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In this way, the infrastructure of industrialism was galvanized by the market forces of slavery.

In this Book

Although Williams tends to cite the annual flow of capital into English ports to show the accumulated wealth of the slave trade, he does occasionally offer more explicit connections. For example, he states that overseas markets and slave-trading capital motivated the cost-reducing technologies that came to define the English Industrial Revolution. Specifically, this includes the steam engine, the rotary engine, the steam loom, the railroad, and the hot blast and the puddling process in iron smelting. Profits fertilized the slate industry, the mining industry, the spinning jenny, the water frame, the construction of iron bridges, ships, and factories, and the beginning of interchangeable parts in the manufacturing process.

Overall, Williams argues that it is not a coincidence that slavery and the slave trade became unattractive as domestic production secondary production replaced foreign trade barter or primary production as the engine of the British economy. It left the Caribbean colonies starved for supplies because it eliminated the provisions market, it engendered renewed competition between the soil-exhausted English islands and the relatively virgin territories of foreign nations think Saint-Dominique, Cuba, Brazil, and the Cotton Kingdom of the United States , it created conditions of overproduction in England which could no longer be filled by the diminishing markets of the Atlantic slave trade, and it created an economically weak position from which colonial slave rebellions became more bold and more frequent.

All factors considered, by the early nineteenth century, the slave trade and the institution of slavery had lost all of their economic viability and, for the first time, humanitarian protests became aligned with the material realities of British capitalism. Particularly, he discusses the rise of slaving interests from the English Civil War to the formation of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa in While this section makes interesting exposition, its three major claims are less than controversial today.

Historians find a similar theme in the American abolitionist narrative, where white northerners supported the ban on slavery not for humanitarian or egalitarian reasons, but because they knew that wage labor could not content with the profit margins of free, slave labor. This critique is, at its base, completely true. Of course, we can accept the fundamental claim that humanitarian agitation was not the sole or even the central cause of abolition and emancipation without completely dismissing the abolitionists as irrelevant.

In this sense, the traditional abolition narrative served to justify the repetition of oppression. How do we account for the brutal mistreatment of the English industrial workforce, the imperial violence of the Boer Wars, and the systematic colonization of the African continent? Unfortunately, the abolitionist-hero narrative has no easy answer for these problems.

In doing so, he is unfair to the abolitionists. Just because their agitation was not the factor that forced the hand of the British government, does not mean that their hearts were in the wrong place.

Introduction

That is what matters. Can we blame abolitionists for not toppling the economic infrastructure of imperial Britain any more than we can blame modern-day protesters for not redistributing the wealth of Wall Street? Ultimately, their agitation, combined with the agitation of black slaves on plantations, was an important factor in articulating a new demand, both to the government and to posterity. Although most people could not predict the horrors of the industrial mineshaft, more and more people were beginning to feel that the horrors of the plantation were no longer conscionable.

In this sense, they accuse Williams of fast-forwarding the historical decline of the British plantation economy in order to fit his chronology. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to argue the profitability of the British plantation complex in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, although I suspect that there is validity in this critique, as the British empire continued to suppress slave revolts with terror and violence until the eve of emancipation.

In this regard, I think Williams owes much more credit to the slaves themselves, who found unique and varied ways to lobby for their own freedom in the Atlantic world. To be fair, much of the work on black resistance to slavery had not yet been done in the s, and it was quite fashionable to place the American Revolution as the impetus for greater historical change. When listing a few of the unheeded voices of early abolition—the voices of Cassandra or the jeremiads—Williams constructs a list that is composed entirely of poets and novelists. Although he does not remark on the significance of this trend, it seems worthwhile to investigate.

Why were there so many artists willing to explore critiques of slavery and the slave trade in their works?


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What was significant about the artist that gave him or her a certain personal liberty in an economic system that seemed to encompass almost everyone else? As in most historical tragedies, I strongly believe that the worst horrors of the slave trade are those which never reached a larger audience. While historians can debate the representativeness of transatlantic horror stories for eternity, the fact remains that representativeness simply makes no difference to the individuals who suffers.

It is also one of the few history books that is still being read, after seventy years, with sincere respect. It was integral to the founding of the University of the West Indies, which has cultivated so many brilliant thinkers since its inception. It is succinct and concise only pages without notes , but it remains deceptively complex. Most of all, it reminds us that the ongoing struggle for global equality cannot be diluted to binaries. You will hear it often said that British West Indian BWI slavery was ended because it was no longer profitable for the slave owners.

