of economic nationalism. The highest aim for mercantilists was to empower national economics. National manufacturing and goods production should be developed for reaching this goal. The most important branch of the industry was military goods production, due to its importance for war and the new colonies’ annexation. New colonies allowed expanding the British Imperia boards and, correspondingly, developing new branches of industry.

Mercantilism had a significant impact on trade. According to this economic theory, national economics needs to attract more and more money and precious metals. According to mercantilists’ beliefs, the general wealth amount was limited. Therefore, the more money is drawn to the national economy, the more powerful the nation is. For accomplishing this task, it was important to regulate the trade. The level of export should be higher than the level of import, which would result in a positive trade balance. In this case, more money is attracted to national economics. It was also important to decrease the economic dependence on other countries’ goods.

Mercantilism and the Slavery

Mercantilism, as a leading economic theory in the 16th–18th centuries, affected all aspects of British economics, including the slave trade. Principles of the Mercantilist economic theory promoted the slavery system development. However, the anti-slavery movements were appearing and developing in European countries, including the British Empire. William Wilberforce was one of the most influential leaders of the slave abolition movement in the British Empire. The goal of his life was reached, and the slave trade abolition was completed during his life. Wilberforce was a politician and philanthropist. In his work On The Idea Of Negro Inferiority, he highlighted the immoral aspects of the Slave Trade. He postulated that the idea of Negro Inferiority was a moral excuse for Slavery, which was profitable for plantation owners.

“But moral considerations were far from the minds of the advocates of slavery and the slave trade. Slavery […] was an economic necessity. ” According to the slavery advocates, this system had to be continued because in another case all trade would be stopped. Overseas colonies provided four-fifths of the economic income. Besides, the main reason for the British shipping industry’s development was the slave trade. To abandon slavery meant for the British Empire to lose the advantage in ship trading, especially in comparison with France.

Caribbean Sugar Plantations

At the end of the 17th century, numerous Caribbean islands introduced the slavery system due to its economic efficiency in sugar production and trade. Mercantilist economy theory advocated this system because it led to a significant reducing the price of sugar production and, therefore, to the higher income to the national economics. The level of technology development for sugar production in the region was low. The work conditions for slaves were arduous, which resulted in the high number of slaves’ death levels. The demand for sugar was constantly rising in all European countries. It was significantly profitable for sugar plantations owners to use slave labor with the purpose to reduce production expenses. As a result, the British and French slave trade was developing in the region. These countries delivered slaves from African colonies to plantation owners.

The slavery system was a part of a highly profitable trans-Atlantic trading. British manufactories produced industrial goods, which were transported to the West African colonies. From these colonies, slaves were shipped to the Caribbean region on sugar plantations. Finally, sugar from the Caribbean islands was transferred to the European countries. Due to this profitable system and the high demand for sugar, the slavery system lasted in the region until 1833, while in England it became forbidden in 1772.


The Slave Trade was flourishing in European countries and their colonies in the 17th–19th centuries. The Mercantilist economic theory played a significant role in the slavery system development. This theory postulated that the main purpose for the country was to increase its wealth by a positive trade balance. Mercantilism advocated the slavery system because it was profitable for national economics. In particular, slave labor was used in the Caribbean region for sugar production, which was an important part of British and French economics. Despite the economic and political reasons the slavery, the movement for the slave trade abolition appeared in Europe at the end of the 18th century. The campaign was successful, and slavery was considered to be illegal in Britain and its colonies in 1833.


Baker, William. “William Wilberforce on the Idea of Negro Inferiority.” Journal of the History of Ideas 31, no. 3 (1970): 433-440.

Rosenberg, Clifford, Robert L. Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Peter Brown, Benjamin Elman, Stephen Kotkin, Xinru Liu, Susanne Marchand, and Holly Pittman. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.

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IvyPanda. "Mercantilism, Enlightenment, and Slave Economics." January 18, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mercantilism-enlightenment-and-slave-economics/.


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