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Over seventy years since publication, the first British edition of Eric Williams’ classic Capitalism and Slavery remains vital, despite establishment critics, argues John Westmoreland

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Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Penguin 2022), 304pp.

 

Blood at the root

The republication of Eric Williams’ classic account of Britain’s role in the slave economy of the Americas and the Caribbean comes at a time when there is a renewed interest in Britain’s role in the slave trade, stimulated by the Black Lives Matter protests that rocked cities across the UK and USA.

Williams’ thesis, first published in the USA in 1944, has rightly been hailed by discerning scholars as a masterpiece. For some reason – you will have to guess - the book has not been published here in the UK before. Williams’ argument has come to be known as the ‘Decline Thesis’ because it links the decline of the slave economy in the Caribbean with its eventual abolition.

In 1944, Capitalism and Slavery provided a starting point for a new generation of students interested in the history of slavery and the civil rights of Black Americans. Written in an elegant and persuasive style, the book postulates an analysis that owes much to Marx’s writings about the origins of capitalism, and where the capital that financed the system that bears its name came from.

In short, Williams argues that the trade in slaves and the profits from the plantations on which they laboured provided the capital that funded the industrial revolution in England and Scotland, and built the great port cities connected with the ‘triangular trade’. Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol, and London were at the northern tip of a trade triangle connecting the coast of Africa with the Caribbean and American colonies. Manufactures left Britain for the west African coast where they were traded for slaves, a human cargo that was shipped to Britain’s colonies to be traded in turn for the valuable commodities of cotton, tobacco, rum and sugar.

Sugar was the commodity that enriched investors in the City of London. The ‘sugar barons’ were renowned for preposterous wealth, and many stately homes were built and furnished through sugar wealth. The insatiable appetite for sugar in Europe exacted a terrible toll on the slaves who worked the plantations. The demand for sugar generated the demand for slaves.

However, as capitalism matured, the capitalists started to favour the free market views expressed by Adam Smith and turned against the mercantilist slave system that protected an inefficient and insatiable planter class. Free markets favoured an expanding empire where British finance outmatched foreign competition. This shift in thinking was prompted by the decline of the slave economy in Britain’s Caribbean possessions that set in after the American colonies gained their independence in 1776. The steps to the abolition of the slave trade and slave emancipation in the colonies thereafter link closely to the development of British capitalism.

Firstly, when the slave trade was abolished in 1807, economic considerations loomed large. In market terms British colonial sugar production lagged behind that of Saint Domingue (Haiti) and Brazil. Indeed Saint Domingue produced more sugar than all the British colonies combined, and the growing market in North America, freed from the obligation to buy British sugar, meant the protection of British sugar from cheaper suppliers made little economic sense.

The economic case for the abolition of the slave trade was strengthened by the calculation that the slave population in the West Indies could be replenished naturally and the navy could be put to more useful tasks than policing the Caribbean.

Secondly, after the capitalist class confirmed its political ascendency in Britain after the passing of the so-called Great Reform Act in 1832, it was swiftly followed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that ‘emancipated’ slaves in the Caribbean. By this time the sugar supply was boosted by production in India and European grown sugar beet. Again the market triumphed over protection. The only negative economic aspect was that the slave owners had to be paid compensation for their loss of ‘property’.

The final nail in the coffin of mercantilism came in 1846 when the protective sugar duties were finally abandoned. At this point British pre-eminence in the world saw them commit wholeheartedly to the free market where they held sway. The protective Corn Laws, a constant annoyance to free-market ideologues, were also repealed at this time.

Therefore Williams established a clear connection to the development of capitalism and the move to slave emancipation. This connection of capitalism to the barbarities of the slave trade and slave production continues to enrage conservative thinkers. And it’s not just that the capitalist system is shown to be rooted in the blood and misery of enslaved Africans. Even more infuriating is Williams’ exposure of the real reasons for abolition as being in the economic interests of capitalists rather than the evident determination and humanitarianism of the abolitionist movement.

A good many national myths had been developed concerning William Wilberforce and his abolitionist ‘saints’, and these are myths that the Tories are out to preserve.

The attacks on Williams’ thesis

 

1. The Conservative agenda

That the publication of Capitalism and Slavery has produced an instant reaction (and condemnation) on the Conservative Home page says something about the likely effect it will have on a new readership.

