Eric Williams: British Capitalism and British Slavery (1987)

  • Seymour Drescher


Just over forty years ago the University of North Carolina Press published Capitalism and Slavery.1 Its author was a young Trinidadian, Eric E. Williams, then teaching at Howard University in Washington, DC. If one criterion of a classic is its ability to reorient our most basic way of viewing an object or a concept, Eric Williams’ study supremely passes that test.


Economic History Slave System Slave Trade Economic Motive British Empire 
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  1. 1.
    Eric E. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, NC, 1944).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See ibid., also 24, 25 July; 2, 4, 5, 9 August 1933; also S. Drescher, ‘The Historical Context of British Abolition’, in Abolition and Its Aftermath: The Historical Context, 1790–1916, ed. David Richardson (London, 1985), pp. 3–24.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave-Trade by the British Parliament [1808], 2 vols. (London, 1968), fold-out-attached to p. 258.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
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  5. also cited in Roger Anstey, ‘The Historical Debate on the Abolition of the British Slave Trade’, in Liverpool, the African Slave Trade and Abolition, ed. R. Anstey and P. E. H. Hair, Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire Occasional Series, 2 (1976), pp. 157–66.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Howard Temperley, ‘Eric Williams and Abolition: The Birth of a New Orthodoxy’, in British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The legacy of Eric Williams, ed. B. L. Solow and S. L. Engerman (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 229–57.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    R Coupland, Wilberforce: A Narrative [1923] (New York, 1968), p. 422. On the 1983 conference, see the three volumes in the Legacies of West Indian Slavery series, papers given during the ‘William Wilberforce 150th anniversary celebrations at the University of Hull, July, 1983’; Abolition and its Aftermath: The Historical Context 1790–1916, ed. David Richardson; Dual Legacies in the Contemporary Caribbean; Continuing aspects of British and French dominion, ed. Paul Sutton; The Caribbean in Europe: Aspects of the West Indian experience in Britain, France and the Netherlands, ed. Colin Brock (all, London, 1985). A fourth volume, Out of slavery: Abolition and After, ed. Jack Hayward, containing a series of lectures given at Hull during the winter and spring of 1983, includes three lectures dealing with Wilberforce, but the relative displacement of Wilberforce and the Saints by the West Indians at the climax of the commemoration is dramatically clear.Google Scholar
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    Eric Williams, Inward Hunger: The education of a Prime Minister (Chicago, 1969), p. 11.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Idem. Some of the concepts which were to appear in the first part of Capitalism and Slavery must have been formulated very soon after Williams wrote his thesis. See Williams, ‘The Golden Age of the Slave System in Britain’, awarded a prize by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, in New Orleans (October 1939), and published in the Journal of Negro History, 25 (1940), pp. 60–106. Williams’ devaluation of the humanitarian factor in the abolition process began at least as early as 1942. See Williams, ‘The British West Indian Slave Trade after its Abolition in 1807’, Journal of Negro History, 27 (1942), pp. 175–91.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    See reviews by: Wilson Gee, American Sociological Review, 10 (1945), pp. 566–7;Google Scholar
  11. Elizabeth Donnan, American Historical Review, 50 (1945), pp. 782–3;Google Scholar
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    See Frank Tannenbaum, ‘A Note on the Economic Interpretation of History’, Political Science Quarterly, 61 (June, 1946), pp. 247–53; and his ‘The Destiny of the Negro in the Western Hemisphere’ ibid., pp. 1–41. Tannenbaum also chided Williams for extending his scorn for humanitarian sentimentality to the point of impugning the scholarship of his former teachers. For Williams’ response see British Historians and the West Indies [1964], pp. 224–32. See also reviews in Commonweal and the Nation, and Eugene D. Genovese, ‘Materialism and Idealism in the History of Negro Slavery in the Americas’, Journal of Social History, 1 (1968), pp. 371–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 20.
