Book: Capitalism & Slavery, by Eric Williams (1944)

This has been on my “to read” list for a couple of years now, ever since coming across it in a British Empire seminar, and I finally picked it up for my dissertation.

It’s pretty much a seminal, though not uncontroversial, work on the history of the slave trade and industrial revolution, and how the latter built upon the former; and, in particular, how the abolition of the slave trade was not purely humanitarian but itself economically motivated.

He covers the slave trade and slave-labour-dependent industries right back to the seventeenth century, detailing the economic reasoning behind it at each stage; why certain industries found slave labour profitable (generally those which were both labour-intensive and land-intensive, like sugar and cotton), and why, as industrial and geopolitical developments occurred over the course of the eighteenth century, the political power of the West Indian plantation owners was reduced. I was particularly interested in some of the ideological motivations, both for the development of slavery itself and for the abolition, and how these hid the material reasons behind both of these processes.

At the beginning of the slave trade he details how the concept of racism (other authors might argue, even the concept of race) was secondary to economic concerns; racism only developed as a justification when it became clear that the African slave trade was a profitable source of labour. Towards its end, he gives many examples of double standards applied against British versus non-British slave labour; campaigns against slave-produced sugar, for example, were not (in most cases, at least until decades later) accompanied by those against slave-produced cotton. On another level, he also discusses the contempt many anti-slavery campaigners had for the working class (and, conversely, the contempt some working-class activists had for Africans) — ‘Saint’ William Wilberforce, he says, ‘was familiar with everything that went on in the hold of a slave ship, but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft’.

He doesn’t go into much, if any, detail about the period after abolition; I’ve heard the claim that ex-slaveowners used the capital (or the compensation) to invest in developing industry in Britain, but there’s little here to support or refute that, nor much about ongoing British dependence on slavery post-1833.

An interesting, though disappointing, aspect was the section on slaves’ own struggles against slavery. This was mostly detailed in the final chapter, an addition to the thesis which formed the original basis for the work, but failed to go into much depth; other books are likely to be better on the topic (C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins comes to mind).

An aside: a little while ago I spotted, on Goodreads, a new edition re-titled “British Capitalism and British Slavery”, with the claim that this “more aptly captures Williams’s work”. This seemed suspicious from the outset: an attempt to limit the scope and thus absolve non-British capitalism of complicity in slavery. Capitalism even by the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a global phenomenon, and British industry depended on (and defended) slavery in America decades after it was abolished in the Empire. The conclusion confirms this feeling, explicitly arguing against titling the book “British Capitalism”. This is expanded on in the introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition, which quotes from letters between Williams and the (American) publisher in which he specifically opposes any title that would limit its scope to Britain and the British West Indies. Retitling the book posthumously, against the author’s explicit wishes, seems deceitful; giving the book a title which the text of the book itself argues against just seems incompetent.