You are here: Home Press Releases Once a flourishing trade, then gladly forgotten: German involvements in the slave trade and New World plantation economies (16th-19th centuries)
Date: Jun 08, 2021

Once a flourishing trade, then gladly forgotten: German involvements in the slave trade and New World plantation economies (16th-19th centuries) Next Joseph C. Miller Memorial Lecture Series on June 28, 2021, by Klaus Weber, European University Viadrina.

Next Joseph C. Miller Memorial Lecture Series on June 28, 2021, by Klaus Weber, European University Viadrina.

Historical research on European expansion has generally overlooked the role of Central and Eastern Europe in this process, even though scholars like Marian Małowist and Immanuel Wallerstein drew attention to it long ago. Only in the past two decades has new research underscored the importance of commodity flows between German-speaking lands and the Atlantic world, and offered a more nuanced picture.

Eastern provinces, such as Silesia, did not provide raw materials (as Wallerstein suggested), but high quality linens which served as barter commodities in the slave trade and as work wear on plantations, while competitors in Northern France went into decline. Proto-industries in Westphalia and the Rhineland not only exported linens and metal goods to these distant markets, but also sent merchants to places like Bordeaux, Cadiz, Lisbon and London. In Bordeaux and London, they rose to join the ranks of leading merchant bankers, ship owners and owners of New World plantations.

The most successful among them were directly involved in the slave trade, such as Friedrich Romberg from the Rhineland, who ran Bordeaux’s largest slave-trading company; or John and Francis Baring from Bremen, who became members of the Company of Merchants Trading with Africa. Eighteenth-century Hamburg, in turn, became Europe’s major centre for sugar refining, outperforming places like Bordeaux and Amsterdam, and re-exporting the product as far east as St. Petersburg.

The question Eric Williams raised – whether and to which extent the slaving and plantation complex contributed to industrialization in Britain – therefore needs to be extended to German lands.

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