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date: 26 June 2022

The Economy of Colonial British Americalocked

The Economy of Colonial British Americalocked

  • Aaron SlaterAaron SlaterDepartment of History, Rutgers University-Newark

Summary

Identifying and analyzing a unified system called the “economy of colonial British America” presents a number of challenges. The regions that came to constitute Britain’s North American empire developed according to a variety of factors, including climate and environment, relations with Native peoples, international competition and conflict, internal English/British politics, and the social system and cultural outlook of the various groups that settled each colony. Nevertheless, while there was great diversity in the socioeconomic organization across colonial British America, a few generalizations can be made. First, each region initially focused economic activity on some form of export-oriented production that tied it to the metropole. New England specialized in timber, fish, and shipping services, the Middle Colonies in furs, grains, and foodstuffs, the Chesapeake in tobacco, the South in rice, indigo, and hides, and the West Indies in sugar. Second, the maturation of the export-driven economy in each colony eventually spurred the development of an internal economy directed toward providing the ancillary goods and services necessary to promote the export trade. Third, despite variations within and across colonies, colonial British America underwent more rapid economic expansion over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries than did its European counterparts, to the point that, on the eve of the American Revolution, white settlers in British America enjoyed one of the highest living standards in the world at the time.

A final commonality that all the regions shared was that this robust economic growth spurred an almost insatiable demand for land and labor. With the exception of the West Indies, where the Spanish had largely exterminated the Native inhabitants by the time the English arrived, frontier warfare was ubiquitous across British America, as land-hungry settlers invaded Indian territory and expropriated their lands. The labor problem, while also ubiquitous, showed much greater regional variation. The New England and the Middle colonies largely supplied their labor needs through a combination of family immigration, natural increase, and the importation of bound European workers known as indentured servants. The Chesapeake, Carolina, and West Indian colonies, on the other hand, developed “slave societies,” where captive peoples of African descent were imported in huge numbers and forced to serve as enslaved laborers on colonial plantations. Despite these differences, it should be emphasized that, by the outbreak of the American Revolution, the institution of slavery had, to a greater or lesser extent, insinuated itself into the economy of every British American colony. The expropriation of land from Indians and labor from enslaved Africans thus shaped the economic history of all the colonies of British America.

Subjects

  • Colonial History
  • Economic History

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