Tory MP David Davis has taken up the cudgels against Williams and brought all his intellectual might to bear. His argument, the less hyperbolic part, is a regurgitation of arguments first used by the American historian Seymour Drescher in the 1970s. Drescher challenged the data used in Williams’ economic analysis, which will be dealt with later. What is more novel is that Davis tries to reframe the narrative in a way that not only restores the virtue of Wilberforce and the ‘saints’, but tries to claim that British abolition was a moral endeavour that set an example to the rest of the world.

‘Our history with slavery is a lot more nuanced than many would have you believe’, he says. It is doubtful if those experiencing the horrors of the middle passage or performing back breaking work under brutal slave masters and tropical heat would find solace in his ‘nuanced’ history, much of which seems to have been downloaded from Wikipedia’s entry on Britain’s West Africa Squadron.

Deflection, rather than nuance, is what Davis is about. His attitude to Britain’s role in the slave trade is to acknowledge the shame without explanation of cause or content in order to shift the focus. ‘For thousands of years, humanity had been characterised by the enslavement of one people by another. Over 550 years ago, Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade. While Britain was not the worst practitioner of this evil, we must acknowledge our part; we can no more re-write history than those who tear down statues.’

The Tories are keen to turn the history curriculum into a fable about ‘British values’, and for Davis the act of ending the slave trade and slavery in the Caribbean is a cause for celebration. So he doesn’t dwell on the horrors Britain imposed on foreign subjects, he moves quickly to explain how Britain became the world’s leading force in the emancipation of slaves.

Perhaps Black Lives Matter should take the knee in gratitude to their white emancipators! The history of Britain’s West Africa Squadron, if the Tories get their way, will no doubt gain a place in the curriculum so that the ‘good parts’ of the British Empire can be learned. Davis says:

‘Founded in 1808, the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy had the singular purpose of stopping transatlantic slave ships. For over 60 years, the force patrolled international waters, captured 1,600 slaver ships and rescued 150,000 slaves.’

And (wiping a tear from his patriotic eye): ‘It was an astonishing tale of derring-do and heroism, of great deeds done solely for the purpose of destroying a great evil.’

This line of argument might absorb some undefended minds in academia, but not many. Setting the record straight on the West Africa Squadron isn’t too difficult. More importantly it is part of the history of imperial expansion with solid capitalist motives.

The idea that Britain was a force for decency in the world in the nineteenth century is laughable. Britain was a capitalist force for profits. A list of British ruling-class crimes in search of profits across the globe is too long to go into. Historians like Eric Williams have their counterparts across the globe in former British colonies, and it is better to let them recount their own tales of British heroism and decency. If the British hadn’t wiped out the peoples of Tasmania man, woman and child, perhaps they could join in the chorus of approval.

The West Africa Squadron came from the 1807 Act abolishing the slave trade. The thinking was that if Britain had just closed off a market to British subjects they were damned if French, Spanish or Portuguese traders would benefit. For Davis, Britain was all about upholding justice on behalf of conquered peoples in the same way as the USA has considered itself a world policeman in our times. In reality, Britain’s desire for international justice, as with the USA, was closely linked to the imperial project of gaining British naval supremacy. Britain ruled the waves and waived the rules.

Michael Jordan has successfully debunked Britain’s honourable abolitionist claims in The Great Abolition Sham (The History Press 2005). Jordan shows that the Act abolishing the slave trade in 1807 contained provisions that pleased the anti-abolitionists. Slaves seized by the navy were treated as ‘prizes’ by the terms of the Act. They were often dragooned into Caribbean regiments that had been decimated by disease. They were indentured in the same way as apprentices, but without pay. The Act therefore maintained plantation slavery.

Britain waived the rules by turning a blind eye to ships flagged with countries with whom a mutual trading interest was established. At the Congress of Vienna, where the chance to abolish slave trading was on the agenda, the British, represented by Castlereagh, consented to allow the Bourbon regime in France to continue trading to restock French colonies.

Stopping the slave trade took up only a small number of ships but was an important part of the assertion of British naval supremacy. Britain’s domination of the Atlantic and West African shipping lanes was to have a massive pay-off when European nations partitioned Africa in a frenzy of imperialist robbery after 1875. Britain secured all the most profitable parts of Africa and ruled their new subjects as racist overlords. Apartheid in South Africa is just one such example from many.

