Capitalism and Slavery 
by Eric Williams.
Penguin, 304 pp., £9.99, February 2022, 978 0 241 54816 5
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Awhile ago​ a row erupted in Brooklyn over the naming of a new basketball arena. In 2007 Barclays Bank agreed to pay $400 million over twenty years to sponsor what is now known as the Barclays Center. Politicians who opposed the project, and some who supported it, denounced the partnership because, they argued, Barclays had profited from the Atlantic slave trade, and therefore had no rightful place in a predominantly African American neighbourhood. ‘Barclays Bank has gained enormous profits from blood money obtained from the transatlantic slave trade, which is one of the worst crimes in the history of the world,’ a state assemblyman declared. ‘Brooklynites and New Yorkers of every race and religion should be concerned about their presence in our borough.’ The information on Barclays came from a book published in 1944: Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams. ‘In 1756,’ Williams wrote, ‘there were 84 Quakers listed as members of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, among them the Barclay and Baring families.’ He had drawn, in turn, on a dissertation titled ‘The Political and Economic Relations of English and American Quakers, 1750-85,’ completed a decade earlier by Anne T. Gary, an American pursuing a doctorate in modern history at Oxford.

A Barclays publicist responded a few days later. ‘David Barclay formed a committee of London Quakers to oppose the slave trade, and later became involved with the committee in taking the Quaker anti-slave trade message nationwide within the United Kingdom.’ He belonged on the list of slavery’s opponents, not its defenders. ‘David Barclay’s position on slavery is shown in this instance,’ the publicist continued, ‘when, after calling in a debt in Jamaica, he became owner of a farm, which had, included in its operations, 32 slaves.’ He went from accidental slave owner to dedicated emancipator. ‘After unsuccessfully trying to free the slaves in Jamaica, David Barclay made arrangements for them to travel to Philadelphia where they were free.’

The bank’s statement was true, as far as it goes, but selective, misleading and therefore, in its own way, false. Barclay did liberate the enslaved men, women and children at Unity Valley Pen in 1795. He led a Quaker delegation to the House of Commons in the spring of 1783 that called for the abolition of the British slave trade. But he had come late to the anti-slavery gospel. In the middle decades of the 18th century, he built his fortune as a large-scale importer of Virginia tobacco, cultivated by slaves. In 1756 he was a member of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa that administered the British slave trade. There’s no evidence that Barclay invested directly in the traffic of captive Africans, but he evidently served as a creditor for plantation owners in the British colonies and was in this way, at minimum, financially committed to it. There are real but not necessarily meaningful moral distinctions between owning slaves and investing in those who do.

So Barclay’s record on slavery was mixed. He spent more than a decade discouraging Quaker activists in North America such as Anthony Benezet from bothering the British government with proposals to ban the slave trade, and led the 1783 Quaker campaign to Parliament only after he realised that anti-slavery enthusiasts within the Society of Friends would be happy to proceed without him. He was less a defender of slavery than an opponent of anti-slavery. Although he had denounced slavery in principle, he thought Quaker petitions to slice the artery of the empire’s labour supply would bring the religious society into disrepute. In fact, Barclay demonstrates the ambivalent, inconsistent and sometimes incoherent response to the question among British and American elites in the late 18th century: they found it easier to acknowledge the problem of slavery, as the historian David Brion Davis called it, than to decide what to do about it, or determine how to disentangle themselves from it. Barclay took ownership of his farm with 32 slaves in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1795 that he took the first steps to set them free, despite this being the decade when the British anti-slavery movement began to attract widespread public support. He was hardly a paragon of anti-slavery purpose.

Politicians are not historians. Nor are spokesmen for multi-billion-dollar international corporations. Neither side in the Barclays contretemps told more than a half-truth. But the purpose, of course, was less to get the history right than to get the history to do the right work. The imperatives of political rhetoric – to argue for or against this cause, or this project, or this person, or this point of view – are poorly served when faced with ambiguous figures such as Barclay, who, even in his own day, frustrated and confused both allies and opponents. It’s tempting to conclude that opposing anti-slavery is, as we might say today, to be functionally pro-slavery. When contemplating the interpretive possibilities, though, historians sometimes need to count higher than two. The late-life choices of a bank’s founder say little about the character of that bank a quarter of a millennium later. The charge of complicity suggests that in the age of plantation slavery there were ‘good banks’ and ‘bad banks’, and that Barclays may be identified as one of the ‘bad’ ones. But Barclays was neither unusually guilty nor unusually innocent. At the time, there was no such thing as a British bank that didn’t profit from slavery or have investments in human bondage in one form or another.

