The Benefit of Slavery

Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective

by Seymour Drescher
Oxford University Press, 300 pp., $19.95

Last year a casual tourist flying by Air Jamaica to Montego Bay could learn in one sentence why the British freed their West Indian slaves. “When the sugar industry began to decline,” the airline’s journal Skywritings reported in “Jamaica A to Z,” “slavery was finally abolished.” Not a word about William Wilberforce and the other abolitionist heroes buried in Westminster Abbey. Even well-read Americans might not suspect that Skywritings’ matter-of-fact statement is the product of a momentous historiographical debate which involves the third world’s understanding of capitalism and the capacity of parliamentary governments for meaningful social reform.

The debate itself has mostly been confined to scholarly journals and international professional meetings. But the sesquicentennial of British slave emancipation, in 1984, showed how deeply the theories of Eric Williams, the late prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, have become entrenched in official and popular ideology in the West Indies and in much of the former colonial world. At public commemorations from England to Guyana, William’s followers reiterated the arguments of William’s Capitalism and Slavery, originally published in 1944, and scorned any suggestion that Britain’s slaves had been freed for humanitarian rather than from economic motives.

Williams’s influence can be partly explained by his powerful prose and the seeming simplicity of his arguments. Capitalism and Slavery was also perfectly timed to nourish and reinforce the anti-imperialist ideology of young intellectuals, especially in the emerging third world, who sought a historical foundation for theories of economic dependency. As an Oxford-trained historian who eventually became the ruler of a former British colony, Williams spoke with even greater authority when he repeated and expanded his thesis in From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492 to 1969. The crucial point, however, is that Williams addressed two questions that have a profound bearing on relations between the West and the third world: Did the expansion of Western capitalism and the affluence of the first industrialized nations depend initially on the coerced labor of Africans, Asians, and Amerindians? Assuming that such ruthless violence prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution, did Britain’s leadership in the nineteenth-century crusade to suppress the Atlantic slave trade and abolish chattel slavery demonstrate that “the spread of moral convictions,” as John Stuart Mill put it, could sometimes take precedence over material interests?1

Although Williams’s thesis is subject to varied interpretations, its principal arguments support two broad conclusions. First, Williams maintained that European merchant capitalism created the immensely lucrative plantation system, fueled by the Atlantic slave trade, and that profits from this overseas system provided much of the capital in England that financed the Industrial Revolution.

Williams’s second conclusion derived from the assumption that the American War of Independence initiated a period of irreversible economic decline in the British Caribbean and also coincided with Britain’s decisive shift from mercantilism toward laissez-faire capitalism. By the early nineteenth century, according to Williams, the slave colonies had become an impediment to Britain’s economic progress. Blighted by inefficient labor, depleted soil, and indebtedness,…

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