Penguin’s 2022 republication of the seminal and path-breaking 1944 study Capitalism and Slavery in its “modern classics” series is hugely welcome. The reprint of the book, written by black Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams, comes in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement. It will help enable an even wider reception and engagement with one of the most influential and important works ever written on slavery in the Caribbean. As Ken Boodhoo notes, Capitalism and Slavery established Williams himself “as one of the leading intellectuals of the Third World”. Amid decolonisation, Williams developed a political career as a leading Caribbean nationalist and became the first prime minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. He held this position until his death in 1981, while continuing to write and publish works of history.
As this article will hopefully show, it is right to recognise Capitalism and Slavery as a “modern classic”. The book powerfully elucidates some fundamental truths about the development of capitalism—with a particular focus on British capitalism—and the connection of this new world system to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, particularly in the Caribbean. At a time when British Conservative and Labour politicians alike worship at the altar of patriotism and “British values”, it is vital to remember what took place in the 18th century, the “golden age” of the slave trade. At this time, “Britain was not only the foremost slave-trading country in the world”; it had become, in the words of Scottish abolitionist James Ramsay, “the ‘honourable slave carriers’ of her rivals”. This relationship to competing states such as France and Spain enabled Liverpool to become “the greatest slave-trading port in the Old World” by the end of the 18th century. Between 1690 and 1807, English slave ships carried off an estimated 2,532,300 enslaved Africans. Williams revealed how many of the “heroes” of the British ruling class were implicated in the enslavement of Africans and its defence through a slave-owning lobby group, the so-called West India Interest. These include Admiral Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and prime minister William Gladstone. Also incriminated were key institutions of the British state such as the royal family, the Church of England, banks such as Barclays and insurance houses such as Lloyd’s of London. In his The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery, historian Michael Taylor notes, “The West India Interest was not simply supported by the establishment; it was the establishment”.
Capitalism and Slavery has a timeless quality to it because it is based on detailed empirical research on contemporary colonial records and speeches of members of parliament and colonial officials. It can thus be read and re-read with profit. Indeed, profit is the operative word here. The book deals with detailed records of the British institutions and capitalists—not only sugar refiners and cotton manufacturers but also a wide range of others including shipbuilders and gun-makers—that made huge profits from slavery. There is a mass of information about the fortunes accrued in the City of London and how port cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow (as well as other cities such as Manchester and Birmingham) benefited, growing massively on the back of these profits. All this means reading the work for the first time is a shocking, unforgettable, revelatory experience, especially for many British readers. As academic Anita Rupprecht points out, “One of the most memorable aspects of Capitalism and Slavery is Williams’s naming of prominent financiers, manufacturers and commercial merchants who profited from the Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery and were also key mediators in the development of British industrialisation”. Poet and activist Michael Rosen has also commented on his first encounter with the work:
This book, recommended to me by a Jamaican fellow-student in 1968, changed my view of the world. It was the first time I was brought up hard and fast, face to face, with how modern Britain developed off the back of the transatlantic slave trade and the wealth created from the labour of slavery.
Capitalism and Slavery is perhaps best placed alongside two other seminal works of its time. The first is the great black United States radical W E B Du Bois’s 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America 1860–1880, which explores the US Civil War and its aftermath. The second is The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, published in 1938 by Williams’s compatriot and one-time teacher C L R James. This work chronicles the self-emancipation struggles of slaves during the Haitian Revolution between 1791 and 1804, led by the liberated slave and military commander Toussaint L’Ouverture. These three books by Williams, Du Bois and James should be seen as a trilogy that revolutionised the study of Atlantic slavery and abolition from a broadly Marxist perspective. All three were researched and written in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and amid the global crisis of capitalism in the 1930s. All three authors were of African descent and had ancestors who were enslaved, and all three wrote to help ideologically arm the liberation struggles against Jim Crow racism and the white supremacy of European colonialism. Moreover, all three played leading roles in these fights. The three books shared the objective of showing that the racism and imperialist domination experienced by the authors had its origins and material roots in the emerging capitalist system and the barbarism of the slave trade. Lastly, all three authors wanted to reveal the hidden history of abolition, in which the enslaved themselves played a critical role—indeed, the central role—in their own liberation.
Unlike Du Bois and James, Williams was no Marxist and never claimed to be. It is indicative of his politics that he failed to mention Karl Marx once in Capitalism and Slavery (although he did cite Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in passing). The political differences in approach between, on the one hand, Williams and, on the other hand, James and Du Bois would become steadily more apparent as decolonisation unfolded within the context of the Cold War. Nonetheless, the influence of Marxism on Capitalism and Slavery—above all through the inspiration provided by James’s own writings and thinking—is critical to understand if we are to fully appreciate the power and originality of the book.
Williams’s turn to radical history
Williams was born in 1911 into the black middle class of colonial Trinidad—a class that valorised educational achievement as a key method of advancement. James, born a decade earlier into the same class, first came across Williams in the early 1920s, when he was a small boy in shorts in the lower forms at Queen’s Royal College (QRC), the elite school James had also attended after winning an exhibition scholarship and where he was now employed as a teacher of English and history. At QRC, the rich and radical history of the Caribbean was simply missing from the curriculum; Williams described the Trinidad of this time as “politically, economically, socially, educationally, culturally and literally a British colony” in his 1969 autobiography, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister. Nonetheless, towards the middle of the 1920s, a nationalist movement emerged around the charismatic self-declared champion of “the barefooted man”, Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, who was the leader of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association.
