The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Williams, Eric (1911–1981)

  • Amzat Boukari-YabaraEmail author
Living reference work entry


Born on 25 September 1911 in Port of Spain, Eric Eustace Williams is remembered as the father of the Trinidadian nation and as a prominent historian.

Williams was the first child of Eliza and Henry Williams, a post office worker, and his wife Eliza. In 1922, thanks to a scholarship, he entered Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain. A brilliant scholar and talented footballer, Williams earned several scholarships during his years at the college. Influenced by his teacher the Caribbean historian and writer C. L. R. James (1901–1989), the young Williams won the single School Certificate Island Scholarship in 1932, and then left for Oxford University to enrol for a degree in history. After graduating B.A. in 1935, Williams undertook research in Caribbean and colonial history, highlighting the connections between the industrial revolution in England and the economics of slavery in the West Indies, and in December 1938 he was awarded the degree of D.Phil. for his dissertation ‘The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery’.

The Historian: On Slavery, Monopoly, and European Capitalism

After earning his doctorate, from 1939 to 1948 Williams held the position of Associate and then Assistant Professor in Social and Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC, the highly distinguished black university. There he worked alongside several prominent African-American leaders such as the philosopher Alain Locke, the political scientist Ralph Bunche, and the economist Abram Lincoln Harris Jr, who had authored the classic The Negro as Capitalist in 1936. Williams enlarged his critical vision of the relationships between race and class in colonial and Caribbean history and in 1942 published The Negro in the Caribbean, an economic history of the Caribbean. In 1944 he was invited in Atlanta to give lectures on British historiography and the Negro question. There he challenged W. E. B. DuBois, whose The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (1896) and Black Reconstruction (1935) were pioneering works in the study of the role of economic developing forces in ending slavery.

Also in 1944 a revision of Williams’s doctoral dissertation was published under the title Capitalism and Slavery. Inspired by C. L. R. James and his Black Jacobins, a study which analysed the political impact of the French Revolution and the economic consequences of the Haitian Revolution on the ending of slavery in the Atlantic world, this was Williams’s most influential book; it was published in the US 20 years before it appeared in Great Britain as a result of controversies raised by Williams’s emphasis on economic causes of abolition, while the British historiography linked the ending of slavery with humanitarian campaigns.

In Capitalism and Slavery, Williams used very detailed quantitative data and materials to analyse the rise of the British economy. He analysed the slave trade and the production of commodities in minute detail, examining the usual economic, social, and political assumptions. Williams asserted that the use of the labour of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean was neither the consequence of the inability of native Indians and European indentured workers to adapt to the working conditions in the plantations, nor the proof that Africans were racially inferior and were naturally fit to tolerate the tropical Caribbean climate. Nonetheless, the so-called racial inferiority of Africans was used as a pretext to justify their enslavement, while their enslavement was rather due to the fact that European capitalism needed the cheapest labour to exploit. In this way, Williams argued, modern capitalism is a world-wide system born from the transatlantic slave trade, and racism is a global ideology born from the economic exploitation of a specific category of humankind. Both capitalism and racism formed a structural element of European domination: ‘Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro. A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’ (Williams 1944, p. 7). Beyond slavery, the links between racism and capitalism gave birth to a hierarchy in which African peoples were at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. Williams’s book described the roots of economic segregation and the reproduction of racial discrimination in the capitalist closed circuit of Caribbean colonial societies.

Secondly, in his book Williams questioned the roots of the capitalist system which produced wealth in England and poverty in the colonies. He claimed that the slave trade and the massive exploitation of Africans in the Caribbean economic system had generated the economic profits which allowed the rise of industrial capitalism in England. Using data from the Royal African Company, Capitalism and Slavery outlines the system by which a ship would sail from a British harbour to the African coast with a cargo including firearms, clothes, food, and manufactured goods. Produced through the labour of English workers, the cargo represented capital which was used to buy or capture the labour of Africans, who were then deported across the Atlantic Ocean. On arrival in the Caribbean, the Africans were sold in exchange for raw materials produced in the Americas. Briefly, the Africans imprisoned in the slave trade were both labour and capital, since as human beings, they were bought and sold by slave owners, and as enslaved workers, they produced sugar, tobacco, cotton, rum, and spices which produced the wealth in the colonies. For his emphasis on the concept of ‘trade’, his claim that the British abolitionists exaggerated the atrocities of the Middle Passage, and his very rational account of an emotional topic, Williams was both acknowledged and criticised by scholars who thought that using the economic paradigm of the ‘trade’ to talk about slavery paved the way to the assumption that trade is based on a mutual agreement between two parties, each one benefiting from the transaction. Hence Williams’s thesis became also central to the revisionist historiography. Was the exchange of human beings for commodities a trade or a crime? What was the method of acquiring African labour?