    S. Drescher, ‘The Decline Thesis of British Slavery since Econocide’, in Slavery and Abolition, 6 (May 1986), pp. 3–24, esp. 4; see also Chapter 4 in this volume. After reading this essay Stanley Engerman wondered whether the impact of Capitalism and Slavery would have been as great had Williams published his study in 1904 instead of 1944. Without analyzing all the probable components of a reasonable guess, we actually have a bit of evidence of the response (or absence thereof) to a detailed 1905 economic interpretation of the abolition of the British slave trade: Frank Hochstetter’s Die wirtschaftlichen und politischen Motive für die Abschaffung des britischen Sklavenhandels im Jahre 1806–7 (Leipzig, 1905). Die wirtschaftlichenMotive was dismissed by Coupland as a work of the ‘perfidious Albion’ school of German historiography. Frank Klingberg was willing to accord a contingent role to economic conjuncture, and even praised Hochstetter’s study, in a footnote, as ‘the best treatment of the economic motives for abolition’. See The Anti-Slavery Movement in England (New Haven, 1926), p. 130 n. Hochstetter’s study made so little general impresson on Anglo-American historiography that Williams did not mention it in the bibliography of Capitalism and Slavery. For a brief reference to parallels between Hochstetter and Williams, see Roger Anstey, ‘The Historical Debate on the Abolition of the British Slave Trade’, pp. 159–160. Anstey acknowledged Hochstetter’s interpretation in The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1767–1810 (London, 1975), p. xxi. When the traditional school had something to say about the economics of the colonial slave system it usually followed its abolitionist predecessors in describing British slavery as risky, inefficient, and debt-ridden. It was a ‘lottery’, constantly threatening its participants with bankruptcy. See W. L. Mathieson, British Slavery and Its Abolition, 1823–1838 (London, 1926), p. 11. The trouble with this ‘perennial ruin’ theme was that it was perennial. As a result, its precise causal role in the rise of slavery and the triumph of abolitionism could not be identified. This had not mattered very much to historians uninterested in the role of economic forces and motives. They readily admitted that there might have been economic reasons for abolition. Such an ‘appeal to expediency, however, was or should have been superfluous and irrelevant’. See Mathieson, England in Transition 1789–1832 (London, 1920), p. 7 (my emphasis). The question struck them as so inherently a moral one that the ‘appropriate’ grounds of motivation could be read back into the narrative without the least professional discomfort. Black scholarship was insufficiently institutionalized in 1904 to offer a perch for a book like Capitalism and Slavery. An outstanding scholar like W. E. B. DuBois might have saved Williams from Hochstetter’s virtual oblivion, but it is dubious whether Capitalism and Slavery could have entered Anglo-American historiography as a dominant paradigm before the World Wars and the Great Depression had shattered the ideology of European moral progress. Fifty years before Williams, DuBois’s own history of American slave trade suppression recognized the existence of strong economic motives but did not overtly challenge the Anglo-American tradition in the way Williams’ did. The abolition of slavery was, after all, the peer less example of that ideology. See also David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York, 1984), especially part three, ch. 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 21.
    Compare R. Coupland, ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade’, in The Cambridge History of the British Empire, II, The Growth of the New Empire, 1783–1870, ed. J. H. Rose, et al. (Cambridge, 1940, 1961, 1968), pp. 188–216Google Scholar
  17. with J. D. Hargreaves, ‘Relations with Africa’, in The New Cambridge Modern History, VIII, The American and French Revolutions, 1763–1793, ed. A. Goodwin (Cambridge, 1965), pp. 236–51. In his chronological sequel to Coupland’s chapter on abolition in the Cambridge British Empire, W. L. Mathieson’s chapter, ‘The Emancipation of the Slaves, 1807–1838’ (pp. 309–36), made emancipation a question of the economic interests vs. the abolitionist passions. The same was true of Paul Knaplund’s brief observations on the subject in his chapter on ‘Colonial Problems and Colonial Policy, 1815–37’, in the same volume (p. 291). The limits of Williams’ impact on the New Cambridge Modern History, however, can be seen in H. G. Schenk’s chapter, ‘Revolutionary Influences and Conservatism in Literature and Thought’ in vol. IX, War and Peace in An Age of Upheaval, 1793–1830, ed. C. W. Crawley, pp. 91–117. Schenk’s account of abolitionism was entirely within the Clarksonian-Coupland tradition.Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    Carter G. Woodson, review in the Journal of Negro History, 30 (1945), pp. 93–5. For a similar emphasis on the triumphant ‘factuality’ of Capitalism and Slavery, see Johnson U. J. Asiegbu, Slavery and the Politics of Liberation, 1787–1861: A study of liberated African emigration and British anti-slavery policy (New York, 1969), p. 157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 24.
