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Atlantic History Atlantic Trade and the British Economy
Kenneth Morgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0035


The relationship between overseas trade and British economic growth in the 17th and 18th centuries has long attracted historical attention. The two opposite spectra on this topic are either that foreign trade and overseas demand for British manufactured exports significantly boosted British economic growth, or that domestic demand, stimulated by population growth and agricultural productivity, was more important for the British economy. There is no definitive resolution to these different lines of interpretation; scholarly articles still appear regularly, supporting one end of the spectrum or the other. Between these two poles are many variations, though extreme positions are not usually expressed. In recent years, some historians have sought to bridge the gap between positing either home demand or foreign demand as triggers for British economic growth by exploring the ways in which aggregate demand was raised through a combination of internal and external economic stimuli. Transatlantic commerce is an important part of this debate because the 18th century witnessed the “Americanization” of British overseas trade; in others words, in geographical direction and in the proportion of exports taken from Britain and the imports supplied in return, the thirteen British North American colonies (later states) and the West Indies played a dominant role in British foreign trade. The primary sources and studies on this subject listed in this entry explore these issues in depth.

General Overviews

Davis 1954 and Davis 1962 are the starting point on quantitative trends in English foreign trade before the American Revolution. Davis’s book on British overseas trade (Davis 1979) performs a similar service for the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Price 1998 summarizes the main features of British imperial trade before 1776. Richardson 1998 offers a parallel survey of the chief characteristics of the British slave trade. Material on West India trade is found throughout Sheridan 1973, while Hamilton 2005 examines the role of the Scots in Anglo-Caribbean commerce. McCusker and Morgan 2000 gathers together a set of essays with detailed analysis of the transatlantic economy.

  • Davis, Ralph. “English Foreign Trade, 1660–1700.” Economic History Review 2d ser. 7.2 (1954): 150–166.

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    Classic overview of the main contours of English overseas trade in the late 17th century. Emphasizes the growth of transatlantic commerce, analyzes the structure of trade, and estimates its overall changes.

  • Davis, Ralph. “English Foreign Trade, 1700–1774.” Economic History Review 2d ser. 15.2 (1962): 285–303.

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    A companion piece to Davis 1954. Examines the continuing growth of the colonial market for English manufactured goods and as a source of foodstuffs and beverages.

  • Davis, Ralph. The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1979.

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    A careful reconstruction of the quantitative dimensions of British overseas trade in the early period of industrialization (covering 1784–1856). Extends Davis 1954 and Davis 1962. Shows how trade was an important influence on the balance of current payments.

  • Hamilton, Douglas J. Scotland, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic World, 1750–1820. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

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    A wide-ranging study of Scots’ activities in the West Indies, including their mercantile connections, especially in Jamaica and the Windward Islands.

  • McCusker, John J., and Kenneth Morgan, eds. The Early Modern Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    A set of essays arranged under four themes: the role of merchants and their connections, the development of trades, imperial economies, and colonial working societies.

  • Price, Jacob M. “The Imperial Economy, 1700–1776.” In The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Century. Edited by P. J. Marshall, 78–104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Clear overview of the main features of British overseas commercial connections and of their interdependent parts. Covers imports, exports, the financing and organization of trade, and economic implications for the mother country.

  • Richardson, David. “The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660–1807.” In The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Century. Edited by P. J. Marshall, 440–464. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Brief survey of the ebb and flow of transatlantic slaving in the British Empire up to the British abolition of that trade. Pays attention to the regional dimension of slaving activity in West Africa, North America, and the Caribbean.

  • Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623–1775. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

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    The standard economic history of the British Caribbean before the American War of Independence. Needs to be updated with more recent research but remains the best background work on its subject.

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