This essay develops an American approach to the rise of the English Atlantic during the seventeenth century. It argues that productivity gains in plantation agriculture fueled an extraordinary expansion of commerce as planters raising tobacco, sugar, and rice improved their efficiency and were able to lower prices. Lower prices made the products of American plantations affordable to an ever-growing number of European consumers. The increased consumption fueled the expansion of the American plantation colonies, transformed the Atlantic into an English inland sea, and led to the creation of the first British Empire; one of the great commercial successes of the Early Modern Era. The essay also interrogates the concept of productivity gains in a slave economy, arguing that what are often interpreted as improvements in productivity were in fact increases in labor inputs as planters squeezed slaves harder. This raises the question, then, of whether productivity gains (or increased labor inputs) signal that planters were forward-looking entrepreneurs or backward seigneurs?

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