James became a supporter of the idea of “West Indian self-government”, which was associated with Cipriani, and he even introduced elements of West Indian history into the school curriculum for the first time. In 1932, he resigned from a prestigious post as a lecturer in English and history at Trinidad’s Government Training College in order to move to Britain. His job was initially offered to Williams. However, Williams had been training for a Trinidadian government scholarship to study at Oxford University with James’s help. In 1931, Williams successfully won the distinguished Island Scholarship and followed in James’s footsteps, also arriving in Britain in 1932. James describes meeting Williams that year, “congratulating him on his scholarship and saying to him that I was glad to see that he had broken out of the law and medicine routine and was going in for history”. It is unclear what impact the mood of nationalism had on the young Williams, but James noted, “When he took history at Oxford instead of law or medicine, he made a new significant break with the colonialist mentality”.
However, James’s and Williams’s paths diverged in Britain. James became a primarily political figure, active in campaigning for West Indian self-government and then militant Pan-Africanism, also finding his way to Marxism and the tiny Trotskyist movement. The young Williams did not radicalise to anything like the same degree as James, even as the ideological crisis resulting from the economic and political chaos gripping the Europe of the Great Depression found expression at Oxford University; an Oxford Union vote in 1933 rejected fighting for “king and country”. Instead, Williams studied hard for his undergraduate degree in modern history, which involved studying Latin, French, political economy and European history from 700 to 1789. He also took British colonial history from 1830 to 1860 as a special subject. Williams later recalled, “My training was divorced from anything remotely suggestive of Trinidad and the West Indies… In my special subject, British colonial history, there were some references to the West Indies, but they were in terms of European diplomacy and European war. What I knew of slavery and the plantation economy came from Roman history”. The closest that Williams seems to have got to political activity at Oxford was attending “regular meetings of the Indian nationalist students in their club, the Majliss”.
Yet, despite their divergence, the two Trinidadian friends stayed in contact. James recalled:
Williams used to come to my house in London and spend his vacations with me. Frequently, I used to go up to Oxford and spend some time with him… He used to send me his papers from Oxford on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Plato and Aristotle for my comments.
James also recalls spending free evenings on pub crawls around London with Williams and his friends from Oxford, which he could enjoy so long as he had “Marx, Jane Austen or H G Wells in my pocket”.
In 1935, Williams graduated with first class honours and came top of his class, which was a tremendous achievement. “I had come, seen and conquered—at Oxford!” At the start of the new term in September 1935, he enrolled on another course (this time in PPE—philosophy, politics and economics) in an attempt to win a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. A month later, in October 1935, fascist Italy launched its war on the people of Ethiopia. In time-honoured fashion, Benito Mussolini declared this criminal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation “a war of civilisation and liberation” in order to justify his 19th century-style empire-building. This rationale was supported by claims that forms of slavery still existed under the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. Williams now entered the political arena for the first time. He later recalled that he “led the fight…against Italian imperialism and advocated League of Nations support for Ethiopia” at Aggrey House, a hub for colonial students in London. For the first time, as historian Pepijn Brandon notes, Williams now took part in “anti-colonial networks focused on England”, witnessing speeches by leading anti-colonial figures such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru.
Williams was unsuccessful in winning a fellowship for reasons doubtlessly connected to institutional racism at Oxford University and his status as a black colonial subject. He abandoned his PPE course in 1936 to return to historical scholarship. In the summer of 1936, Williams approached James, whose own research on the Haitian Revolution was now well advanced. James later described the conversation:
Williams came to me, as he usually did, asking me questions. He said, “I am to do a doctorate. What shall I write on?”… I told him, “I know exactly what you should write on. I have done the economic basis of slavery emancipation as it was in France. But that has never been done in Great Britain, and Britain is wide open for it. A lot of people think the British showed good will. There were lots of people who had good will, but it was the basis, the economic basis, that allowed the good will to function.” He said, “Do you think it will be good?” I said, “Fine.” He said, “Well, what shall I say?” I said, “Give me some paper!” I sat down and wrote what the thesis should be with my own hand, and I gave it to him. He must have copied it down and taken it to the Oxford authorities. Later, he told me they said it was fine. And he went from there.
Whatever input James had in formulating the primary thesis, it was the wider political situation that spurred on Williams’s research: fascist Italy’s war on Ethiopia, the material support provided by Britain and other European powers to Mussolini’s war machine, and their own continued colonial domination over Africa and the Caribbean. Amid this international context, Williams saw evidence against those who claimed that the British state played a progressive role in the abolition of slavery and continued to do so on the contemporary world stage. These included the likes of Reginald Coupland, who held the Beit professorship of colonial history at Oxford. Coupland authored The British Anti-Slavery Movement and a book about the moderate abolitionist parliamentarian William Wilberforce, Wilberforce: A Narrative. Williams explained:
Coupland, in a lecture at Oxford, stated, “The British will do justice to Africa because they are heirs and guardians of a great tradition.” As it was clear to me that they had not and were not doing justice to the West Indians, as the Hoare-Laval peace plan seemed to me to be irreconcilable with justice to Ethiopia, it became imperative to analyse the “great tradition”.
Events in Ethiopia led Williams to begin his doctorate on “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery”, which he regarded as, “of all the chapters in British colonial history, the least known”. He described this as “the most important decision I had made in my life” after the initial decision to read history at Oxford against the wishes of his father. His doctoral supervisor was Vincent Harlow, a historian of 17th century Barbados and “the premier colonial scholar at Oxford”. According to the late Trinidadian historian Selwyn Ryan, who authored a monumental biography of Williams in 2012, this decision “turned out to be one of the most critical in his academic and perhaps political career”.
