Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

ERIC WILLIAMS. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Pp. ix, 245. $29.95.

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Capitalism and Slavery is the first and most important work by the late Trinidadian scholar and statesman, Eric Eustace Williams. Based on a dissertation written at the University of Oxford in 1938, entitled “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” the work is an “economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism [eventually] destroying the slave system.” More generally, the book documents the historical shift of Britain’s political economy from monopolistic commercial mercantilism based on tropical, Caribbean islands with black-plantation slavery to laissez faire commercial capitalism based on white free-labor factories in temperate, Continental regions. In doing so, it challenges one-hundred years of British imperial historiography by making the controversial argument that the causes of abolition and emancipation were economic, not humanitarian. Although too cynical in its conclusions, and slightly contrived in its teleology, Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most effective, creative, powerful, and influential history books that has ever been written.

For sources, Williams has relied heavily upon the archival research that he conducted for his dissertation, which covered the years 1783-1833. This research drew upon the Colonial Office Papers, Chatham Papers, Foreign Office Papers, and Custom Records in the Public Record Office of London. Williams has also studied the Liverpool Papers, Minute Books of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Auckland Papers, and the Huskisson Papers at the British Museum, and he has pursued sources at provincial libraries, like the Liverpool Public Library, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and the Rhodes House Library in Oxford. He has reviewed parliamentary debates, stock ledgers, custom receipts, correspondence and memoranda, pamphlets, legislation, committee reports, and the material record of the slave trade, exhibited at the Wilberforce Museum in Hull. Finally, he has emphasized the writings of contemporary historians, theorists, mercantilists, planters, politicians, and abolitionists. Foremost among these are Thomas Clarkson and Herman Merivale, Adam Smith, Malachy Postlethwayt, Charles Davenant, William Pitt, and William Wilberforce.

Capitalism and Slavery represents a dramatic departure from traditional, British imperial historiography as it had been written since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. For inspiration, Williams has cited, among others, the oeuvre of Lowell Ragatz, an influential American historian of the British Caribbean, as well as the work of Frank Pitman. He has recommended Paul Mantoux and John Clapham for the subject of British capitalism, and the Caribbean historian C.L.R. James for its relationship to slavery. As a foil, Williams has singled out the work of the British scholar of African history, Reginald Coupland. Coupland, says Williams, “represents the sentimental conception of history,” and “ his works help us to  understand what the abolition movement was not.” In general, Williams supports economic materialism, aligning himself against those who situate moral causality, ideological humanitarianism, and poetic sentimentalism at the center of the abolition movement. In a chapter entitled “The ‘Saints’ and Slavery,” Williams goes so far as to call English abolitionists hypocrites and the “unconscious mouthpieces” of the “new industrial interest.”

In a change from his dissertation, Williams places the year 1783 at the halfway point of Capitalism and Slavery. Like many historians before him, he has identified the American Revolution as the turning point of his analysis. Prior to 1783, “all classes of English society,” with the exception of a few voices of Cassandra, “supported the slave trade.” The country was under the thumb of the West Indian Interest, a “solid phalanx” of slave society composed of the landed aristocracy, the commercial bourgeoisie, the ecclesiastical authorities, and the political elite. Profits from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantation complex penetrated all aspects of English society, and protectionist legislation and military force were marshalled to ensure that capital accumulated by England remained in the British economy. Politicians had vested financial interests in the slave trade, its Caribbean commodities, and its many ancillary industries, including, but not limited to, shipbuilding, dock building, sail making, cask making, rope making, gun making, coal mining, distilling, refining,  iron smelting, weaving, banking, licensing, insurance providing, investing and underwriting, and manufacturing. These politicians passed high import duties and embargos on foreign products, banned colonial trade with foreign nations,  and demanded that all aspects of overseas trade be nationalized: performed with English ships, English crews, and English victuals, supplies, and naval stores. As Williams describes, this was the economic “infrastructure of mercantilist England,” and it was far more important than the “ideological superstructure” of humanitarianism.

By citing annual import-export profits, national emoluments, and personal connections, Williams shows how capital accrued from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantation complex financed the construction of English estates, seaport towns like Bristol, Liverpool, and London, and their manufacturing counterparts like Manchester. The triangular trade, of which the trade in black human bodies was one inextricable component, stimulated the domestic economy and lowered unemployment by establishing new overseas markets with high demands that needed a source of supply. While the Caribbean colonies offered sugar, tobacco, indigo, ginger, and wood to England, the English textile industries supplied woolens, linens, and cloths to the colonies; meanwhile, the English fisheries in Newfoundland and the mainland colonies of America supplied the necessary provisions. This last fact permitted West Indian planters to specialize exclusively in lucrative cash crops while their absentee landlords lobbied for their political interests in Parliament. Finally, English foundries and furnaces emerged to supply the necessary instruments of enslavement and cultivation while English production centers emerged to supply the diverse, sundry items of the African trade. In this way, the infrastructure of industrialism was galvanized by the market forces of slavery.  To borrow a phrase from Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto, by supplying the necessary capital for the industrial revolution, West Indian planters were, in a sense, becoming their “own grave-diggers.”