    See H. McD. Beckles, ‘Down But Not Out: Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ after Nearly 40 Years of Criticism’, Bulletin of Eastern Caribbean Affairs (May–June 1982); Temperley, ‘Eric Williams’;Google Scholar
  20. Elsa V. Goveia, ‘New Shibboleths for Old’, Social and Economic Studies, 10 (1964), p. 53; Williams, Inward Hunger, pp. 93–4;Google Scholar
  21. C. Duncan Rice, ‘Humanity Sold for Sugar: The British abolitionist response to free trade in slave-grown sugar’, Historical Journal, 13 (1970), p. 403. By the mid-1970s, two major bibliographical surveys regarded Capitalism and Slavery as the point of departure for modern historical scholarship on the British Caribbean. See W. K. Marshall, ‘Review of Historical Writing on the Commonwealth Caribbean since 1940’, Social and Economic Studies, 24 (1975), pp. 271–307; W. A. Green, ‘Caribbean Historiography, 1600–1900’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 7 (1977), pp. 509–30. For tourists, Air Jamaica makes Williams’ point succinctly: ‘When the sugar industry began to decline, slavery was finally abolished.’ ‘Jamaica A to Z’, in Skywritings (February 1986), p. 42. David Brion Davis kindly pointed out this citation to me. For a survey of earlier criticism see the comments by Roger Anstey, John Hargreaves and Duncan Rice in ‘The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from West Africa’, ed. Christopher Frye, mimeographed proceedings of a seminar held in the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, 4 and 5 June 1965. For subsequent criticisms see S. Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh, 1977), pp. 1–5, 226–7 and n. 33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 33.
    Stanley L. Engerman, ‘The Slave Trade and British Capital Formation in the Eighteenth Century: A comment on the Williams thesis’, Business History Review, 46 (1972), quotation on p. 441.Google Scholar
  23. See also Roger T. Anstey, ‘Capitalism and Slavery: A critique’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 21 (1968), pp. 307–20;Google Scholar
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  26. David Richardson, ‘Profitability in the Bristol-Liverpool Slave Trade’, Revue Française dHistoire dOutre-Mer, 62 (1975), pp. 301–8; and Pierre H. Boulle, ‘Marchandises de traite et développement industriel dans la France et 1’Angleterre du XVIIIème siècle’, ibid., pp. 309–30. For recent nuanced defenses of Williams, see William A. Darity, Jr., ‘A General Equilibrium Model of the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Slave Trade: A least-likely test for the Caribbean school’, Research in Economic History, 7 (1982), pp. 287–326. Barbara L. Solow, ‘Caribbean Slavery and British Growth: The Eric Williams hypothesis’, Journal of Development Economics, 17 (1985), pp. 99–115; and various essays in British Capitalism. For summary accounts of British economic history’s reaction to Williams’ industrialization hypothesis, see John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607–1789 (Chapel Hill, 1985), pp. 40–3, and Beckles, ‘Down But Not Out’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See, among others, D. W. Galenson’s survey of the literature in White Servitude in Colonial America (New York, 1981), pp. 141–68;Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seymour Drescher
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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