Capitalism and Slavery made its first appearance during the Second World War, but as Colin A. Palmer put it in his introduction to the 1972 publication: ‘Few modern historical works have enjoyed the enduring intellectual impact and appeal of Eric William’s Capitalism and Slavery.’ Having just read it, I can see what he means – but with one caveat: the book has a visceral impact too. It makes you angry.
The opening chapter looks at the rising use of indentured white servants in the colonies of the West Indies and mainland America in the 17th century – ‘more than a quarter of a million … during the colonial period’. Others forcibly transported included convicts, Quakers, Jacobites and Irish resisters, but the Royal African Company had shown the economic success of using slave labour by the end of that century, and the die was cast. So, for Eric Williams, economics was the reason for slavery, not climate and associated racialist thinking. That racialist ideology and justification for slavery: ‘hair, colour and dentifrice, his “subhuman” characteristics were only the later rationalization to justify a simple economic fact’.
The second chapter looks at the development of the slave trade – ‘it has been estimated that the total import of slaves into all the British colonies between 1680 and 1786 was over two million’. Britain dominated the world slave trade, and even carried slaves into the ports of rival sugar islands owned by the French and Spanish. The monarchy was involved right from the beginning: Elizabeth with John Hawkins, then the Company of Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the opposition of George the Third to abolition (‘according to Wilberforce’) whilst the Duke of Clarence (the future William the Fourth) ‘attacked Wilberforce as either a fanatic or a hypocrite’. As regards the Church of England, ‘The bells of the Bristol churches pealed merrily on the news of the rejection by Parliament of Wilberforce’s bill for the abolition of the slave trade.’ Quakers, too, were initially prominently and widely involved in the slave trade, the Barclays and Barings being two easily recognizable names.
Chapters three and four look at commerce and the triangular trade: ‘By 1750, there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade.’ The wool trade, textiles, ironware, copperware, earthenware, shipping and timber, the growth of ports such as Bristol and Liverpool, banking, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and the steam engine, Lloyds and insurance, guns, handcuffs, fetters, chains, padlocks, the growth of Manchester and ‘Cottonopolis’, the growth of sugar refining, rum distilling, the growth of the metallurgical trades and Birmingham …
Chapter the fifth looks at the West India Interest: ‘Our tobacco colonies send us home no such wealthy planters as we see frequently arrive from our sugar islands’ (Adam Smith). This wealth also meant seats in both houses of parliament, and a solid opposition to abolition – until the 1832 Reform Act.
The next chapter looks at the American Revolution (or ‘War of Independence’ as I was taught aged 14); Williams saw the revolution’s consequences as a further step towards the end of mercantilism and monopoly, and a further step towards free trade: a suspended step towards abolition and a blow for the West India interest. After 1783, the French islands in the West Indies began to show a decided superiority in sugar production, on top of which, the British government’s colonial attentions turned east to India; and so a slow acceptance of the possibility of the abolition of the slave trade began to grow, as free trade began to replace mercantilist monopoly as the dominant ideology in an industrializing Britain. In addition, the loss of the American colonies meant far fewer slaves and slave owners to think about financially – as Thomas Clarkson wrote in 1788: “As long as America was our own, there was no chance that a minister would have attended to the groans of the sons and daughters of Africa …’
Williams then goes on to look at the development of British capitalism between 1783 and 1833: ‘Britain’s mechanized might was making the whole world her footstool.’ In this new economic context, the West Indies were becoming an anachronism. Attacks on slavery, the slave trade and preferential sugar duties would consequently follow – the abolitionists, free traders, the East India Company, laissez-faire, the rise of a capitalist middle class, cheaper sugar from Brazil, Mauritius and Cuba, the 182 Reform Act, the withering protectionist zeitgeist … the seats in the House of Commons bought with West Indies money and resistance in the House of Lords would no longer suffice.
So, British industrial capitalism turned against the West Indies; ‘The steam engine and the cotton gin turned Manchester’s indifference into outright hostility.’ Just as cotton-Manchester, so ironmaster-Birmingham, so steel-Sheffield, so woolen Bradford and the West Riding, so even Liverpool (to some degree) and Glasgow, so even the shipping industry too: ‘Whereas before, in the eighteenth century, every vested interest in England was lined up on the side of monopoly and the colonial system; after 1783, every one of those interests came out against monopoly and the West Indian slave system.’
The tenth chapter of the book on the “commercial part of the nation” reiterates that ‘The capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery and then helped to destroy it.’ But … capitalists still traded with Brazil (a sugar and slaving nation), even after parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807: sugar, manacles, fetters, cotton, insurance, banks; that is why some interests in Britain questioned the role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade off the African coast. Then, of course, there was the intimate relationship between Manchester and the slave owning southern cotton states of the USA – as the Times commented in 1857: ‘We know that for all mercantile purposes England is one of the States, and that, in effect, we are partners with the Southern planter’; it is no wonder therefore that many voices argued for recognition of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
The eleventh chapter looks at ‘The “Saints” and Slavery’: ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time. The humanitarians were the spearhead of the onslaught which destroyed the West Indian system and freed the Negro. But their importance has been seriously misunderstood and grossly exaggerated’. Williams pointed out how some of the abolitionists (and indeed the ‘Clapham Sect’) had some financial connection to the East India Company and how emancipation became a goal only after 1823 – it was the 1831 general election that finally highlighted slavery in the West Indies; but, of course, for Williams, it was the dynamic of British capitalism that ended slavery.
The penultimate chapter is entitled ‘The Slaves and Slavery”, in which the author tells us how the British government pursued a policy of amelioration of the slaves’ position, after 1823, rather than emancipation (prohibition of the flogging of female slaves and the’ Negro Sunday Market’, for example); but. needless to say, any proposals were seen as an attack on the rights of property by the slave owners. They went further, arguing that this governmental approach was only encouraging resistance and impatience on the part of the slaves: ‘The Maroons of Jamaica and the Bush Negroes of British Guiana were runaway slaves who had extracted treaties from the British Government and lived independently in their mountain fastnesses of jungle retreats. They were standing examples to the slaves of the British West Indies of one road to freedom’. There was also the spectre for slave owners of the black revolt in the French colony of Saint Domingue and the formation of the independent republic of Haiti in 1804. And, revolts duly followed: British Guiana 1808; Barbados 1816; British Guiana again in 1823 (‘God had made them of the same flesh and blood as the whites … they should be free’ was the slave stand as the revolt spread through secret design through fifty plantations.); Jamaica 1824; Antigua 1831, and then ‘The climax came with a revolt in Jamaica during the Christmas holidays’. Williams’ conclusion was that by 1833, emancipation was inevitable – either from above or below: ‘Economic change, the decline of the monopolists, the development of capitalism, the humanitarian agitation in British churches, contending perorations in the halls of Parliament, had now reached their completion in the determination of the slaves themselves to be free. The Negroes had been stimulated to freedom by the very wealth which their labour had created,’