Destroying the myths of abolition
James and Williams now worked very closely together in their historical researches. Whenever James went over to France for research purposes, Williams “would go with me”. They made use of pioneering French and German scholarship on British abolition. Critically important for both was also a 1928 work by US historian Lowell Joseph Ragatz, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. Like many other white US professors in the 1920s, Ragatz was personally racist. Nonetheless, he understood the need to examine the social and economic history of the Caribbean, and he traced the striking long-term structural decline of the colonial economy of the West Indies from the 1750s to the 1830s. In the 1750s, West Indian sugar planters “were the conspicuously rich men of Britain”. These often included absentee landlords such as the Lascelles family, who used the proceeds of slavery to construct the extravagant Harewood House in Yorkshire and later married into the royal family. Ragatz described this highpoint of the British slave economy in the Caribbean:
Sugar was king. They who produced it constituted the power behind the throne, and the islands on which their opulence and commanding position had been reared were regarded by all as the most valued of overseas possessions.
However, by the 1820s, the position of this once powerful planter class in the British Caribbean could not be more different. As the once beneficial monopoly of trade with Britain became a stranglehold:
The dwindling returns from their decayed properties were all but completely engrossed by creditors… The sugar colonies themselves, sunk into social and economic stagnation, were viewed with hostile eyes and their value to the homeland was commonly questioned… Never in imperial history has there been a more striking contrast.
The impact Ragatz’s thesis made on James and Williams should not be underestimated. For James, it was “yet another of those monumental pieces of research into European history that US scholarship is giving us in such profusion”. When Williams’s thesis was eventually published, he dedicated it to Ragatz, saying that his “monumental labours in this field may be amplified and developed but can never be superseded”.
While Williams was researching his doctoral thesis, the Caribbean labour rebellions, which had been steadily building, reached their crescendo. There was a mass strike in Trinidad in 1937 and a full-blown rebellion in Jamaica in 1938. Williams was regularly in London in order to do research and became a “frequent caller and guest” at the offices of the International African Service Bureau (IASB), a militant Pan-Africanist organisation. The IASB was led by another black Trinidadian radical, George Padmore. James was also an important figure, as was Amy Ashwood Garvey, a Jamaican activist and the former wife of the influential US Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. Although Williams never formally joined the IASB, he did read a draft of its pamphlet on the Caribbean labour rebellions, which was compiled by the Saint Lucian economist Arthur Lewis. In turn, James apparently read two drafts of Williams’s thesis before submission. James recalled that, “in our various ways, Padmore, myself and Lewis were part of this tremendous intellectual and political training” of Williams. Williams had “long conversations with Padmore” during this period. Later, Williams acknowledged Padmore’s contribution to conceiving his thesis, even if he considered Padmore to be “more journalist than historian”. As Boodhoo notes, “Interactions with these two radicals must have contributed to the radical slant of Williams’s thesis”. Indeed, Williams would later talk of himself, James and Padmore as “the Trinidadian trinity” that challenged British imperialist ideology. James spoke of “the long discussions we had as to what the thesis” of Williams’s work “should be and how it should be tackled”.
The Marxist analysis of abolition developed by James underpins Williams’s argument. This analysis is no supplementary correction to the conventional thesis of humanitarianism. Instead, it represented a revolutionary overthrow of the contemporary idealistic story of abolition put forward by historians such as Coupland. In 1935, for example Coupland gave a lecture on “The Meaning of Wilberforce”:
The conscience of all England was awakened. That, in a word, is how the slave system was abolished. Not because it was good policy or good business to abolish it—it was neither, it was the opposite—but simply because of its iniquity.
Against this idealistic interpretation, the Marxist analysis stressed the material foundations of abolition. In his The Black Jacobins, James agreed that “profits were always high” in the slave trade, but went on to simply point out that “nothing, however profitable, goes on forever”. It seemed clear from Ragatz’s work that the British abolished the slave trade partly because they were slowly realising that slavery itself was less profitable than free labour and that the old mercantilist system was potentially less profitable than free trade. James continued:
The rising industrial bourgeoisie, feeling its way to free trade…was beginning its victorious attack upon the agricultural monopoly, which was to culminate in the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The West Indian sugar producers were monopolists whose methods of production afforded an easy target… Adam Smith and Arthur Young, the forerunners of the new era, condemned the whole principle of slave labour as the most expensive in the world.
He then tore into Coupland with typically devastating wit:
Those who see in abolition the gradually awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few minutes asking themselves why it is that man’s conscience, which had slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of production in the West Indian colonies.
James denounces Coupland’s ilk as “a venal race of scholars” and “profiteering panders to national vanity” who “conspired to obscure the truth about abolition”. Arguably for the very first time in the English language, James had, in the words of historian of slavery Roger Anstey, articulated “an ingenious explanation of how humanitarian motives were subordinated to economics in the William Pitt the Younger’s conduct of abolition in the 1790s”. This breakthrough was doubtlessly helped considerably by Williams, who spent two years undertaking doctoral research in the Public Record Office on parliamentary papers, Hansard, various documents from the Colonial Office and Foreign Office, and the collection of Pitt’s correspondence known as the Chatham papers.
