Monday, May 27, 2024
HomeCulture WarSlavery? It added less to our economy than sheep farming

Slavery? It added less to our economy than sheep farming


A NEW book on the old imperialism is about to face the full wrath of the woke imperialism of our own days. In his Imperial Measurement: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Western Colonialism (published by the Institute of Economic Affairs) Kristian Niemietz dares to challenge the veracity of several myths about the impact of empire on economic growth. 

Alongside Mary Seacole’s racist and imperialistic autobiography of 1857 it should be required reading for any teacher or trainee teacher. Schools, after all, are the heart of evangelical wokeism. It might, therefore, be something of an eye-opener for ‘educators’ to learn that the person voted the Greatest Black Briton was not averse to using the N-word and held some decidedly pro-imperial, racist and un-woke opinions. These, of course, reflected the age in which she lived. During the Crimean War she put her life on the line for British Empire – a heroine, then, but of the old British Empire, not of the new Woke Empire. 

Seacole’s autobiography demonstrates the folly of judging the past through a woke lens of the present. Facing up to this reality, however, can be difficult, even for as august a British institution as the Times.

Imperial Measurement is a well-argued academic refutation of a central tenet of woke ideology – that empire and slavery enriched colonial powers in general and the British Empire in particular. It turns out that the transatlantic slave trade was no more important to the British economy than brewing or sheep farming. The latter, in fact, added more value to our economy than the sub-2.5 per cent added by slave-based sugar plantations.

Colonial trade, Niemietz argues, constituted a much smaller proportion of the UK economy than economic activity generated domestically and through trade with Western Europe and North America. Trade, in any case, accounted for only around a quarter of Britain’s economic output. 

Niemietz does not dispute the fact that the Empire provided modest gains for the British economy and that considerable profits were made by individual beneficiaries of colonialism. He contends, however, that these gains were offset by the military and administrative costs. He suggests that the British tax burden could have been cut by a quarter without the burden of Empire.

He also points out that many countries industrialised and became rich before, or without, establishing empires. Germany and Switzerland are referred to as examples.

Niemietz recognises that there will always be exceptions, such as the Belgian Congo, to his overall thesis. He also acknowledges that colonialism often left economic and political scars. His overall arguments, however, should at the very least be part of the debate over colonialism that is convulsing our schools and universities. Given the stranglehold of wokeism, this is unlikely since it does not fit the woke narrative. 

The lesson of history is that there is no race-bar on human wickedness and suffering, just as there is no race-bar on human virtue. Rulers and ruled, slavers and the enslaved, colonisers and the colonised are much the same in terms of human nature. The ghosts of a million or so UK citizens who died of starvation across a few years in the 1840s testify to the fact that white UK citizens were not excluded from suffering.  

Niemietz’s book asks us to question assumptions about our imperial past. Reading it should be no more a shock to the woke sensibilities than facing up to the ‘real’ Mary Seacole.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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