Finally, in Williams’s account, raw materials were transported from the colonies to England, where they were refined and sold. The slave trade led to the development of local industries (producing and refining wool, cotton, sugar, rum, and metal), to the growth of the British seaports (Liverpool, Bristol), and to the modernisation of the shipping industry. The imperial hegemony of the British navy on the worldwide seas was partly due to the Navigation Act and to the fact that the British were supplying rival European colonies with enslaved Africans. However, according to Darity (1985, p. 702), ‘it was not profitability or profits from the slave trade that were essential in Williams’s theory, but that the American colonies could not have been developed without slavery. Without the colonies mercantilist development would have been crippled’. This mercantilist development was controlled by British merchants, planters, and ship owners who organised the slave trade, British banks which gave credit facilities, and insurance corporations which took the risk for each triangular expedition. Since the West Indian plantations offered an opportunity for social climbing for many British workers, Williams also revealed the direct or indirect participation of several famous economic and financial British institutions and renowned familial dynasties that had benefited from the slave trade. Williams’s thesis inspired much research on the impact of slave trade on both Western industrial capitalism and African societies. Walter Rodney (1972) and Joseph Inikori (1982) explored the post-colonial consequences of the implication of Western capitalism in the making of slave economies, in the transformation of slavery in colonialism, and, finally, the economic dependency which kept independent African and Caribbean states under Western imperialist control.

Lastly, Williams opposed the myth built around the British philanthropists. On the basis of a critical reading of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and his notion of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, Williams claimed that the British did not abolish the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1834 for primarily moral and humanitarian reasons: the British abolition of slavery resulted less from the implementation of modernity brought by the Enlightenment (see Beckles 1997) than from economic and political pressures upon an archaic system of exploitation which had reached its limits regarding the accumulation of capital needed for the heavy industry. Alongside the works of Williams, Rodney, and Inikori, the study of the economic impact of slavery nurtured the political debate on the reparations, that is to say the financial compensation and moral contributions that present-day governments of countries formerly engaged in the slave trade had to pay to the descendants of those who were enslaved. (One aspect of this debate was the evaluation of the number of African victims of the slave trade; see Darity 1985.) Williams also detailed the mechanisms which drove capitalism to introduce the system of slavery on a global scale, then the circumstances leading to the reproduction of the capitalist slave system, and finally the need for capitalism to abolish slavery before modernising production processes in order to create a wider market. In his own words, ‘the commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly. But in so doing it helped to create the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, which turned round and destroyed the power of commercial capitalism, slavery, and all its works’ (Williams 1944, p. 210). After the abolition of slavery reduced the production of sugar, the British imperial preference system of buying sugar from the Caribbean colonies ended in 1846. As a result, Brazilian and Cuban sugar production increased, and some new sugar markets opened in India and South-East Asia.

Williams’s analysis of the conflict between monopoly capital, free trade, laissez-faire, smuggling, and state control influencing the development and abolition of the slave trade echoed Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, also published in 1944. Williams studied this transformation of the economic system, which showed that in England, the first nation to both abolish slavery and accomplish an industrial revolution, the maritime commercial bourgeoisie and the planters in the colonies together influenced political metropolitan life. Thus, from a very early stage, the Caribbean islands served as a laboratory for capitalism, imperialism, and globalisation (see Darity 1997). As Williams wrote, ‘the West Indian islands became the hub of the British Empire, of immense importance to the grandeur and prosperity of England. It was the Negro slaves who made these sugar colonies the most precious colonies ever recorded in the whole annals of imperialism’ (1944, p. 52). The importance of the Caribbean increased after the 1776 American declaration of independence, which provoked a reconfiguration of overseas trade: ‘the Caribbean ceased to be a British lake when the American colonies won their independence. The center of gravity in the British Empire shifted from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from the West Indies to India’ (Williams 1944, p. 123).

The Politician: Anti-Imperialist, Pan-Caribbean, Nationalist

While teaching at Howard, Williams had been recruited as a consultant by the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, an organisation founded during the Second World War to implement the future policies in the West Indies, which had been through massive social unrest since the period of emancipation and again with the riots in the aftermath of the depression of 1929. In his lectures for the commission, Williams highlighted the backwardness of Caribbean economies impacted by the legacy of monoculture, the economic exploitation of colonies during the Second World War, and the American investments in the post-1945 Caribbean economies. When Williams returned to live in Trinidad in 1948, after 17 years abroad, he was appointed deputy chairman and head of the research branch of the commission. He continued to travel and lectured in Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean, making contacts with trade unions, unemployed youth, academics, and political leaders. His open-air lectures given in Woodford Square, the main central square in Port of Spain, received positive feedback. His papers on the legacy of the sugar monoculture upon the Caribbean economies also inspired some supporters of a federation of the British West Indies based on economic cohesiveness. In the end, his enthusiasm in unveiling the forms of dependency put Williams in opposition to the neo-colonial expectations of the commission.