According to James, the battle over abolition was more than a struggle between the stagnant West Indian sugar planter class (alongside their representatives in parliament) and the dynamic industrial bourgeoisie in Britain. Rather, ending slavery was “but one stage in the successive victories of the industrial bourgeoisie over the landed aristocracy” that shaped the development of British capitalism in the 19th century. Moreover, it was also a struggle between two factions of the British capitalist class: the “British bourgeois”, who were the “most successful of slave-traders”, and “those British bourgeois who had no West Indian interests” who, “with tears rolling down their cheeks for the poor suffering blacks…set up a great howl for the abolition of the slave trade”.
James’s conclusions did not dishonour the memory of the great historic contribution made by “those millions of honest English nonconformists who listened to their clergymen and gave strength to the English movement for the abolition of slavery”. Indeed, these people would be “remembered with gratitude and affection” by “the sons of Africa and the lovers of humanity”. Yet, James damned the likes of Wilberforce; invoking a phrase of the colonial magnate Cecil Rhodes, he lambasted “the ‘philanthropy plus five per cent’ hypocrites in the British Houses of Parliament”. As James had written in his 1938 A History of Negro Revolt:
The abolitionists, it is true worked very hard… Thomas Clarkson, in particular, was a very honest and sincere man. But that a considerable and influential section of British men of business thought that the slave trade was not only a blot on the national name, but a growing hole in the national pocket, was the point that mattered.
Williams brought this point home throughout his 1938 dissertation. Since Coupland was one his examiners, as Cedric Robinson notes, “It had been incumbent on Williams to produce a rigorous essay documented extensively by primary sources”. He certainly achieved that. The dissertation (which was finally published in 2014) has a tight chronological focus on the period of 50 years period between the American Revolution in 1783 and the abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1833. It concentrated on the campaign for abolition in the imperial metropolis of Britain and, in particular, the parliamentary debates of this time. The focus on abolition means that it did not discuss the making of New World colonial slavery, but it did stress the debt owed to the slave trade by cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and London, pointing to the role of the “West India interest” in Britain. Williams also showed that fear of slave revolts, particularly following the victory of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, was a key factor in abolition: “After San Domingo had gone up in flames, the fear of a servile war hung like a sword of Damocles over the head of the planters in the British islands”. Economist and historian William Darity explains:
The Haitian Revolution was the decisive event in Williams’s abolition thesis… Pitt sought a reconquest of San Domingo after the slave revolt had wrenched it from the French. The reconquest failed. Only when the effort failed in the 1790s, Williams argued, did abolition become an easier cause to win.
As Darity stresses, Williams’s many critics simply ignore the fact that “it is not the decline or prosperity of the British West Indies that lies at the heart of Williams’s abolition narrative… The control and conquest of San Domingo is the centrepiece of his abolition narrative”. Thus, the dissertation’s detailed discussion of the impact of the Haitian Revolution on British metropolitan politics serves as the complementary companion work to James’s The Black Jacobins.
Williams’s thesis leaves the reader with no doubt about the moral bankruptcy of the wealthy parliamentary representatives of the abolition movement as well as the political corruption and hypocrisy demonstrated by parliament over the question of “humanitarianism”. He excelled at condemning figures such as Pitt by damning them through their own mouths. Williams later reflected on his thesis:
All the dice were loaded against me… At Oxford, I had committed the unpardonable sin—I had challenged the British interpretation of the abolition of slavery. I have not been forgiven—as if it is my fault that the British utilised and profited from slavery and then threw the emancipated West Indians onto the rubbish heap. I still recall how I was told, in unambiguous language, that if I persisted in my analysis of Pitt’s policy in respect of slavery and the slave trade in the war with France, not only would my thesis be failed but, in the opinion of the spokesman, rightly failed.
The dissertation’s radically democratic but anti-parliamentary streak made it less than ideal from the perspective of British publishers; Britain was about to go to war against Nazi Germany, nominally in defence of parliamentary democracy. In 1939, Williams approached several publishers, including the radical Fredric Warburg, who had recently published George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and anti-colonial classics such as Padmore’s Africa and World Peace and James’s The Black Jacobins.
I tried to get my thesis published. No one would buy. Warburg, Britain’s most revolutionary publisher…told me: “Mr Williams, are you trying to tell me that the slave trade and slavery were abolished for economic and not humanitarian reasons? I would never publish such a book, for it would be contrary to the British tradition”.
Capitalism and Slavery
In 1938, both Williams and James moved to the US. Williams had been unable, again due to institutional racism, to easily find an academic post in Britain, so he accepted an assistant professorship at Howard University, a historically black institution in Washington DC. James’s move was initially supposed to be temporary; he was part of a lecture tour on black and colonial liberation for a US Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers Party. In reality, James ended up staying for 15 years. The two remained personally close.
From 1943, as Williams revised his thesis for publication, he began bringing in a wider and more systematic critique of capitalism. For the first time, he used the words “capitalist” and “capitalism” rather than more neutral references to “the economy”. In 1944, he was finally able to secure publication of his new work with the University of North Carolina Press with support from Ragatz. It would be titled Capitalism and Slavery, and he sent his draft to James for comments. Among other comments, James pointed out that the draft said a lot about slave-owners but little about the enslaved themselves. This convinced Williams to quickly add the final chapter, “The Slaves and Slavery”, making use of material from his dissertation that described official responses to the rising tide of slave revolts in the British Caribbean after the Haitian Revolution (most notably, in Barbados in 1816, British Guiana in 1923 and Jamaica in 1831). As Williams now put it in Capitalism and Slavery:
The successful slave revolt in San Domingo was a landmark in the history of slavery in the New World… After 1804, when the independent republic of Haiti was established, every white slave-owner in Jamaica, Cuba and Texas lived in dread of another Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Indeed, “The most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave himself… To coercion and punishment, he responded with indolence, sabotage and revolt”. In 1833, therefore, “The alternatives were clear: emancipation from above, or emancipation from below. But EMANCIPATION”.
