(Roughly) Daily

“Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance”*…

A thoughtful consideration of Eric Williams‘ groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery and of his career as a politician…

… Despite his humble origins, the studious and disciplined Williams won a prized academic scholarship at the age of 11, putting him on track to become a “coloured Englishman,” he noted ruefully. His arrival at Oxford in 1931—again on a scholarship—seemingly confirmed this future. There he mingled in a progressive milieu that included the founder of modern Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and the self-exiled African American socialist Paul Robeson. It was at Oxford that Williams wrote “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” which was later transformed into the book at hand. In both works, but in the book more decisively, Williams punctured the then-reigning notion that abolitionism had been driven by humanitarianism—an idea that conveniently kept Europeans and Euro-Americans at the core of this epochal development. Instead Williams stressed African agency and resistance, which in turn drove London’s financial calculations. He accomplished this monumental task in less than 200 pages of text, making the response that followed even more noteworthy. Extraordinarily, entire volumes have been devoted to weighing his conclusions in this one book.

It would not be an exaggeration, then, to say that when Williams published Capitalism and Slavery in 1944, it ignited a firestorm of applause and fury alike. His late biographer, Colin Palmer, observed that “reviewers of African descent uniformly praised the work, while those who claimed European heritage were much less enthusiastic and more divided in their reception.” One well-known scholar of the latter persuasion assailed the “Negro nationalism” that Williams espoused in it. Nonetheless, Capitalism and Slavery has become arguably the most academically influential work on slavery written to date. It has sold tens of thousands of copies—with no end in sight—and has been translated into numerous European languages as well as Japanese and Korean. The book continues to inform debates on the extent to which capitalism was shaped by the enslavement of Africans, not to mention the extent to which these enslaved workers struck the first—and most decisive—blow against their inhumane bondage.

Proceeding chronologically from 1492 to the eve of the US Civil War, Williams grounded his narrative in parliamentary debates, merchants’ papers, documents from Whitehall, memoirs, and abolitionist renderings, recording the actions of the oppressed as they were reflected in these primary sources. The book has three central theses that have captured the attention of generations of readers and historians. The first was Williams’s almost offhand assertion that slavery had produced racism, not vice versa: “Slavery was not born of racism,” he contended, but “rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” To begin with, “unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan,” with various circumstances combining to promote the use of enslaved African labor. For example, “escape was easy for the white servant; less easy for the Negro,” who was “conspicuous by his color and features”—and, Williams added, “the Negro slave was cheaper.” But it was in North America most dramatically that slavery became encoded with “race” and thus, through its contorted rationalizations, ended up producing a new culture of racism.

This thesis was provocative for several reasons, but perhaps most of all because it implied that once the material roots of slavery had been ripped up, the modern world would finally witness the progressive erosion of anti-Black politics and culture. This optimistic view was echoed by the late Howard University classicist Frank Snowden in his trailblazing book Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Of course, sterner critics could well contend that such optimism was misplaced, that it misjudged the extent to which many post-slavery societies had been poisoned at the root. But this sunnier view of post-slavery societies was spawned in part by the proliferation of anti-colonial and anti–Jim Crow activism in the 1940s and ’50s.

Williams’s second thesis hasn’t stirred as much controversy, but it also exerted an enormous influence on the scholarship to come: He insisted that slavery fueled British industrial development, and therefore that slavery was the foundation not only of British capitalism but of capitalism as a whole. To prove this claim, Williams cited the many British mercantilists who themselves knew that slavery and the slave trade (not to mention the transportation of settlers) relied on a complex economic system, one that included shipbuilding and shackles to restrain the enslaved, along with firearms, textiles, and rum—manufacturing, in short. Sugar and tobacco, then cotton, were ferociously profitable, adding mightily to London’s coffers, which meant more ships and firearms, in a circle devoid of virtue. Assuredly, the immense wealth generated by slavery and the slave trade—the latter, at times, bringing a 1,700 percent profit—provided rocket fuel to boost the takeoff of capitalism itself.

Williams the politician was forced to reckon with many of these knotty matters, in particular as they pertained to the purposefully incomplete process of decolonization and the rise of new forms of empire. As prime minister, in order to court the United States’ favor, he was derelict in extending solidarity to its antagonists in Cuba and neighboring Guyana, where Cheddi Jagan would be joined by Jamaica’s Michael Manley in seeking to pursue a noncapitalist path to independence.

Williams’s tenure as prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago extended for nearly two decades, from 1962 to 1981. But the presence of oil on the archipelago attracted the most vulturous wing of capital, further limiting his aspirations. As in Guyana, tensions between the various sectors of the working class—one with roots in Africa, the other in British India—were not conducive to anti-imperialist unity, hampering Williams’s ability to forge a sturdy base. Incongruously, though he did as much as any individual to assert the primacy of enslaved Africans in modern history, he ran afoul of the Black Power movement in his homeland, which—not altogether inaccurately—found him too compliant in dealing with the intrusive imperial presence in Trinidad. Yet despite being hampered by a divided working class and a proliferating Black Power movement that often regarded him with contempt, Williams was able to hang on to office, though he lacked the political strength to solve the persistent problems of poverty and underdevelopment.

The scholar whose X-ray vision detected the role of enslaved people in the innards of capitalism and empire was seemingly felled by both when the moment to confront their toxic legacy arrived. Even so, the failings of Williams the politico should not be used to vitiate the insights of Williams the scholar. As slavery-infused capitalism continues to run amok, we must, like an expert diagnostician, finally develop an adequate history that can drive a comprehensive prescription for our ills.

Eric Williams and the tangled history of capitalism and slavery: “The Politician-Scholar,” from Gerald Horne. Eminently worth reading in full. For a taste of the on-going dialogue that Williams provoked, see “A Few Random Thoughts on Capitalism and Slavery” (source of the image above).

* “Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance. It had been the basis of Greek economy and had built up the Roman Empire. In modern times it provided the sugar for the tea and the coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton to serve as a base for modern capitalism. It made the American South and the Caribbean islands.” –Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery

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As we puzzle out the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1792 that construction began on the White House with the laying of the cornerstone. Slaves, free African Americans, and Europeans did much of the construction. Wage rolls for May 1795 listed five slaves Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, three of them owned by White House architect James Hoban.

The 1795 Carpenters Roll for the White House, containing the names of slaves slaves Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel source: National Archive

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 13, 2021 at 1:00 am

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