Victim of its own Ambition: Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery, 3rd edition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.

Back in the spring of 2021, I acquired a book entitled Capitalism and Slavery from a University of North Carolina Press sale. I’ve been more than a little interested in the relationship between the nineteenth-century British economy and America’s peculiar institution since grad school, especially given how much more complex it was than most textbooks relate. This subject was unfortunately not covered in my new acquisition, but what I found was something much more intriguing. I was unaware of Capitalism and Slavery’s pedigree when I bought it; it is in fact a controversial classic in the historiography of Atlantic slavery, written in the 1940s by Eric WIlliams, an Oxford-educated historian and, ultimately, the first prime minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago. I very nearly did not review it for Concerning History; what could I add to the discussion of a book eight decades old? Yet as I read the introductory material to this third edition and modern historians argued for Capitalism and Slavery’s continued relevance and even prescience, I couldn’t not answer the call to asses these statements based on my own experience.

Before discussing the historical content of Williams’s work, it must be noted that this book is old. I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating and expanding, because even I did not initially grasp the implications of Capitalism and Slavery’s age. For those used to reading modern history, Williams’s writing takes some time to get used to. It is clear that he was writing for a much smaller, more professional audience, and while his prose is very accessible, his manner of introducing new material and especially historical actors flaunts every convention of assuming your audience is not familiar with your subject. He also apparently does not believe in addressing counter arguments or indeed possibly relevant material outside the scope of his own material. While it is possible to adapt to the former habit, this latter looms like a dark cloud over many of Williams’s most consequential arguments, to their detriment.

Capitalism and Slavery originated as Williams’s Oxford dissertation, and its final published form advanced three arguments concerning Atlantic slavery: first, that slavery created racism, racism did not creat slavery; second, that slavery stimulated the development of British capitalism; third, that British emancipation stemmed more from self-serving economic reasons than from humanitarianism. Any one of these could have been the subject of their own book; together, and in less than 170 pages, I had serious concerns about Williams’s ability to support them all, and in the case of the first two I was proven largely correct. His initial claim, that slavery caused racism, is a complicated one. It’s fairly accepted in academic circles that the specifics of anti-black racism in the modern world were developed in the course of slavery’s specific systems of oppression (a process entirely absent from Capitalism and Slavery), but that does not preclude initial racial prejudices incluencing the birth of Atlantic chattel slavery. Williams, however, seems to think that by demonstrating that “unfree” labor was not confined to black people, he can demonstrate that no such racial prejudice caused slavery. Unfortunately, in every description of these systems of unfree labor, Williams does not seem to recognize that the worst conditions and actual enslavement are invariably reserved only for people of color in ways that fatally undermine his argument. His second claim suffers from a different problem, namely his lack of definitions and scope. In attempting to demonstrate slavery’s central role in stimulating British capitalism, Williams does a tremendous job of demonstrating how important and wide-reaching the Atlantic trade was to Britain, yet at no point does he show any unique influence from slavery on the development of capitalism as a unique economic system, never even bothering to define capitalism for his own use. Instead, the word “capitalism” seems increasingly like a stand-in for “economy,” which substantially neuters the import of his argument: of course, as a profitable undertaking, the slave trade would stimulate the British economy and lead to further investment. So too did the East India Company, a topic he pathologically refuses to address except to dismiss it using eighteenth-century mercantilist logic that said it was a ‘bad trade’ because it drained bullion (a judgement entirely irrelevant to whether it was actually economically important).

Capitalism and Slavery’s third claim, however, more than lives up to its reputation. British abolition of the slave trade and, twenty-five years later, slavery itself, has always been somewhat odd. For another thirty years or more after freeing their own slaves amidst high-handed humanitarian rhetoric, the British had no problem fueling other nations’ slave economies through the purchase of prodigious amounts of slave-produced materials, notably American cotton and Brazilian/Cuban sugar. Rather than simply attributing this to human hypocrisy, Williams asks the question of whether this targeted humanitarianism might have served some ulterior motive. Williams clearly shows that most of these abolitionists cared little even for pressing humanitarian causes at home in Britain, let alone other locations in the empire, and were uniquely transfixed on the West Indies at precisely the time when the West Indian sugar monopoly, and indeed other surviving mercantilist monopolies such as the Corn Laws and East India Company, were also coming under attack and eventually killed. Thus, the free trade of a mature British industrial capitalism was more responsible for ending the slavery that had supported it than the humanist outrage of Wilberforce and his colleagues.

Returning to the modern commentary that convinced me to follow through with reviewing Williams’s work, I can now say that much of their defense was misguided or outright wrong. Yes, he should have been made to change the title of this monograph that deals neither with the entire system of slavery nor with the specifics of the economic system that is capitalism. No, aside from his arguments on abolition, there is and was nothing particularly groundbreaking about his research. And yet, despite its failings as a work of analytical history, Capitalism and Slavery is a fantastic history of slavery and the economic system it generate in the British West Indies from its inception to its end. It is sure to spark much discussion, but in the final accounting I cannot disagree that it remains a book worth reading, nearly eighty years after its publication.

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