In January 1956, just after the commission had decided not to renew his contract, Williams entered politics. Gaining popularity in the Trinidadian middle-class and educational sector, he launched a successful petition for a constitutional reform which advocated moving from a unicameral to a bicameral legislature so as to enlarge the number of seats for elected representatives. After the petition was refused by the Colonial Office, Williams helped to form the first modern political party of Trinidad and Tobago, the People’s National Movement (PNM), which in September 1956 won 13 seats out of 24. Williams was appointed chief minister and formed a new government; his political victory was reinforced at the 1961 elections with about two-thirds of the vote. Williams became one of the new leaders of the Caribbean, pressing for independence and for a federation of the West Indies to escape from American hegemony. After the Jamaican referendum voted against the federation, Williams changed his political orientation, from a Pan-Caribbean to a nationalist perspective. On 31 August 1962, he achieved independence for Trinidad and Tobago.

Holding the title of prime minister from 1962 until his death in office in 1981, Eric Williams was the father of the Trinidadian nation. His contribution was political and intellectual, national and international. His decision to publish a book, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, in 1962, the same year in which Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence, revealed his entangled vision of the past and the future. While honouring the legacy from before 1962, the book argues that the story of the new Trinidadian nation should be written from the starting point of independence, and should be inserted into a national narrative.

In 1963, Williams achieved the withdrawal of the US from the naval military base of the Chaguaramas peninsula, which fell under Trinidadian sovereignty. In February and March 1964, he made a tour of 11 African countries including Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Egypt. He held political discussions with African leaders, gave academic lectures on development in African universities, established diplomatic relations on behalf of the Caribbean countries, and promoted a privileged relationship between Africa and the Caribbean. Along with Fidel Castro, Williams was probably the first Caribbean leader to give a strong support to the decolonising process in Africa, to promote non-alignment and antiimperialism, and to denounce the similarities in the neo-colonial situations in Africa and the Caribbean. He also tried to introduce African and Caribbean topics into the academic institutions and curricula. Serving as pro-vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI) from 1963 to 1971, Williams worked towards the implementation of these Pan-African relations through the introduction of Afro-Caribbean studies in African universities and of African studies at the UWI.

Conclusion: Growing Conservative?

Although he was regularly re-elected with popular support, Williams faced criticism on account of his paternal style of leadership. In February 1970, in a racially divided country, he stopped a Black Power revolution in Trinidad by declaring a state of emergency and arresting activists and young officers suspected of plotting against him. From then onwards, he sided with the conservative Caribbean regimes and strengthened his political control. In the early 1970s, he also took a right-wing turn on economic issues and industrialisation when the oil boom put Trinidad in the sphere of North American interests. Although beneficial to a growing black and Indian middle class and financing some social health and education programmes, the dependency on oil also engendered risks of clientelism and corruption, which would put Trinidad’s national economy under the control of the foreign monopolistic corporations. Williams died of a heart attack on 29 March 1981. He left a nation endowed with modern institutions, infrastructures, and a dynamic economy, and his legacy remains influential in the academic and political Caribbean area.


  1. Beckles, H. (1997). Capitalism, slavery and Caribbean modernity. Callaloo, 20(4), 777–789.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Darity, W., Jr. (1985). The numbers game and the profitability of the British trade in slaves. Journal of Economic History, 45(3), 693–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Darity, W., Jr. (1997). Eric Williams and slavery: A West Indian viewpoint? Callaloo, 20(4), 801–816.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Inikori, J. (1982). Forced migration. Sydney: Hutchinson.Google Scholar
  5. Rodney, W. (1972). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle L’Ouverture.Google Scholar
  6. Williams, E. E. (1944). Capitalism and slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar

Selected Works

  1. Boodhoo, K. (2002). The elusive Eric Williams. Kingston: Prospect Press/Ian Randle Publishers.Google Scholar
  2. Cateau, H., & Carrington, S. H. H. (2000). Capitalism and slavery fifty years later: Eric Eustace Williams: A reassessment of the man and his work. New York: P. Lang.Google Scholar
  3. Palmer, C. A. (2006). Eric Williams & the making of the modern Caribbean. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Polanyi, K. (2001). The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  5. Solow, B., & Engerman, S. (Eds.). (1987). British capitalism and Caribbean slavery: The legacy of Eric Williams. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Williams, E. E. (1969a). From Columbus to Castro: The history of the Caribbean, 1492–1969. London: A. Deutsch.Google Scholar
  7. Williams, E. E. (1969b). Inward hunger: The education of a prime minister. London: A. Deutsch.Google Scholar
  8. Williams, E. E. (1981). Forged from the love of liberty: Selected speeches of Dr. Eric Williams. Port of Spain: Longman Caribbean.Google Scholar
  9. Williams, E. E. (1993). History of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. New York: A & B Books.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for African Studies, School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS)ParisFrance