Institutional responses to involvement in slavery are now standard, and they rarely happen without research having been done. Participation in the slave trade has even been acknowledged at the highest levels of the British establishment: earlier this year the Church of England published a report on its ‘historic links to transatlantic chattel slavery’, and Buckingham Palace announced that it was supporting research to investigate the monarchy’s involvement. In the US it has become commonplace for institutions of higher education to investigate their ties to slavery. Typically, the initiative comes from within the university, driven by student and faculty research in the institution’s archives, though the most influential and consequential began with the demand made in 2003 by Brown University’s Ruth Simmons, the first president of an Ivy League school of African descent, to ‘tell the truth in all its complexity’. Institutional peer pressure comes into play as such studies become unexceptional. Increasingly, credit now accrues to institutions that uncover and report their ties to slavery, and stigma is attached to those which deny such ties ever existed, or insist they shouldn’t figure on its moral balance sheet, or that the ‘better’ aspects of the institution’s history compensate for the ‘worst’.

It’s in this context of discovering, recovering and acknowledging that Capitalism and Slavery has been republished by a British press for the first time since 1964, when an edition appeared from André Deutsch. Well-known to historians in Europe, West Africa and the Americas, and discussed endlessly by researchers and students for the last half century or more, the book has now appeared as a Penguin Modern Classic and, simultaneously, in a third edition, with new introductions, from the University of North Carolina Press, its original publisher. This is all to the good. The book deserves to be widely read, not least because it’s so enjoyable, with its memorable torrent of sarcasm, insight, wit, irreverence, authority, humour, ambition and vision. Tens of thousands of copies have been sold in the US, where it has never been out of print. That it has taken so long for another British edition to appear is astonishing yet not hard to explain. In 1937 Frederic Warburg brought out George Padmore’s Africa and World Peace and C.L.R. James’s World Revolution, 1917-36: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International; both writers, like Williams, were from Trinidad, and both mentored Williams during the years he spent in Britain. But, though a radical, Warburg rejected the manuscript for Capitalism and Slavery because, he wrote in his autobiography, the book ‘challenged the great tradition’. What he objected to was Williams’s argument that Britain abolished the slave trade principally for economic rather than moral, humanitarian reasons. ‘I would never publish such a book,’ Warburg wrote.

The Penguin promotional material presents Capitalism and Slavery as a ‘landmark’, which it is, but it would be even more correct to think of it as the progenitor of almost all of the questions, problems, arguments and interpretations that have come to inform the study of slavery, abolition and emancipation in the British Empire. It discusses the origins of human bondage in the Caribbean, the contribution that chattel slavery made to the 18th-century British economy, the political and economic consequences of American independence for the British West Indian colonies, the broad reassessment of the nation’s commercial interests in first half of the 19th century, and then the ways that those shifts figured in the 1807 abolition of the British slave trade and the overthrow of slavery in the British Empire in 1838. In the final chapter, ‘The Slaves and Slavery’, Williams anticipated more recent scholars in emphasising slave resistance in the British Caribbean as a factor in British emancipation. Like most of his peers and successors, Williams didn’t have a sense of what the subject would look like when the lives of enslaved women received the kind of scrutiny now on display in the work of historians like Jennifer L. Morgan, Marisa Fuentes, Natasha Lightfoot, Katherine Paugh, Shauna Sweeney and Sasha Turner, to name just six. The study of slavery has in some ways moved beyond Williams’s definition of the problems. Yet the influence of Capitalism and Slavery continues to grow. Citations tripled between 2007 and 2022. The book remains one of very few to offer a general interpretation of the rise and fall of slavery in the British Empire, and the only one, still, to focus on the question of economic interest, and what answers to that question might mean for the way the history of modern Britain is understood.

Williams makes his arguments in clear, aphoristic style. ‘Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial.’ ‘By 1750 there was hardly a trading or manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade.’ ‘The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the industrial revolution.’ ‘American independence destroyed the mercantile system and discredited the old regime … American independence was the first stage in the decline of the sugar colonies.’ ‘The reason for the attack was not only that the West Indian economic system was vicious but that it was also so unprofitable that for this reason alone its destruction was inevitable.’ ‘The capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery and then helped to destroy it. When British capitalism depended on the West Indies, they ignored slavery or defended it. When British capitalism found the West Indian monopoly a nuisance, they destroyed West Indian slavery as the first step in the destruction of the West Indian monopoly.’ ‘The rise and fall of mercantilism is the rise and fall of slavery.’

