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The enduring importance of Eric Williams’ “Capitalism and Slavery”

Originally published: Areo Magazine on March 10, 2022 by Ralph Leonard (more by Areo Magazine) (Posted Mar 14, 2022)

As a new generation grapples with the effects of racism and capitalism, it is no surprise that Penguin Modern Classics has been publishing new editions of classic texts authored by black radical thinkers: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks (first published in 1952); Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (first published in 1983); and, most recently, Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery.

First published in 1944, Capitalism and Slavery is an investigation of the notorious relationship between the Atlantic slave trade and the emergence of European industrial capitalism from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Williams, a black West Indian scholar who later served for nearly two decades as Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister, wrote the book during an era in which there was still apartheid in the US and South Africa, and global decolonization had not yet appeared on the horizon; thus, the book is also a lesson in twentieth-century history.

Capitalism and Slavery is based on Williams’ 1938 dissertation, written when he was a graduate student at the University of Oxford: “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery.” He describes it as 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 in destroying the slave system.” The book quickly took its place alongside works such as C. L. R. James’ Black Jacobins and W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and did much to expand people’s understanding of the history of slavery and its abolition—and the significant role that black labour, in the form of chattel slavery, played in building modern western civilisation.

Williams’ thesis was inspired by Karl Marx’s striking—though underdeveloped—theory of so-called primitive accumulation: Marx believed that the emergence of capitalism was not a peaceful or benign process: it began by forcibly taking land away from people—or taking people away from their land—thus depriving them of their original source of livelihood and forcing them to survive by providing cheap labour for businesses owned by other people. In the nineteenth century, as Marx observed, this process fed the emerging factory system in Europe. Williams notes that, when European colonisation of the Americas quickly led to a drastic reduction in the number of indigenous peoples (mostly due to the spread of smallpox, estimated to have killed 90% of the native population), this created an economic incentive to develop the global slave market in order to supply the colonists with cheap labour for their businesses. In this way, as Marx notes, “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Williams makes three arguments in Capitalism and Slavery. One is that slavery has become “too narrowly identified with the Negro.” In the beginning, he notes, “unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.” However, eventually, the use of enslaved African labour became dominant—for a variety of reasons (for example, Williams notes, “Escape was easy for the white servant; less easy for the Negro,” who was “conspicuous by his color and features” and “the Negro slave was cheaper”). As a result, slavery in the Americas became racialised, he argues—synonymous with the African—and this gave rise to dehumanising rationalisations for slavery, based on supposed racial inferiority. In this way, as Williams puts it, a “racial twist” had been added to what was originally an “economic phenomenon … Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism [against blacks in America] was the consequence of slavery.”

Williams’ second argument is about the causes and effects of the so-called triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the New World. European slave ships sailed to Africa, where they supplied local inhabitants with European manufactured goods in exchange for kidnapped Africans; the ships then carried these kidnapped Africans to the Americas, where plantation owners bought them to hold as slaves—providing the European traders, as payment, with sugar, cotton, molasses and other New World products, which the European traders then transported to Europe, and sold for cash.

Williams argues persuasively that the profits generated by this slave trade “made an enormous contribution to Britain’s industrial development.” Those profits were the capital needed to invest in developing new technologies and new means of production in Britain, thus spurring the industrial revolution that made it possible to develop what became the modern capitalist economy. While Williams’ work focuses primarily on the impact of the slave trade on the British economy, the slave trade had a similar impact on the economy of continental Europe, as the historian Robin Blackburn demonstrates in his excellent 2010 book, The Making of New World Slavery. Blackburn bolsters and extends Williams’ argument by demonstrating the important role of the slave trade, beginning in the era of pre-industrial mercantile capitalism, in supplying New World goods not only to consumers in Britain, but also to Europeans (particularly in Holland). He points out that this created a widespread and growing demand for these exotic products, leading to the emergence of robust consumer markets, which in turn generated capital that funded the industrial revolution. Blackburn also notes that profits from the slave trade helped to fund all manner of British projects: to endow “All Souls College, Oxford, with a splendid library, to build a score of banks, including Barclays, and to finance the experiments of James Watt, inventor of the first really efficient steam engine.” Merchant bankers also invested some of their profits from the slave trade in the cotton textile industry, in metal manufacturing, in shipbuilding and in the building of roads, canals, wharves and harbours.

Williams’ third argument is a repudiation of the idea—commonplace at the time he was writing—that British abolitionists played a central and heroic role in ending the Atlantic slave trade. He argues that slavery was abolished for economic rather than humanitarian reasons, noting that British abolitionist sentiment arose only after economic conditions changed: the plantation economy in the Caribbean had begun to decline, industrial capitalism had firmly taken root, the mercantile monopoly capitalism of earlier centuries had given way to what was seen as a more efficient and less capital-intensive method of producing goods—and thus the slave trade had become unprofitable.

In an effort to get Capitalism and Slavery published in England, Williams approached the country’s most politically radical publisher, Frederic Warburg, who had published Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and C. L. R. James’ Black Jacobins. However, Warburg declined to publish the book because, he said, Williams’ claim that the British supported the abolition of slavery for economic rather than humanitarian reasons ran “contrary to the British tradition,” adding: “I would never publish such a book.” Thus, although the book was published in the US in 1944, it was not published in Britain until 1964.