Although Williams tends to cite the annual flow of capital into English ports to show the accumulated wealth of the slave trade, he does occasionally offer more explicit connections. For example, he states that overseas markets and slave-trading capital motivated the cost-reducing technologies that came to define the English Industrial Revolution. Specifically, this includes the steam engine, the rotary engine, the steam loom, the railroad, and the hot blast and the puddling process in iron smelting. Profits fertilized the slate industry, the mining industry, the spinning jenny, the water frame, the construction of iron bridges, ships, and factories, and the beginning of interchangeable parts in the manufacturing process. Overall, Williams argues that it is not a coincidence that slavery and the slave trade became unattractive as domestic production (secondary production) replaced foreign trade (barter or primary production) as the engine of the British economy.

According to Williams, the demise of British mercantilism, the West Indian Interest, and the Caribbean planter class was a process of creative destruction that began with the American Revolution, and was epitomized by the synonymous publication of two capitalist-era texts, TheWealth of Nations and The Declaration of Independence. In short, “American independence destroyed the mercantile system” because it made America a foreign nation subject to the economic restrictions of the British Navigation Laws. It left the Caribbean colonies starved for supplies because it eliminated the provisions market, it engendered renewed competition between the soil-exhausted English islands and the relatively virgin territories of foreign nations (think Saint-Dominique, Cuba, Brazil, and the Cotton Kingdom of the United States), it created conditions of overproduction in England which could no longer be filled by the diminishing markets of the Atlantic slave trade, and it created an economically weak position from which colonial slave rebellions became more bold and more frequent. All factors considered, by the early nineteenth century, the slave trade and the institution of slavery had lost all of their economic viability and, for the first time, humanitarian protests became aligned with the material realities of British capitalism. In other words, the institution of slavery was no longer profitable, and Britain began to “cut its losses.”

Capitalism and Slavery

Unlike his dissertation, Williams spends the first half of Capitalism and Slavery tracing the origins of the English slave trade from the late sixteenth century—the expedition of the privateer John Hawkins—to the year 1783. Particularly, he discusses the rise of slaving interests from the English Civil War to the formation of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa in 1752. While this section makes interesting exposition, its three major claims are less than controversial today. Williams shows that the “origin of Negro slavery was economic not racial;” he debunks the “climatic theory” that white people could not perform adequate labor in the tropics; and he also shows that “white servitude [and we might add Indian labor] was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.” Today, most historians [David Brion Davis excepted] believe that racism emerged from the unique circumstances of Atlantic slavery and not the other way around. Africans made ideal slaves for whites because “they were conspicuous by their color and features,” they were ignorant of European languages, customs, and laws, they were cheap to obtain by trade, there were existing structures in place for their acquisition in Africa, they could be deracinated from their home environments, and, in relation to Indians and Europeans, they seemed to possess a hardy constitution.

Today, historians have also accepted the claim that the Middle Passage was a horrific experience for both white sailors and black slaves. However, many scholars are more reluctant to accept the claim that the victims of plantation slavery were “the Negroes in Africa and the small white farmers.” Of course, by “Negroes in Africa,” Williams is referring to those individuals who were captured and shipped to the New World as slaves. By “white farmers,” he is referring to the yeomen laborers who wanted to work the land themselves but could not compete with the monopolistic, economic structure of plantation slavery. Historians find a similar theme in the American abolitionist narrative, where white northerners supported the ban on slavery not for humanitarian or egalitarian reasons, but because they knew that wage labor could not content with the profit margins of free, slave labor.