Inside the academy and without, commentators have often referred to the ‘Williams thesis’ without clarifying, and sometimes without acknowledging, that Capitalism and Slavery has several arguments, some of which have stood the test of time better than others. David Brion Davis pointed out in 2006 that most scholars no longer endorsed Williams’s explanation of British abolition and British emancipation. The Barclays’ spokesmen drew on this observation to suggest that Capitalism and Slavery is errant in its entirety, but of course a work of scholarship can be weak on some matters and strong on others. There are few if any history books published eighty years ago that remain the most current work on their subject. The lengthy debates about the Williams thesis establish its importance: sustained scrutiny provides evidence of impact.

The book’s​ impact was delayed. Most historians in American and British universities dismissed or ignored Capitalism and Slavery for at least a generation after its 1944 publication. Then, in the 1970s, when economic history was studied with new rigour and there was an increased confidence in counterfactual reasoning, several scholars rediscovered, disputed and denounced its key claims. By the early 1980s, just about every scholarly reference to Capitalism and Slavery conceded the power of its interpretations and then declared them wrong – that profits from slavery didn’t provide the capital for the Industrial Revolution and that abolition and emancipation didn’t result from economic decline. What followed was a two-decade detente, during the 1980s and 1990s, in which the significance of the book was acknowledged while support for its claims was avoided. This wasn’t true in all quarters. A small number of economic historians in the US – many African or of African descent – maintained that, on the key issues, Williams was more right than wrong. Developments at the turn of this century led a larger group of historians, some just emerging from their doctoral training, to take a second look. The flourishing of Atlantic history directed new attention to the Caribbean, while the new imperial history enriched our understanding of what empire meant to Britain from the mid-1600s to the 20th century. There emerged a new appreciation for the questions that Williams had asked and a growing interest in the answers that he offered, even if both needed reformulation and fresh research. The rise of the ‘new history of capitalism’ in the US and original research on the legacies of British slave ownership have made the whole field of capitalism and slavery a subject of study, though the book itself is more often honoured than closely read. Connecting the Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery to the wealth of Europe and the US, to families, institutions and industries, has become the endeavour of countless historians.

Williams placed naming over shaming. In the first half of Capitalism and Slavery he identifies dozens of British merchants, bankers, industrialists and politicians who built fortunes through colonial slavery. These were not obscure individuals, then or since: many had entries in the Dictionary of National Biography. Williams took their names from printed primary sources and the historical scholarship available in the 1930s. But he refused to cast these men and their families as evildoers, or even as outliers. Perhaps the greatest shame of the Atlantic slave trade was that it inspired no shame at all. In their own time, Britain’s slave traders were men of distinction: ‘worthy men, fathers of families and excellent citizens’, as Williams put it. They founded charitable schools, hospitals, orphanages and libraries, making them ‘the leading humanitarians of their age’. Williams savoured the irony. But what most interested him about this juxtaposition is easier to miss. Can the best of any society overcome the moral norms of the times? Why would we – how could we – expect the merchants of Liverpool, Bristol and London to have refused their era’s imperatives, its incentives, its economic logics? Williams asked this question not to defend the past from judgment by the present, as some sometimes do defensively today. Instead, this refusal to emphasise the Atlantic slave trade as a sin served a crucial interpretative purpose. If there was no sin, then there was no redemption. What happened wasn’t a moral awakening. For morals had never been the question before the fall of colonial slavery, in the achievements of the anti-slavery movement, or, for that matter, what came after. The slave traders, in their own way, were humanitarians and the abolitionists, in their own way, were not.

Much has been made over the years about the pseudo-Marxist economic determinism of Capitalism and Slavery. But it’s not clear how much Williams cared about theories of history or historical sociology. Far more important to him was the point he wanted to make about Britain, the British Empire and, most of all, the funhouse mirror of ideological distortions that helped the British see themselves as philanthropists rather than profit-obsessed imperialists. There’s some evidence that Williams knew that his decline thesis was overstated, that he exaggerated for effect. But, even taking Williams at his word, commentators often miss his point. The thesis was an argument about abolitionists far more than abolition. It revealed the ‘saints’ as less worthy, more suspect, more hypocritical, less high-minded, less saintly than they believed themselves to be, and others had described them. The book’s penultimate chapter defrocks the high priests of the anti-slavery gospel. It presents Wilberforce as a kind of Mrs Jellyby, the patron saint of telescopic philanthropy – ‘Wilberforce was interested in the slave plantation rather than the mineshaft.’ At other times Williams casts Wilberforce as a more charming Bulstrode, full of ‘cant’, ‘spurious philanthropy’ and ‘lucrative humanity’.

