Capitalism & Slavery and Caribbean Historiography: An Evaluation

By Carrington, Selwyn H. H. | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Capitalism & Slavery and Caribbean Historiography: An Evaluation


Carrington, Selwyn H. H., The Journal of African American History


Few works have undergone such detailed historical analysis as Eric Williams' Capitalism & Slavery, published almost sixty years ago. (1) This book has elicited both acclaim and criticism, especially over the last three and a half decades. However, despite its somewhat dated methodological framework, and its absence of modern statistical tools for historical analysis, no historian or economic analyst has been able to undermine its basic theses. Whenever historians have tried to challenge the work's findings, an academic physician emerges to breathe new life into its aging veins.

Eric Williams made a major contribution to Caribbean history, politics, and society. Prior to the publication of Capitalism & Slavery, Caribbean history was written from the "Eurocentric" perspective associated with the British imperial school of historical writing. The objective was to highlight European "achievements" in the Caribbean. Consequently, Eurocentric historians have concluded, without strong evidence, that the development of the Caribbean colonies resulted from the riches of Europe. They paid little attention to the contributions of the colonies, of the slave trade, or slavery, and the sugar industry to the development of the industrial economies of Europe, and downplayed the contribution of the Caribbean commodities to the formation and growth of modern capitalism.

First produced as a doctoral thesis, entitled "The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade," for Oxford University in 1938, and expanded and rewritten while Williams taught at Howard University, Slavery & Capitalism attempted to make this connection. In so doing, Williams redefined the traditional orthodoxy, and argued that the wealth of Europe was derived from the exploitation of African labor through the slave trade and Caribbean slavery. Williams thus argued that British West Indian production was pivotal to the formation of capital in Britain and laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The study therefore placed the Caribbean at the center of the Atlantic economic system. The even more revolutionary assertion was that the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves occurred less due to the role of the abolitionists and other humanitarians than to the overall decline of the British West Indian sugar economy at the end of the 18th century. With the separation of the United States at the end of the First British Empire, and the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), there emerged the enlightened belief that slave labor was inefficient, unprofitable, and an impediment to economic growth. Initially after the end of the American Revolution, British producers and manufacturers still controlled the American markets. However by the 1790s, colonies were considered burdens and the sugar planters, who were economically dependent, were a principal contributor to the decline of the Caribbean economy.

At the same time, Capitalism & Slavery is much more than an economic study highlighting the contribution of the sugar industry to capital formation in the Caribbean, Britain, and Europe, demonstrating the contribution of the slave trade, slavery, and the sugar industry to the fueling of the growth of modern capitalism. It is a political document in which Eric Williams used his research on the economic contribution of the colonies to European economic growth to challenge colonialism itself and the continued control of the Caribbean by the imperial powers. It was an argument urging contemporary African Americans to take pride in their ancestors' period of servitude because they had contributed significantly to the greatness of the British Empire, despite their extreme exploitation and subjugation.

That Williams was interested in making political statements with his scholarly publications can be seen in The Negro in the Caribbean, published in 1942 before Capitalism & Slavery.

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