That assertion always seemed paradoxical to me. Eric Williams explains in a logical, dispassionate and cogent manner the real truths, which are this: 1 BWI slavery was instituted to meet the needs of the mercantile impulses of the 17th century which reached their peak in the 18th century. In the end, commercial considerations also played a major part in i You will hear it often said that British West Indian BWI slavery was ended because it was no longer profitable for the slave owners. In the end, commercial considerations also played a major part in its demise; 2 BWI slavery was not dismantled by the British government simply to appease the humanitarians and to salve the national conscience bruised from being a participant in a brutal system responsible for the death of scores of innocent souls.

Rather the dismantling of BWI slavery was caused by the amalgamation of several forces - humanitarianism not excluded. One important force was the rise of modern capitalism - Adam Smith's ideal of free trade - and the inconsistency between the principles of laissez faire and the monopoly that was the foundation of the BWI plantation system. But the planter was a stubborn breed and had political representation - it would not be easy to remove the monopoly the BWI planter enjoyed in selling his sugar to "Mother England" with all outsiders denied access to this market even though French colonial, Brazilian and Cuban sugar all slave produced were significantly cheaper.

The political means to destroy the monopoly was therefore to destroy the system of slavery in the BWI itself by first abolishing the slave trade, then seeking to ameliorate slavery before totally obliterating the institution itself.

Full text of "Capitalism And Slavery"

These and other forms of resistance helped to create a greater sense of urgency in Whitehall with regards to the need to address the emancipation question in the most clear and unambiguous manner possible within the context of the times. So Williams makes it clear that there is no one single reason for emancipation. His book is well researched, eloquently written and should be read by every Caribbean student of history, economics and finance.

Mar 16, David Anderson rated it it was amazing. Slavery was integral to the early development of capitalism, following the period of primitive accumulation of capital. The rise of industrial capitalism would not have been possible without the profits derived from slavery and the slave trade. Williams does a superb job of demonstrating how slavery turned Britain into an economic power. This book illustrates the economic aspects of the international slave trade and who benefited from it, how it contributed to capital formation and where did tha Slavery was integral to the early development of capitalism, following the period of primitive accumulation of capital.

This book illustrates the economic aspects of the international slave trade and who benefited from it, how it contributed to capital formation and where did that capital go in the creation of the industrial capitalism. From the Baring and Barclay families to Lord Nelson's wife, Williams examines the slave trade and how Liverpool and later Manchester saw their economies boom while the "African Trade" created a wealth that transformed poor sailors into great entrepreneurs and generated a "virtuous circle" known as the Triangular Trade that created new markets for British products in Africa and the Caribbean, ultimately triggering a boost in the local industry that helped create the Industrial Revolution.

It also brings out the economic reasons for the abolitionist movement, namely, that abolitionists were motivated by free-trade, not necessarily compassion in their opposition to the slave trade. In fact, famous abolitionists like Wilberforce were quite prepared, in the name of free trade, to continue commerce with nations that still practiced slavery after it was abolished in the British West Indies, such as Brazil and Cuba the new source for sugar and the southern US cotton for British textile mills, of course. Williams makes it clear that it was only after the blooming of industrial capitalism that the abolitionist movement came into it's own because slavery had become a fetter upon capitalism's further development, not for any altruistic, humanitarian reasons.

View 2 comments. Nov 16, Carrie rated it really liked it Shelves: favorites. Astoundingly ahead of its time - I would never have guessed that such a book was published in the 40s, and it's clearly an important foundation for later scholarly work on colonialism, race, and capitalism.


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  • Eric Williams Thesis on Capitalism and Slavery and Arguments Made for and Against the Thesis..

Highly recommended reading - for me, it filled in historical gaps and challenged some really fundamental assumptions I didn't even know I held. Oct 24, Benjamin Eskola rated it really liked it Shelves: imperialism , history , non-fiction , writers-of-colour , male-author , , marxism. He covers the slave trade and slave-labour-dependent industries right back to the seventeenth century, detailing the economic reasoning behind it at each stage; why certain industries found slave labour profitable generally those which required large amounts of land and a lot of repetitive tasks, like sugar and cotton , and why, as industrial and geopolitical developments occurred over the course of the eighteenth century, the political power of the West Indian plantation owners was reduced.

