books race

Book review: Capitalism and slavery, by Eric Williams

This is a book that has taken a long time to find its audience. Eric Williams’ ground-breaking treatise on the economic role of slavery was good enough to secure him his doctorate from Oxford in 1938, but not for the gate-keepers of the British publishing industry, who baulked at this upstart black historian. The book was published overseas, and this is the first time it has been given a mainstream print run in Britain.

I came across Eric Williams in my research for Climate Change is Racist and found the book quite extraordinary, so I was pleased to see it getting the publishing treatment it has been denied. But why is Capitalism and Slavery so contentious? And why is it being revisited now, and issued as a Penguin modern classic?

In summary, Williams argued that “slavery was an economic institution of first importance.” Slave labour was vital in creating Britain’s early colonies, and provided a major source of the wealth that funded the industrial revolution. And when it was no longer in Britain’s interests, it was abandoned.

Early colonies need labour, and the book starts with white indentured servitude. Before Britain started importing kidnapped African labour, it was poor white people who were shipped en masse to the Carribean or Australia. They were sentenced to ‘transportation’ for trivial offences, often sentenced by judges who were themselves investors in those colonies. Williams suggests that these transported ‘servants’ experienced all the misery of the overcrowded ‘middle passage’ and the harsh treatment of their masters – with one key difference. After ten years, or whatever their sentence or the cost of their transport might be, they were free.

Over time, that meant a growing number of free citizens who would rather farm their own land than toil on the plantations. It meant growing calls for democracy and representation. And so they were replaced. The imports of slaves began, with no prospect of earning their freedom, and this cheap labour squeezed out white farmers in favour of slave plantations owned by the rich. These wealthy elites made a fortune in sugar, and conspired with a corrupt parliament back in Britain to secure themselves a monopoly on the sugar trade.

Williams goes on to chart in detail how important this cabal of mercantilist monopolists were, how they were able to buy their way to the top of the tree and enrich themselves off slavery. The enormous profits from sugar were re-invested in Britain’s infrastructure and industrial capacity, dramatically shaping the development of cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol in particular. It created vast numbers of jobs in Britain’s emerging industrial heartlands, processing the imports from the plantations, and producing goods to export to Africa in exchange for slaves.

These sorts of arguments are not uncommon today, and a generation of writers such as Sathnam Sanghera or David Olusoga are telling the story of empire from the other side. But as Williams says, the story of abolition clouds our view of slavery, and “this dependence on the slave trade has proved very awkward to sensitive and patriotic historians.”

That’s as true today as it was in 1938, but by going back to the original sources, Williams proves that the importance of the slave trade “was appreciated more by contemporaries than by later historians.” We read the words of politicians, plantation holders or industrialists, declaring slavery to be “the cornerstone of British prosperity”, the “mainspring of the machine”, the “first principle and foundation of all the rest”. If it is not understood that way now, it is because we have made excuses for ourselves in retrospect.

The book goes on to explore how the monopolies demanded by the West Indies trade fostered US independence, and how the breakaway of America undermined the triangular trade. Williams suggests – again in ways that would make him very unpopular in some circles – that free trade played a bigger role in ending slavery than the abolition movement. While it played a significant role, and so did slave rebellions – ultimately Britain ended slavery when it suited the empire to do so, and not before.

Capitalism and Slavery is rightly a modern classic, speaking directly into our understanding of who we are as a nation, and our ongoing tousling over the past. If he were writing today I imagine he’d be dismissed as a woke lefty, but because it was written in 1938, it’s like a message out of a time capsule. Eric Williams writes while the empire still existed, before 1970s socialism or 90s political correctness. He writes about free trade with none of the baggage of neoliberalism. And he touches on pertinent theories of race (very much in passing in what is an economic history) decades before Black Lives Matter.

Eric Williams went on to become the first Prime Minister of a newly independent Trinidad and Tobago, so he made his mark on history in other ways before his death in 1981. His book has been well read elsewhere, and may finally find a readership here at the heart of empire. I suspect he’d be pleased to see the book finally published, but horrified that it remains so pertinent, and that we are still arguing over these same points 80 years later.

2 comments

  1. Thaz my first Prime Minister. So many of us read this book a LONG time ago. Nothing too shocking in his analysis. That’s why we’re pushing, as a region, for reparations. So glad to see it here on your newsletter.

  2. Absolutely, and it’s the readers in the Carribean and the US over the decades that have made the book a classic. It’s just us here in the UK that have been late to recognise it, because it asks something of us that many people don’t want to talk about. But hopefully it’s a step towards the reparations that we owe.

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