Williams paid tribute to James’s The Black Jacobins, where “the thesis advanced in this book is stated clearly and concisely and, as far as I know, for the first time in English”. Williams also deployed the innovative theoretical analysis of capitalism and slavery developed by James’s book, which included an outstanding application of the “law of uneven and combined development” associated with Leon Trotsky. James had explored how the plantations and slave ships of the Atlantic world were fundamentally modern capitalist institutions, which not just enriched the French and British bourgeoisies but were actually created by them and, in turn, shaped them. James described plantations as “huge sugar factories” and the enslaved as a proto-proletariat, “closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time”. Hence, the Haitian Revolution was thus “a thoroughly prepared and organised mass movement”. When the enslaved of San Domingo rose, they did so as “revolutionary labourers”; when they set fire to the plantations, James compared them to “the Luddite wreckers” who resisted the attacks on English textile workers in the 19th century. James’s views about the essential modernity of the West Indian working class was vindicated by the recent Caribbean labour rebellions, and he described the most militant rebels of the Haitian Revolution as “revolutionaries through and through…brothers of the Cordeliers in Paris and the Vyborg workers in Petrograd”. It was James’s grasp of the modernity of the transatlantic slave trade and the slave experience that made The Black Jacobins such an outstanding advance on all previous scholarship as much as his understanding of the class dynamics of abolition.
In Capitalism and Slavery, Williams built on James—indeed, even going further than him—in describing the capitalist nature of the development of the plantations in the British Caribbean of the 17th century: “King Sugar had begun his depredations, changing flourishing commonwealths of small farmers into vast sugar factories owned by a camarilla of absentee capitalist magnates and worked by a mass of alien proletarians”. As Nick Nesbitt explains in much technical detail in The Price of Slavery: Capitalism and Revolution in the Caribbean, equating colonial slavery with alienated wage labour (or “wage slavery”) is, from a strict Marxist perspective, a categorical error. Only wage labour produces value (as opposed to profit), and James thus only went as far as describing the enslaved as “closer to a modern proletariat” than other groups of workers at the time, rather than claiming they were actually proletarians in the full sense. Nonetheless, Williams made clear his view that the slave-owning planter class in the West Indies were capitalists and the enslaved Africans, who they often worked to death on their “vast sugar factories”, essentially represented a mass of “proletarians”: “Sugar was and is essentially a capitalist undertaking, involving not only agricultural operations but the crude stages of refining as well… There could be only two classes in such a society: wealthy planters and oppressed slaves”. This basic configuration continued even after slavery had been abolished, and the plantations remained. Williams claims that, amid the “dollar diplomacy of our own time” and “under US capital, we have witnessed the transformation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic into huge sugar factories…owned abroad and operated by alien labour on the British West Indian pattern”.
The primary accumulation
In 1964, after Capitalism and Slavery was published in Britain, this journal carried an appreciative review of the book by Tony Cliff, founder of the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff also looked at another work on slavery, Daniel P Mannix and Malcolm Cowley’s Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1518-1865 (Longman’s, Green and Co, 1962). The short but succinct review is worth quoting in full:
Williams’s book is a very interesting piece of Marxist research. It is an attempt to place in historical perspective the relation between early capitalism and negro slavery. It shows how the slave trade provided the necessary capital for the industrial revolution in England and how mature industrial capitalism destroyed the slave system. It is a study in the economic history of England and the West Indies. The book is very useful for understanding the process of “primitive capital accumulation” in rising capitalism, incidentally giving short shrift to “liberals”, Stalinists and fellow travellers in the “Third World”.
Black Cargoes is a very colourful descriptive history of the Atlantic slave trade between 1518 and 1865. It shows quite clearly that capitalism, not only in its death agony—not only in Auschwitz and Hiroshima—but even at its birth, was brutal and brutalising.
As Cliff points out, a key merit of Capitalism and Slavery is that Williams (consciously or not) added a wealth of detail to the sketching out of the process of the “primitive” or “primary accumulation of capital” provided by chapter 31 of Marx’s Capital. There Marx described how “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”, building up the initial capital needed to set the system in motion through colonisation and enslavement:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins, are all things that characterise the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.
This is not the place to review Marx’s many other writings on slavery, some of which have only been brought to light in recent years. It is, however, noteworthy that, as early as 1847, in his The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx pointed out that slavery was “an economic category of the greatest importance”:
Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits and so on. Without slavery, you have no cotton; without cotton, you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry.
Cliff viewed Williams’s clear description of the capitalist nature of colonial slavery as not just in line with Marx’s own perspective, but also as having wider implications. By disproving the claims of some left-wing theorists that slavery was a “pre-capitalist” phenomenon, Williams’s analysis implicitly showed the folly of a stageist road to socialism that postpones the struggle for workers’ power to a distant future in favour of building alliances with “progressive capitalists” in order to secure “democracy”.