Critics have long complained that Williams was too enamoured with economic determinism, and that his argument about the abolitionists’ motives is cynical and reductionist. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that at the time Williams was writing, most scholars ignored the extent to which the change in economic conditions had made possible the rise of abolitionism. The focus of the time was on the heroism of the abolitionists, and on the idea that they were valiant dissidents who had won an uphill battle against the powerful plantation oligarchy of the West Indies, to eventually bring about the passage of the 1806–7 laws that ended Britain’s direct involvement in the slave trade and the 1833 legislation that made it illegal for British people to own slaves. This narrative arguably encouraged British citizens to believe that Britain was an unalloyed force for good in the world, providing cover for British imperialists to impose oppressive practices in foreign countries without losing domestic support. It conveniently elided the fact that the British empire had supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War—presumably because it was economically dependent on access to US cotton, which was produced by slave labour—and that, from 1833 to 1917, British-run plantations relied on South Asian forced labour in a way that was arguably as brutal as American slavery. Moreover, as Williams points out, some prominent abolitionists were hardly humanitarians. For example, William Wilberforce’s Society for the Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion actively opposed the trade union movement, and the demands of the nascent working class for political and labour rights. As Williams puts it, sardonically, Wilberforce “was familiar with all that went on in the hold of a slave ship but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft.”

Of course, one can reject the self-serving nationalist myth of British imperial humanitarianism, and the claim that abolitionist agitation was the sole (or even dominant) cause of the end of slavery, and still acknowledge that the abolitionist movement contributed to ending it, and that the movement was infused with popular energy and strongly motivated by ideals of liberty and common humanity. As one example of the democratic universalist sentiment that helped power the abolitionist movement, the historian Adam Hochschild, in his 2005 book, Bury the Chains, describes a public meeting in 1794, in Sheffield, England—ironically one of the cities that greatly benefitted financially from the slave trade—which was attended by thousands of local metal workers who were calling for “the total and unqualified abolition of Negro slavery” and for action to “avenge peacefully ages of wrongs done to our Negro brethren.”

Nor does Williams fail to acknowledge the contribution of the abolitionists: indeed, he notes that to do so would be to “commit a grave historical error.” Rather, his point is that abolitionist sentiment would have had a negligible effect had it arisen in the earlier era of mercantile capitalism, when every national political and economic interest seemed to be supported by slavery. For example, in The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith provides an exhaustive list of the reasons that slavery is a bad system on which to base an economy—not only for moral reasons, but for economic ones—and yet he was pessimistic about the prospects of abolition. This pessimism made sense from his standpoint: the institution of slavery had existed across many cultures, and throughout many eras, and every powerful political and mercantile interest of his time supported it.

So, what changed to make the abolition of slavery possible? There was no single cause: the political and economic consensus that sustained slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had begun to dissipate by the early nineteenth century for many reasons: Enlightenment ideas about liberty began to spread, especially after the French revolution; the Haitian revolution at the end of the eighteenth century prompted more frequent and more intense slave rebellions, making the plantation system more costly; the needs of capitalism changed as it transitioned from mercantilism to industrialism; there was a growing abolitionist movement in the west; and there was inter-imperialist conflict between Britain and France (and to a lesser extent, Spain) that led to British maritime dominance, allowing Britain to blockade French trade, including the slave trade. Nevertheless, Williams was right to highlight the contribution of changing economic conditions, because in the absence of those changes, the abolitionist movement would have been unlikely to have had as much influence as it did.

Although few today argue that the effort to fuel capitalist economies played no role in supporting the institution of slavery, historians and pundits continue to debate how central that role was. Although many of them cite Williams as having argued that slavery was entirely fuelled by capitalist goals, they often fail to recognise that he also argued that industrial capitalism eventually destroyed slavery. Williams viewed slavery as crucial for pre-industrial mercantile capitalism, but argued that it was mature industrial capitalism that made slavery obsolete: he presents the demise of British mercantilism, of the late-eighteenth century coalition known as the West India Interest, and of the plantation class in the Caribbean as examples of how industrialism and free trade initiated a process of creative destruction of the slave system. He argues that industrial capitalism—a system more dynamic, innovative, productive and efficient than any previous economic regime—did not make the abolition of slavery inevitable. But it did, he writes, make it possible.

Capitalism and Slavery challenges the self-serving British imperialist narrative that admiringly characterised the historical perpetrators of slavery as having “overcome” their past, and in so doing, it became an enduring manifesto for anti-imperialism. Though complex and deep, it is succinct and tautly written. To this day, Williams’ work figures prominently in debates about the degree to which the emergence of capitalism and bourgeois society was shaped by the Atlantic slave trade. Whether one accepts his thesis or not, Capitalism and Slavery continues to be one of the strongest influences on those debates, and is one of the most original, creative and powerful history books that has ever been written. All those who are curious about this topic should have it on their bookshelves.