I was particularly interested in some of the ideological motivations, both for the development of slavery itself and for the abolition, and how these hid the material reasons behind both of these processes. At the beginning of the slave trade he details how the concept of racism other authors might argue, even the concept of race was secondary to economic concerns; racism only developed as a justification when it became clear that the African slave trade was a profitable source of labour.

Towards its end, he gives many examples of double standards applied against British versus non-British slave labour; campaigns against slave-produced sugar, for example, were not in most cases, at least until decades later accompanied by those against slave-produced cotton.

This seemed suspicious from the outset: an attempt to limit the scope and thus absolve non-British capitalism of complicity in slavery. Capitalism even by the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a global phenomenon, and British industry depended on and defended slavery in America decades after it was abolished in the Empire. This is expanded on in the introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition, which quotes from letters between Williams and the American publisher in which he specifically opposes any title that would limit its scope to Britain and the British West Indies.

Sep 15, E rated it really liked it Shelves: politics-history-etc , bodies , I enjoyed the marginalia in this book just as much as the text itself; evidently, previous readers took great exception to Williams' thesis that capitalism, not racism, was the driving force behind the development of West Indian slavery and the slave trade. Although I too am doubtful that a racist logic wasn't anterior to slavery even if, as another reviewer writes, "race" is not a transhistorical concept , these readers seemed to assign to Williams the position that because slavery was first a I enjoyed the marginalia in this book just as much as the text itself; evidently, previous readers took great exception to Williams' thesis that capitalism, not racism, was the driving force behind the development of West Indian slavery and the slave trade.

Although I too am doubtful that a racist logic wasn't anterior to slavery even if, as another reviewer writes, "race" is not a transhistorical concept , these readers seemed to assign to Williams the position that because slavery was first and foremost an economic institution it is somehow less horrendous than if it had emerged out of unadulterated racism - a position he simply does not take. I also suspect that these readers were unaware of who Williams actually was, and instead assumed he was some old white dude cloistered at Oxford or Cambridge and lacking any first-hand knowledge of the region.

View 1 comment. Dec 14, Gregory Klages rated it it was amazing. Williams wrote a highly influential, challenging, detailed history of the relationship between the economic gains to be made in the sugar trade that motivated the British and West Indians to develop and support slavery. In this respect, the book is not for the faint of heart, nor does it constitute 'light and informative' reading.

Williams' analysis is challenging in t Williams wrote a highly influential, challenging, detailed history of the relationship between the economic gains to be made in the sugar trade that motivated the British and West Indians to develop and support slavery. Williams' analysis is challenging in that it does not place racism at the forefront of its investigation, but rather sees racism as a contributing factor to how economic needs were satisfied. Williams text is not fiery Marxism, however, but rather close economic analysis, complete with profit and loss reporting, investment track records, and consideration of the sundry interests of landowners, sugar refinery operators, shippers, slave traders, and government.

Jun 15, Alanwalter rated it it was amazing Shelves: own. This is a research book first and foremost. The main point of the book is that without slavery there is no capitalism. This is the book that convinced me to go back to school and get a degree in economics. While maybe not riveting it certainly is an information packed book that backs up its argument really well. Aug 17, John Armwood II rated it it was amazing. This should be required reading for every student studying the history of European and North and South American economics. Jan 29, Donna rated it it was amazing.

Every Trini should read this book.. Feb 14, J. Capitalism is rife with contradictions always which seem to distort the overall direction in which the train is headed so to speak. This can clearly be seen in the actions of West Indian Planters in the face of a new capitalist epoch, sprung forth by industrialization.

A situation that was exploited not only by the home base in Britain but also by African slaves clamoring for freedom. Overall, it's a pretty good book.

Capitalism and Slavery: Reflections on the Williams Thesis

The main gripe I have is a brief bit comparing white indentured servitude to black slavery. Bogged down at some points by what seems extraneous detail, the detailed research still gives credence to the fact that slavery arose not only out of a sense of white European superiority, but of economic "need" and a way to maintain mostly economic power on the level of a plantation or on the international stage. Also evidenced is that moral change only comes when there is power to gained from it due to the fact completely morally based attempts at abolition were almost inconsequential until Parliament had a political reason to push for abolition in order to gain an upper hand over France.

And when than opportunity was no longer necessary, the push for abolition is abruptly dropped. These ideas are very much rooted in the specific time and place discussed in the text, but mirrors of them can be seen in the American colonies at the same time and shadows of them though more abstract can still be seen today in America and other places the world over.