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Book Report: Capitalism & Slavery, Eric Williams

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Essay title: Book Report: Capitalism & Slavery, Eric Williams


Thursday February 7th 2006

Book Report: Capitalism & Slavery, Eric Williams

“Capitalism & Slavery,” (published by The University of North Carolina Press, 1994) was written by Eric Eustace Williams and first published in 1944. Eric Williams’ book, was at the time of its publication, considered years ahead of its time. It should be noted, early on within this report that, literary works on the history of the Caribbean or slavery for a matter of fact, was done by Europeans. In the preface of his book, Williams clearly asserts that his work, “is not a study of the institution of slavery but of the contribution of slavery to the development of British capitalism.”1 His work takes an economic view of history, which is at the core of his arguments and thus essential to understanding how his arguments and ideas are ultimately formulated. The author himself sums it up best, when he clearly states that his work is, “first a study in English economic history and second in West Indian and Negro history.2 His main thesis is that, “the commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century was built up on slavery and monopoly, while the Industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century destroyed slavery and monopoly.”3

Economics was at the core of Williams’ thesis; it interlinks slavery, the rise of British capitalism, African slave trade and the emancipation of slave in the Caribbean. The triangular trade involved trade between England, North America, the West Indies and England in the eighteenth century. The triangular trade would be crucial in the development of British industry, which would in turn lead to the Industrial revolution. This industrial revolution was financed through the, “accumulation of capital,”4 from salves, the key component of the labor intensive plantations. Unlike elite historians Williams, acknowledges the importance of the African slaves in the development of British Industry.

During the eighteenth century the colonial system was based on the monopoly and the mercantilist system. However, this would all change as British Capitalism found the West Indian monopoly to be holding it back. There was a great shift from the dependency on the colonies and therefore slavery. The authors his right on target when he asserts that, “when British capitalism depended on the West Indies, they ignored slavery or defended it.”5 Hence, it can be seen how convenient it was for British Capitalist to support the abolition of slavery. This is a critical point as it can be seen how economics dictated, peoples actions. The almighty pound, led British Capitalist to push for abolition of slavery only because they would be able to make even more money if slavery, monopoly and the mercantilist system were smashed. Hence, it can be stated that if the abolition of slavery did not enhance British Capitalist economically, they would not have pushed for its abolition. Finally, although there were genuine humanitarians pushing for an end to slavery, some were masquerading as humanitarians so they could enhance their economics situation even more.

In Capitalism & Slavery the author corrects many inaccurate conceptions. It was thought that slavery accrued because of racism. However, in reality racism was a result of slavery. The Indians were the first slaves in the Caribbean but after they were, soon found to be unprofitable as they were inefficient and unsuited to diversified agriculture, also they were susceptible to European disease which made their population dwindle. The whites were the next to provide labor for the colonies. White labor was provided from convicts, the Irish, who were seen as inferior to the English and Scottish and indentured labor. However, the supply the supply of white labor was becoming, gradually more and more difficult as, “the need of the plantations outstripped the English convictions.”6 Also there were not enough of those coming forth to replace the indentured labor that had completed their term.

This is where African slaves come into play. Unlike indentured labor, they did not receive land at the end of their tenure; this was because they were entitled to none. The only time slaves would be allowed to stop working is when they were in a coffin. Furthermore, once you were born into slavery, there was no escape; your offspring would be a salve too in contrast to indentured labor. This also meant that African salves provided

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