The final point in this debate was made by Eric Williams himself. Emancipation meant little for the freed slaves without their being given some means of support that would help them make an independent living. The former slaves were plantation workers in the main. They were trapped on islands dominated by plantation agriculture. Abolitionist freedom meant the triumph of the free market, an imperialist economic victory. The former slaves were not made economically equal and therefore remained unfree.

Racism, the most obvious British value in the Caribbean, was the ideological cement of British rule. In 1865 at Morant Bay in Jamaica the former slaves rose in rebellion. British troops crushed the rebellion in what came to be known as the Morant Bay Massacre. Whole villages were burned. Those who could not vouch for their innocence were shot, hanged and flogged. Women were hung from trees and some were flogged by British soldiers.

David Davis MP chose not to mention Morant Bay. Too much nuancing obviously spoils a good yarn.

2. Williams vs the Liberals

Williams’ thesis is a major challenge to the history taught in schools and universities. The challenge is dealt with in the time honoured liberal fashion of misrepresenting Williams through omission and exaggeration, and attacking what is left.

For example, A level students studying the abolition of the slave trade are informed by the exam board textbook that:

‘The weakness of [Williams’] argument lies in the definitive assertion that economic considerations were the primary motive for abolition and that every action is motivated by it. This polemical approach reduces the importance of other factors and therefore by focussing so intently upon one feature, opens itself up to criticism.’i

This conclusion is offered to students after one introductory paragraph and a selected quotation. It is an example of liberal historical training. Williams’ sophisticated historical argument is disempowered by reduction that itself amounts to assertion, and this is followed up by considering an array of liberal historians to dissolve any lingering sympathy in a sea of considered liberal opinion.

And thus liberal ‘balance’ is counter posed to Marxist ‘dogma’. And who would aspire to be an unbalanced dogmatist? There is not the space here to consider the liberal critics of Williams in great depth but we can counter some of the major criticisms. Williams could only be accused of ‘focussing so intently on one feature’ of abolition by someone who has never read Capitalism and Slavery.

Firstly, critics of Williams have argued that the industrial revolution in Britain was not financed by the profits of slavery, rather capital was generated by developments here. The agricultural revolution, for example, freed labour for industrialisation that in turn generated labour saving inventions like steam power.

However, Williams does not argue that slavery begat capitalism, just the opposite; capitalism begat slavery. He writes:

‘When by 1660 the political and social upheavals of the 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’ (p.27).

This takes Williams onto an analysis of the mercantilist system, which his critics accuse him of positing as a completely different entity to market capitalism. In chapter 2, ‘The Development of the Negro Slave Trade’, Williams shows that the mercantilist system, protected from foreign competition, was an early capitalist method of securing the European market for slave produced commodities.

Williams makes it clear that slavery suited plantation agriculture because free labour abhorred it, and this is a consideration in line with modern corporate investors who have their commodities produced by child labour that is nothing less than modern slavery. Slavery provided an abundance of labour that could be worked to death and replenished. Therefore it made economic sense, and was politically acceptable in Britain too.

In chapter 3, ‘British Commerce and the Triangular Trade’, Williams shows exactly how the industrial revolution was stimulated and paid for in good part by slavery. The reductionist criticism of Williams implies that the capitalists here waited for the profits to roll in then invested it, but his approach is far more persuasive than that. Williams shows how the triangular trade stimulated industry, agriculture and further imperial trading opportunities. It developed major seaports like Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow. In these cities industrial capitalism got a boost as well as the docks. Ship building and design, dock building and civil engineering, metal working, rope making, crane design and manufacture all took off. In these great cities industrial capitalism leapt forward contributing to the development of the system as a whole.

The implications for further imperial expansion should be obvious. It led to Britain being the workshop of the world in the nineteenth century as well as the dominant imperialist power.

The second important attack on Williams’ thesis comes from the American historian Seymour Drescher.

Drescher researched Williams’ sources and found them wanting. He reversed the ‘Decline Thesis’ by showing that the abolition of the slave trade was not in line with capitalist reasoning as Williams claimed. For Drescher, the slave economy was not declining, but was actually reaching its full potential. Therefore abolishing the slave trade in 1807 dealt a death blow to a vital economic area, whether slavery was inherently evil or not. Drescher did agree that economics played a part, but not in the way Williams claimed - or in the way that Drescher claims he claimed.