The attack on Wilberforce was personal, and explicitly so. The insults are deliberate and considered: ‘with his effeminate face [he] appears small in stature. There is a certain smugness about the man, his life, his religion … as a leader, he was inept, addicted to moderation, compromise and delay.’ Williams held in contempt those historians who wrote about Wilberforce as though they knew his virtues. The so-over-it eyeroll is palpable when Williams cites Wilberforce’s biographer Reginald Coupland’s attempt to ventriloquise the evangelical leader. ‘What do you think sir, is the primary significance of your work, the lesson of the abolition of the slave system?’ Here is what Coupland had Wilberforce say: ‘It was God’s work. It signifies the triumph of his will over human selfishness. It teaches that no obstacle of interest or prejudice is irremovable by faith and prayer.’

It has always seemed to me that Coupland, rather than Wilberforce, was Williams’s real target. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that traces of the conflict survive in some fashion in the papers of Coupland or Williams’s doctoral advisor, Vincent Harlow, who neutered but didn’t suppress the 1938 dissertation that provided the groundwork for Capitalism and Slavery. Williams arrived at Oxford in 1932, and so was in his second year of study at the centenary of British emancipation, a moment of national celebration of the great humanitarian tradition and the empire as a force for progress and civilisation. The record of Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect provided much to criticise. ‘The abolitionists were not radicals. In their attitude to domestic problems they were reactionary.’ But Williams disliked their champions and those who claimed to inherit their legacy more than he did the abolitionists themselves. One sign of this is the praise Williams extends to some abolitionists – Thomas Clarkson, James Ramsay, James Stephen the father, and James Stephen the son – and not others.

Capitalism and Slavery​ has very little to say about the anti-slavery movement itself. Williams praised its less compromised progenitors like Clarkson and Ramsay but wondered at the propaganda campaign that raised ‘anti-slavery sentiments almost to the status of a religion in England’. The book has no account of the politics that culminated in 1807 and 1833, and advances no theory of individual or collective action that could make sense of the public movement and its popularity. The study of the extra-Parliamentary campaign first became a subject of sustained study only fifty years ago, decades after the publication of Capitalism and Slavery. But Williams had spent more than enough time with the sources to appreciate the pressure that the abolitionists placed on Parliament. The exclusion of the anti-slavery movement from his analysis, therefore, was a choice and not an oversight. It can be explained, to some degree, by the less developed state of social and cultural history when Williams wrote. Politics, economics, institutions, ideas, exemplary lives: these were the stuff of history then. But Williams also didn’t regard abolitionism as his subject and showed little curiosity about it. As a consequence, he treated the mass movement as a given, if only to better focus on the questionable aims of the abolitionist elite. The simplistic, reductionist explanation of motives followed from his contempt. He judged it more important to say what British anti-slavery was not than what it was.

Principles provided a pretext for the pursuit of profit. Williams delighted in the circumstantial evidence that helped make this case. James Cropper of Manchester exemplified the compromised. He was an avid abolitionist who just happened to have massive investments in East India sugar, which was just then coming into competition with slave-produced sugar from the British Caribbean. Cropper wasn’t alone among the abolitionist leadership, Williams showed, in standing to benefit financially from abolition and emancipation. Capitalism and Slavery only scratched the surface of this subject, as recent work by Padraic Scanlan makes clear. But what mattered to Williams wasn’t so much individual motives as the more general point about economic interest. He called attention to the compromises, to the sometimes weak commitment to the cause among the abolitionist leadership, to the embrace of slave labour when it operated outside the British Empire. This was in Williams’s view inconsistent, incoherent and telling. What was really going on was an adjustment to economic realities paired with a fanaticism for the appearance of moral action. Few noticed then or since how much Williams absorbed and articulated the view of the pro-slavery lobby who, at times, attacked abolitionists by calling their motives and true goals into question. Strange bedfellows indeed. It was a sign of Williams’s animus against the ‘saints’. They deserved less credit than they claimed, and – here was one argumentative purpose of the decline thesis – perhaps none at all.

Among scholars, the humanitarian narrative never fully recovered. This may seem surprising given the decades-long resistance to Capitalism and Slavery in some quarters, and the stubborn power of uncritical popular histories. It remains striking how few biographies of William Wilberforce appeared after 1944. There were more books published about him in the century after British emancipation than in the eight decades since, even with the explosion of interest in British slavery and abolition over the last half-century – an interest that accelerated after the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 2007. The books on Wilberforce that appeared after 1944 more frequently took the form of apologetics than apotheosis. There were more than a few concerns that 2007 would be a ‘Wilberfest’, as sceptics put it, but the greater tendency was a focus on the movement itself – and its less compromised activists who more clearly align with contemporary tastes. Williams’s influence has proved strong.

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