Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery became the foundation for many future studies of imperialism and economic development. His study of the role of slavery in financing the Industrial Revolution refuted traditional ideas of economic and moral progress and firmly established the centrality of the African slave trade in European economic development. Williams also showed that mature industrial capitalism in turn helped destroy the slave system. Establishing the exploitation of commercial capitalism and its link to racial attitudes, Williams employed a historicist vision that set the tone for future studies in chapters like Negro Slavery, British Industry and the Triangular Trade and The Slaves and Slavery. Colin Palmer, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, assesses the lasting impact of Williams’ groundbreaking work and analyses the heated scholarly debates it generated when it first appeared. He was 33 when the work was published.
An excerpt from Williams’ Preface said: “The present study is an attempt to place in historical perspective the relationship between early capitalism as exemplified by Great Britain and the Negro slave trade, Negro slavery and the general colonial trade of then 17th and 18th centuries. Every age rewrites history, but particularly ours, which has been forced by events to reevaluate our conceptions of history and economic and political development. The progress of the Industrial Revolution has been treated more or less adequately in many books both learned and popular, and its lessons are fairly well established in the consciousness of the educated class in general and of those people in particular who are responsible for the creation and guidance of informed opinion. This study is an attempt to give indications of the economic origin of well-known social, political and even intellectual currents.” It added: “The book is not an essay in ideas or interpretation. It is strictly an economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the Industrial Revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism in destroying the slave system. It is therefore first a study in English economic history and second in West Indian and Negro slavery. It is not a study of the institution of slavery but of the contribution of slavery to the development of British capitalism.”
Enduring appeal, impact
In its Introduction Palmer paid kudos to Williams’ magnum corpus (great work). He said: “Few historical works have enjoyed the enduring intellectual impact and appeal of Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Its publication in 1944 was greeted by acclaim in some quarters and severe criticism in others. The scholarly debate over its conclusions continues 50 years later with no sign of abating. This classic work by a West Indian scholar remains the most provocative contribution to the study of the complex relationship between the African slave trade, slavery, the rise of British capitalism, and the emancipation (August 1,1834) of the slave population in the West Indies.” He spoke about Williams challenging the established historiography on the West Indies. The worked marked an important watershed. It added: “As he grew intellectually at Oxford, the young colonial came to question, and, ultimately reject, an imperial centred-analysis of his people’s history. Capitalism and Slavery was widely reviewed. Scholarly journals, literary magazines and the popular press took note of its appearance. Reviews were mixed. Reviewers of African descent uniformly praised the book, while those who claimed a European heritage were much less enthusiastic and more divided in their reception.
Writing in the Negro College quarterly, noted black scholar Lorenzo Greene called the book, “a scholarly study.” He further commented a “work of this kind has been long overdue and Dr Williams has filled the need in brilliant fashion.”
Carter G Woodson in the Journal of Negro History praised the book for marking “the beginning of scientific study of slavery from the international point of view.” Among the white reviewers, Elizabeth Donnan was “sometimes troubled by the feeling the thesis, plausible as it is, may be too simple. She felt the rigidity of the economic interpretation makes small allowance for the complexity of man’s motives and for the play of circumstances which often create unexpected situations. Hostile reviewer Frank Tannenbaum found the book was tainted “with a strongly flavoured faith in the economic interpretation of history, given strident enthusiasm by a visible notion of Negro nationalism.”Henry Steele Conmager found the work “one of the most learned, most penetrating and most significant that has appeared in this field of history.” DA Farnie, an economic historian, found the book had presented the author’s own community with “a sustaining myth that capitalism was responsible for their condition, a view that has not found favour in Western Europe, where history has been separated from its tap-root in myth, but has been found to be highly acceptable to the educated elites of Africa and Asia.”
Palmer examined the debate that continues. He said: “The work reflects conceptual brilliance and it is intellectually mature, bold and immensely provocative. The work inaugurated a new phase in the study of the relationship between the colonial power and the colonies, permanently altering the terms of the analysis and the subsequent discourse. Its ramifications extended beyond the Caribbean. He added: “Williams established the centrality of African slavery and the slave trade to the English economy, challenging the traditional view that the colonies were more the recipients of metropolitan benevolence and less the principal agents in the construction of the imperial power’s prosperity.” Palmer had the last word when he wrote, “His conclusions may be rejected but, no serious scholar can avoid confronting the important questions the book poses. Capitalism and slavery wil remain a historical treasure.”