Many historians have critiqued Capitalism and Slavery as being too harsh on the English abolitionists, too cynical about their intentions, and too eager to dismiss them as collaborators with the regime of industrialism. This critique is, at its base, completely true. Of course, we can accept the fundamental claim that humanitarian agitation was not the sole (or even the central) cause of abolition and emancipation without completely dismissing the abolitionists as irrelevant. First, we must remember why Williams wants to warn readers about the abolitionists in the first place. He believes that the “splendid moral isolation” of the abolitionists, the very idea that they were valiant heroes who won an uphill battle against racist imperialism, encouraged English society to believe that it could do no wrong in the future. In this sense, the traditional abolition narrative served to justify the repetition of oppression. If racial imperialism was overcome by the abolitionists in the early nineteenth century, Williams asks, then how do we account for the East Indian replacing the “Negro” on English plantations between 1833 and 1917? How do we account for the brutal mistreatment of the English industrial workforce, the imperial violence of the Boer Wars, and the systematic colonization of the African continent? Unfortunately, the abolitionist-hero narrative has no easy answer for these problems.

Williams wants us to recognize that there is a formula for historical progress that involves humanitarian agitation and economic development. In doing so, he is unfair to the abolitionists. As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, many white people with good intentions were trapped in historical and economic relationships that they did not understand. Just because their agitation was not the factor that forced the hand of the British government, does not mean that their hearts were in the wrong place. We cannot condemn the powerless for being unable to affect change; many of them wanted to affect change, and so they did what they could in their limited circumstances. That is what matters. Can we blame abolitionists for not toppling the economic infrastructure of imperial Britain any more than we can blame modern-day protesters for not redistributing the wealth of Wall Street? Ultimately, their agitation, combined with the agitation of black slaves on plantations, was an important factor in articulating a new demand, both to the government and to posterity. Although most people could not predict the horrors of the industrial mineshaft, more and more people were beginning to feel that the horrors of the plantation were no longer conscionable.

Many other  scholars are critiqued Capitalism and Slavery for its teleology, stating that British plantations continued to remain profitable long after the dramatic upheaval of the American Revolution. In this sense, they accuse Williams of fast-forwarding the historical decline of the British plantation economy in order to fit his chronology. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to argue the profitability of the British plantation complex in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, although I suspect that there is validity in this critique, as the British empire continued to suppress slave revolts with terror and violence until the eve of emancipation. In this regard, I think Williams owes much more credit to the slaves themselves, who found unique and varied ways to lobby for their own freedom in the Atlantic world. To be fair, much of the work on black resistance to slavery had not yet been done in the 1940s, and it was quite fashionable to place the American Revolution as the impetus for greater historical change.

On another note, there is an undeveloped argument in Capitalism and Slavery about the relationship of the artist to the consciousness of society. When listing a few of the unheeded voices of early abolition—the voices of Cassandra or the jeremiads—Williams constructs a list that is composed entirely of poets and novelists. There is Daniel Defoe, James Thomson, William Cowper, William Black, and Robert Southey. Although he does not remark on the significance of this trend, it seems worthwhile to investigate. Why were there so many artists willing to explore critiques of slavery and the slave trade in their works? What was significant about the artist that gave him or her a certain personal liberty in an economic system that seemed to encompass almost everyone else?  As a final critique, Williams states that “the British abolitionists exaggerated the horrors of the Middle Passage.” To this claim I would disagree. As in most historical tragedies, I strongly believe that the worst horrors of the slave trade are those which never reached a larger audience. While historians can debate the representativeness of transatlantic horror stories for eternity, the fact remains that representativeness simply makes no difference to the individuals who suffers.

Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most important history books that has ever been written. It is also one of the few history books that is still being read, after seventy years, with sincere respect. Written by a black West-Indian scholar and future Prime Minister on the eve of global decolonization and in the midst of profound racial segregation in such places as South Africa and America, the book is a lesson in history itself. By challenging the incumbency of a self-serving, British imperial narrative that lauded the historical perpetrators of slavery for overcoming their past, Capitalism and Slavery became an enduring manifesto of anti-imperialism. It was integral to the founding of the University of the West Indies, which has cultivated so many brilliant thinkers since its inception. It is succinct and concise (only 212 pages without notes), but it remains deceptively complex. Most of all, it reminds us that the ongoing struggle for global equality cannot be diluted to binaries. As they were in the early nineteenth century, the oppressors of the modern era are also humanitarians. Despite what they say, both of these groups are caught within a larger, tangled web of economic relationships from which they cannot easily escape. For this reason, Williams implores us to think, “What is my position, and how can I get free?”

Picture of Eric Williams as the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, from 1962-1981

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


4 thoughts on “Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

  1. Dickson B Musu

    With all the facts written by Eric,
    Great Britain is still benefiting from
    black labor and they need to pay reparation
    to Africans by “ALL COSTS

    1. Grant

      No, they do not, since there is no way to sensibly construct such a reparation.

      Also as historical research proves, there was an African “supply side” of the slave market. And in the end it is slave hunters that benefit mostly from slavery, not later slave owners.

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