Williams’s account of primary capital accumulation through what he called “the barbarous removal of the Negroes from Africa” has been deepened by subsequent Marxist works on slavery such as Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1972), Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 (Verso, 1997), Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human Story (Penguin, 2007) and many others. As Blackburn writes, “Plantation slavery was an artificial extension of mercantile and manufacturing capital in the age of capitalist transition, extending their reach at a time when fully capitalist social relations were still struggling into existence”. Earlier, Williams had explained:
The Atlantic triangular trade…gave a triple stimulus to British industry. Negroes were purchased with British manufactures; transported to the plantations, they produced sugar, cotton, indigo, molasses and other tropical products, the processing of which created new industries in England; while the maintenance of the Negroes and their owners on the plantations provided another market for British industry, New England agriculture and the Newfoundland fisheries. By 1750, there was hardly a trading or manufacturing town in England that was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England that financed the Industrial Revolution.
Importantly, Williams also recognised the critical role of the exploitation of the newly emerging working class in Britain itself for the Industrial Revolution:
It must not be inferred that the triangular trade was solely and entirely responsible for the economic development. The growth of the internal market in England, the ploughing in of the profits from industry to generate still further capital and achieve still greater expansion, played a large part.
Indeed, part of Williams’s critique of the parliamentary leadership of the abolitionist movement was that they ignored the horrendous exploitation all around them in Britain:
The abolitionists were not radicals. In their attitude to domestic problems, they were reactionary. The Methodists offered the workers Bibles instead of bread, and Wesleyan capitalists exhibited open contempt for the working class. 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.
Nesbitt has challenged William’s analysis of primary accumulation and the rise of capitalism, claiming he viewed capitalist development as an inevitable result of human nature:
Williams develops his argument as though capitalism were an immanent natural tendency of human nature: an inevitable, recurring, transhistorical opportunity to realise profits in the exchange of commodities that had been historically hindered until the accumulation of British Atlantic wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries.
According to Nesbitt, this makes it impossible for Williams to explain why the slave trade drove primary accumulation and the rise of capitalism in a country such as England but not other colonial powers such as Spain:
In the absence of any working definition of capitalism, it is impossible for Williams to explain, to take the most obvious example, why the accumulation of enormous wealth by Spanish colonisation of the Americas…failed to drive a transition to capitalism but instead merely fuelled the continued expansion of essentially feudal societies.
However, this criticism seems entirely misplaced. Williams, again following James, stressed the importance of bourgeois-democratic revolutionary upheavals such as the English, American and French Revolutions for the transition from feudalism to capitalism. For him, capitalism is not an “immanent natural tendency of human nature”. Instead, he underlined the importance of political revolutions and class agency to the development of capitalism. Through such political upheavals, the “rising capitalist class” removed “severe feudal laws” and other barriers to capital accumulation. Those influenced by the Political Marxism school of history, which includes Nesbitt, may reject the concept of “bourgeois revolution”, but Williams did not. Instead, he described the role of bourgeois revolution in opening the way for capitalist development and the slave trade: “When, by 1660, the political and social upheavals of the English Civil War came to an end, England was ready to embark wholeheartedly on a branch of commerce whose importance to her sugar and her tobacco colonies in the New World was beginning to be fully appreciated”. Revolution in England and France meant that “what was characteristic of British capitalism was typical also of capitalism in France”, enabling them to “usher in the modern world of industrial development and parliamentary democracy with its attendant liberties”. This contrasted with the statis of feudal Spain, which did not experience a similar bourgeois revolution.
As part of explaining how the Atlantic slave trade emerged alongside capitalism, Capitalism and Slavery also expanded upon James’s arguments in The Black Jacobins about the systematic racism that arose accordingly. James had noted, “From no classes of people have Negroes suffered more from than the capitalists of Britain and America. They have been the most pertinacious preachers of race prejudice in the world”. Williams, like James, had doubtless had a big dose of both British racism and the Jim Crow racism in the US by the early 1940s. His first chapter in Capitalism and Slavery explored the rise of racialisation as a process in some detail, famously declaring, “Slavery was not born of racism; racism was the consequence of slavery”. The “money that procured a white man’s services for ten years could buy a Negro for life”, and thus the reason for mass black enslavement “was economic, not racial”. It had to do “not with the colour of the labourer, but the cheapness of the labour”, and it was rooted in the desperate need of the slave societies for labour to work the plantations. With the Enlightenment spreading ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, “Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalise Negro slavery, to exact the mechanical obedience of a ploughing ox or a carthorse—to demand that resignation and complete moral and intellectual subjugation that alone makes slave labour possible”.
The ecology of slavery
Interestingly, Capitalism and Slavery displays an awareness of some of the ecological dimensions of the system of slavery. Williams points to the damage caused by soil erosion and deforestation in the Caribbean by generations of monoculture production practised through the plantation system. In 1876, Friedrich Engels had exclaimed, “What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees! What cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!” Williams explained that, “From the standpoint of the grower, the greatest defect of slavery lies in the fact that it quickly exhausts the soil.” “Rotation of crops and scientific farming” are “alien to slave societies”, which treated both human life and the land as of little worth. The cheapness of slave labour disincentivised investment in more advanced agricultural methods; as the 19th century Irish classical political economist John Elliott Cairnes wrote, the slave planter was, “In the picturesque nomenclature of the South, a ‘land killer’” who exhausted both slave and soil.
The plantations not only drove this type of direct ecological degeneration, but also helped accumulate the mercantile and manufacturing capital that fed the emergence of fossil-fuel driven industrial capitalism. Of course, Williams did not know about the full environmental consequences of the shift to a fossil fuel-based economy in Britain in the early 19th century. Nevertheless, he was still able to note that “it was the capital accumulated from the West Indian trade that financed James Watt and the steam engine”. Today, we can grasp the importance of the transition from water power to steam power and the concomitant rise of coal, and Williams highlighted the role profits from slavery played in this jump.