Drescher’s argument centres on his oft quoted view that ‘slavery was aborted in its prime’ and this is the theme of his book, Econocide, published in 1976. But it is not the devastating demolition of Capitalism and Slavery that his supporters think. In the first place, recent research done by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL supports the economic arguments of Eric Williams. And Capitalism and Slavery is about much more than economics. Williams shows capitalism to be a form of political economy, not just an economy.

This is why Drescher’s analysis falls flat in my view. He worships at the altar of classical economists who see capitalism as rational and virtuous. Capitalists do not always make decisions that ward off crisis and they have a long history of doing the opposite. So to say that abolition was somehow contrary to the advice offered by modern economic analysis based on new data crunching techniques is meaningless in explaining why it happened.

For example, Drescher argues that the value of plantations in the Caribbean were rising at the time of abolition, and therefore there was still profit to be made. But isolating economic data in this way exaggerates the importance of it, and by decontextualizing it, distorts it. House prices in Doncaster are rising at the moment, but the reason is not because Doncaster is booming, trust me.

Politicians and campaigners alike fight for change because of how events in the immediate past prompt them to think about the future. As Williams explains, in a quarter of a century Britain had lost American colonies, intensified the exploitation of a vast market in India, and entered into a war with another great imperialist power that would impact upon the world. Britain’s fortunes no longer relied on its West Indian trade. And the trajectory of British capitalism certainly went against the idea of Econocide.

3. Saints and sinners

The final critique from which Williams should be defended flows from the incorrect assumption that his analysis is a form of economic determinism that leaves out the actions of individuals, their courage and tenacity. When people like David Davis and William Hague eulogise William Wilberforce and the saintly Clapham Sect upon which the British abolitionist movement was largely founded, they are in fact following a tradition begun in 1807.

The abolition of the slave trade produced an astonishing volte face in the British establishment. Having spent thirty years blocking all attempts at abolition of the slave trade, once the act of abolition was passed they celebrated it as a triumph for the whole nation. Amid the outpouring of articles, engravings and plates depicting Britannia trampling on the emblems of slavery, the Duke of Norfolk opined that abolition was, ‘the most humane and merciful Act which was ever passed by any legislature in the world’.

In chapter 10, ‘The “Saints” and Slavery’, Williams deals with something Marxists are well acquainted with: appearance and reality. Williams’ intention is not to deny the many commendable attributes of the abolitionists, rather he seeks to set their actions in a changing economic and political world. He writes of the abolitionists: ‘The humanitarians were the spearhead of the onslaught which destroyed the West Indian system and freed the Negro’ (p.169).

He goes on: ‘The British humanitarians were a brilliant band. Thomas Clarkson personifies all the best in the humanitarianism of the age.’ His praise is limited to a few of the ‘brilliant band’, perhaps too few, but his intention is to reveal what lies beneath.

‘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’ (p.170).

Williams doesn’t write this maliciously. He correctly locates the limited space that humanitarianism enjoyed. The arguments for abolition never strayed into anti-capitalist sentiment even though there was huge popular support for abolition in working-class districts. To connect chattel slavery with wage slavery in mine and mill never entered their heads. Their strategy was purely parliamentarian.

In the abolitionist propaganda and petitions that roasted the planter class, there was no condemnation of their racism. Rather they were fellow Christians who had strayed into cruelty. The humanitarians regularly played on anti-mercantilist sentiment too.

In the call to abolish slavery in the Caribbean many abolitionists supported boycotting West Indian sugar in favour of Brazilian and Indian sugar. Did they know nothing of the appalling conditions suffered by ‘free labour’ there?

The fact is that the abolitionists pursued a moral cause with determination. When their appeal coincided with favourable economic arguments for abolition, the establishment, at the time and since, chose to seize on the moral arguments to deflect from the economic reasons. This was done to present capitalism as virtuous, and is in substance exactly the same as presenting a war for oil as a war for democracy.

Conclusion

Capitalism and Slavery is a must read book and is the essential starting point for a new readership. It is a book that will hold the reader’s attention, and presents a powerful analysis in a persuasive and easy to understand way. Reading it is a pleasure.

There are certainly aspects of this topic that Williams does not cover in great depth; it is a relatively short book. One area that students will want to explore further is the role of slaves in freeing themselves, and a good place to follow this up is through the work of C.L.R. James. James was Williams’ mentor and his book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, is a masterpiece.

i Challenges to the authority of the state in the late 18th and 19th centuries (Pearson 2015), p.121

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John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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