Proposal preview

Europe and Slavery. Estimating the share of slave-based activities in European economies, 1500-1850

This session seeks to answer how global slaved-based economic activities and their spinoff contributed to economic development throughout Europe. The question of the impact of the history of slavery is back to the center of debates on economic development and global divergence (f.e. Beckert 2014). Whereas the debate originally focused on the Williams-thesis concerning the link between the profits of slavery and industrialization (Williams 1944 and following debates), recent studies have opened research into the broader impact of slave-related economic activities in overseas Atlantic areas as well as in Europe (f.e. Fatah-Black and Van Rossum 2012, Rönnbäck 2014). In different national and historiographic context, a number of current research projects aim to uncover the economic relations between Europe and its colonies forged by slavery (f.e. the Dutch NWO-project Slaves, commodities and logistics, IISH and Leiden University, 2014-2019; the German DFG-project The Globalized Periphery, Europa-Universität Viadrina, 2015-2017).
Aiming to bring this research together, this session builds upon the insights of the fruitful exploratory conference session Global Impact of Slave Trade and Slavery (WEHC Kyoto 2015). It aims to further the debates on early modern globalization, slavery and economic growth by bringing together new estimates in a global-comparative perspective. The session will do so by inviting contributions that provide estimates of the share of slave-based economic activities within the larger economies of different European regions. The implications will be discussed by a panel of senior expert commentators and in interaction with the audience. The session will be organized as a double session. The first part of this double session will be dedicated to the presentation of the results of the estimates. The second will host the round table and public debate discussing results, comparisons and implications.
Central to the session will be the recently (re)discovered method of global value chain analysis, indicating the economic and financial links between different stages of investment, manufacture, trade and consumption (see f.e. the recent attention for global value chains by the World Trade Organization, annual report 2014). The global commodities driving early modern expansion – such as spices, sugar, tobacco, coffee, tea, etc. – are a reminder that there are long-lasting and global histories behind (contemporary) commodity chains. The value chain analysis can therefore be useful for historians as a way to improve our of understanding global links in economic development. Such a perspective brings to mind both the forward and backward linkages of slave-based colonial production, indicating these commodities were not only related to the sites and stages of production, but also to provisioning, transport and consumption. This reconnects the global history of unfree labor to the regional history of economic development in Europe, with direct ties ranging from the production and delivery of slave-ship victuals to the development of extensive distribution networks of colonial groceries, f.e. through home run coffee shops, bakeries, etc.
The session builds upon a comparative approach, covering both regions that were on the forefront of the imperial expansion laying the basis for overseas slave-based production, as well as regions that may seem to have been less directly involved (Portugal, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany). The case studies will provide indications of the share of slave-based economic activities within the larger economies of different parts of Europe. Such estimates can be made per nation or (sub)region. Contributions can be the result of collaborative team efforts.


  • Matthias M Van Rossum, International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam),,
  • Tamira T.J. Combrink, International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam),,

Session members

  • Filipa F. Ribeira da Silva, IISH,
  • Anka A. Steffen, Europa-Universität Viadrina,
  • Tamira T.J. Combrink, IISH,
  • Klas K. Rönnbäck, University of Gothenburg,
  • Ulrich U. Pfister, Universität Münster,
  • , ,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Sven S. Beckert, Harvard University,
  • Guillaume G. Daudin, Université Paris-Dauphine,
  • Pepijn Brandon, VU University Amsterdam/ IISH,