From revolution to realpolitik
While he was researching and writing Capitalism and Slavery, Williams understood that the logic of the book’s argument was not only anti-colonial, but also anti-capitalist:
Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance. It had been the basis of the Greek economy and had built up the Roman Empire. In modern times, it provided the sugar for the tea and coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton that served as a base for modern capitalism. It made the US South and the Caribbean. Seen in historical perspective, it forms part of that general picture of the harsh treatment of the underprivileged classes, the unsympathetic poor laws and severe feudal laws, and the indifference with which the rising capitalist class was “beginning to reckon prosperity in terms of pounds sterling and…becoming used to the idea of sacrificing human life to the deity of increased production”.
This was powerful stuff. Yet, as early as the 1940s, Williams tried to balance his principles as a “public intellectual” and radical scholar with attempts to build a conventional career in Caribbean nationalist politics. Between 1942 and 1944, he cultivated sympathetic contacts in the British and US ruling classes. This helped him secure a period of employment with the Office of the Coordinator of Information, a US propaganda and intelligence institution that later became the Office of Strategic Services and was a predecessor organisation of the infamous Central Intelligence Agency. This opened the way for him to win a place working with the newly formed Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, and he tried to push for reforms through exploiting the tensions between the rising US empire and the declining British Empire.
The reception of Capitalism and Slavery
Far from being hailed as a “modern classic” when it was first published in 1944, Capitalism and Slavery was generally met with an embarrassing silence from Western scholars. Once Williams became the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago in 1962, the book could no longer be ignored and was met with a ceaseless barrage of criticism. As Dale Tomich explains, “Williams’s subtle and complex argument” about capitalism and imperialism was “reduced to the question of whether or not slavery was ‘profitable’” in the Caribbean. The critics judged that slavery was profitable and that his whole argument, rather than certain specifics, must thus be “incorrect”.
This article is not the place to try and assess all the arguments and debates in the voluminous scholarly literature generated by Williams’s work, which is still proliferating. Nevertheless, the fertility of the debate generated by Williams is recognised even by the most serious and substantial efforts to critique the supposed “economic determinism” of what became known as the “Williams thesis”: Seymour Drescher’s Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977). Drescher writes that Williams’s “search for the ecology of British anti-slavery, its general social and imperial context…has generated the most fruitful and most intense controversy”. Of course, talk of a “most intense controversy” was a somewhat euphemistic description of how Capitalism and Slavery suffered caricature, misinterpretation, ridicule and sustained attack from the Western historical establishment in a manner few other works have. Perhaps this was to be expected given the book’s strident title, which Williams courageously fought with his publishers to keep. One doubts Milton Friedman had the same problem with his 1962 paean to the “free market”, Capitalism and Freedom. Given all this, Nesbitt is right to claim the book’s mere existence “constitutes an ideological intervention”, because it “unites what liberal, imperialist ideology had studiously held apart: the moral odium of slavery and the glorious historical progress of capitalism”.
Yet there was a deeper, almost psychological, aspect to the backlash. In a brilliant 1987 article on “Capitalism, Slavery and Bourgeois Historiography” in History Workshop Journal, Cedric Robinson explained that the book was attacked because it “struck a vital nerve at the ideological core of Western historiography”. In the century before its publication, Western scholarship had failed to seriously grapple with the hard social and economic questions relating to what the enslaved called the “barbarity time”. Race, slavery, the slave trade, abolition and imperialism—and the inextricable intertwining of these issues with the development of capitalism as a world system—were pushed to one side. Instead, scholars generally justified the ever-growing expansion of European power by inventing a new nationalist tradition associated with ideas of imperial “humanitarianism” and the West’s “civilising mission”. British scholars in the Whig tradition comforted themselves with the liberal myth of progress, stressing that there were two main things to know about slavery. First, the slave trade and slavery were abolished across the breadth of the British Empire, respectively, in 1807 and 1833. Second, abolition was the result of a glorious “moral crusade” waged from above by progressive European states, pressured by the campaigning of philanthropic politicians such as Wilberforce. Williams famously derided this legend: “The British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it”. This mythology lived on in Williams’s detractors. Darity notes, “Critics tend to pick at Williams’s text rather than confront head on their own implicit belief that Christian missionary zeal was sufficient to change the world in the face of the pecuniary and strategic interests of those who ostensibly wanted the world unchanged”.
In recent decades, however, we have seen quite a remarkable shift in the historiography of slavery and abolition. There is a growing interest in an emergent historiographical school, the so-called New History of Capitalism, with a section of economic historians wanting to take the role of slavery more seriously than many have done in the past. In Britain, for example, we have benefited from the recent work of historians involved in the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project at University College London, which has built up a public database of the records of the compensation paid out to slave-owners when slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. This project has vindicated Williams’s essential argument in Capitalism and Slavery that the economic foundations through which Britain became “great” were constructed in no small part through the forced labour of enslaved Africans. As Williams wrote, “The triangular trade made an enormous contribution to Britain’s industrial development. The profits from this trade fertilised the entire productive system of the country”.
In their study of colonial slavery and the “formation of Victorian Britain”, Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Donington and Rachel Lang argue that “slave-wealth” was not just “important to the social, cultural and political fabric” of 19th century Britain, but also that “wealth from ownership of slaves was among the significant forces reshaping British society and culture in the 19th century”. They write, “Capital from the British colonial slave economy was a significant contributor to remaking Britain’s commercial and, to a lesser extent, industrial fabric all the way through the first half of the 19th century.” In their detailed and valuable scholarly survey of the recent state of the debate surrounding Capitalism and Slavery, they conclude, “It appears to us that there is now movement—by no means linear, but perceptible—towards a modified version of Williams’s position among economic historians”.
The legacy of Eric Williams
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Williams galvanised a nationalist mass movement in Trinidad and Tobago around his new People’s National Movement, giving many powerful and inspiring anti-colonialist speeches in Woodford Square, a public space in Port-of-Spain, the Trinidadian capital. Here, at what he called “the University of Woodford Square”, he declared “massa day done”. Yet, despite this work, Williams was never an anti-capitalist radical or a socialist, let alone a Marxist. Trinidadian historian Walton Look Lai instead describes him as “a complex liberal nationalist, often torn between the militancy of his anti-colonial sentiments and a liberal’s pragmatic realism about Third World potentialities”.
In 1962, when Williams became Trinidadian prime minister, he signalled to the wider world that he was happy to side with Western capitalism and US imperialism in the Cold War. This led to a break with James, his one-time mentor. Williams was now himself worshipping “the deity of increased production”; indeed, as a representative of the new post-colonial capitalist ruling class in Trinidad and Tobago, he was benefitting from it. In his address on the day the country gained independence in 1962, he declared that “Production” was to be a key part of the slogan of the new nation “for all time”. Its other components would be “Discipline” and the liberal virtue of “Tolerance”. Williams, doubtlessly aiming partly at the nation’s strong labour movement, proclaimed, “Indiscipline, whether individual or sectional, is a threat to democracy. Slacking on the job jeopardises the national income, inflates costs and merely sets a bad example”. However, the real “threat to democracy” in Trinidad would ultimately come from Williams’s own increasingly autocratic style of government; his Industrial Stabilisation Act banned unregulated strike activity, and James was actually put under house arrest in 1965. Throughout the 1960s, as Look Lai notes, “Despite all his militant rhetoric, Williams had studiously avoided any attempt to touch the traditional economic arrangements inherited from the colonial order”.
In 1970, a Black Power rebellion erupted against Williams’s government. This revolt from below was part of a wider wave of radicalism across the region. Williams was shaken to his core, and he was almost toppled. He responded by declaring a state of emergency in 1971, arresting and imprisoning militant leaders of the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union such as George Weekes. He then imposed a further limitation on trade union power through the Industrial Relations Act in 1972. Williams was saved politically by the boom in oil prices after the 1973 global oil shock. As the decade wore on, it became opportune for him to shift towards increasing state intervention in order to minimise foreign economic domination and reorganise national economic planning. Such measures had been advocated by his left-wing critics since the 1960s. Look Lai concludes that, by the late 1970s, “Trinidad remained a low-keyed but decisively altered economic order from the one that had existed between 1956 and 1970, proclaiming no ideology or doctrine but concretely achieving far more than many of its more high profile radical neighbours.” All this took place “in a social atmosphere that mixed pragmatic left liberalism with rampant corruption and opportunism”.
Overall, we should draw inspiration from Williams the radical historian influenced by Marxism, not Williams the liberal bourgeois nationalist politician who collaborated with Western imperialism. Williams’s Preface to Capitalism and Slavery speaks as much to our moment as to the global crisis of the 1930s and 1940s within which they were originally written: “Every age rewrites history, but particularly ours, which has been forced by events to re-evaluate conceptions of history and economic and political development.” Moreover, as Williams concluded, history should be a “guidepost” to action, not merely “cultural decoration or a pleasant pastime, equally useless in these troubled times”. He warned that the ideas of racism (particularly, though not limited to the idea of the “inferiority of the Negro”) had survived the end of slavery and continue to “work their old mischief”, repeatedly reproducing themselves within capitalism: “We have to guard not only against these old prejudices but also against the new that are being constantly created”.
Capitalism and Slavery is a vital work for the ongoing arguments about reparations and attempts to seek justice for the slave trade. This dark passage in history saw the criminal enslavement of millions, which followed the genocide of the Caribbean’s indigenous people. As Williams remarked, “The blood of the Negro slaves reddened the Atlantic and both its shores. Strange that an article like sugar, so sweet and necessary to human existence, should have occasioned such crimes and bloodshed!” In his important 2013 work, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles writes:
Williams had constructed the framework for the reparations case. Capitalism and Slavery still represents the most persuasive articulation of the evidence… The modern Caribbean reparations movement is a legal, political and moral response of grassroots organisations and political networks to the evidence presented by many scholars, but notably in Williams’s seminal study.
Capitalism and Slavery was not only about challenging British “forgetting”; it was also about Caribbean “remembering”. It concerned itself with explaining how the economic logics and material legacies of enslavement laid the ground for the impoverished political and economic conditions of the mid-20th century West Indies. Williams meticulously detailed these conditions in his first published book, The Negro in the Caribbean (Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1943). The modern reparations movement, alongside Black Lives Matter, is beginning to win important victories such as the glorious toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020. However, if the reparations movement is to truly win anything like justice for those who were once enslaved, the capitalist system must be destroyed. This system has already sacrificed so many lives in the past for profit; today, once more, it places profit before people and planet. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken”. We should draw inspiration from those who broke their chains during what Blackburn refers to as “the overthrow of colonial slavery” and prepare for those revolutionary working-class struggles ahead that are necessary for the overthrow of wage slavery.
Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is the co-editor, with David Featherstone and Alan Rice, of Revolutionary Lives of the Red and Black Atlantic since 1917 (Manchester University Press, 2022).