Recent historians of capitalism have produced a bumper crop of books that profess to examine capitalism and slavery. This is all to the good, but in the past few years I have been dismayed about how many of these ignore the debates that preceded them. As a result, these books make provocative but not always clear interventions in the field. The danger in not understanding the older historiography is that entire arguments can be built attacking arguments that are caricatures or of repeating conceptual, theoretical, or factual errors that historians have long ago identified. [End Page 289]
Eric Williams put the question most directly in his book Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944. Slavery, he argued, depended on capitalist competition. An international capitalist market put slavery and freedom in competition, and slavery usually won. Cheap, slave-grown staples like cotton, sugar, and rice had economies of scale (lower costs per unit for producing larger quantities). Thus, family farms could not compete against the slave-plantation juggernaut. Capitalism was more than competition, but market competition allowed slavery to succeed.
The part of Williams’s thesis that scholars most remember is that slavery helped finance the industrial revolution. The rise of Liverpool, the wealth of the British Empire, the triumph of the English navy, the success of Britain’s banking families, and the success of English cotton mills all depended on the slave trade and slave-made commodities. British metallurgy, along with industries that produced cotton goods, woolens, amber necklaces, and rum all depended on both the slave trade and trade with slave colonies. According to Williams, Britain’s Caribbean colonies became less profitable after the American Revolution, and British opposition to the slave trade and slavery followed. Britons called for “Free Trade,” which allowed British consumers to get their sugar from slaveowners in Brazil and Cuba, and their cotton from slaveowners in the American South, without all the fuss of protectionist imperial laws like the Navigation Acts.1
Williams was a socialist historian influenced by the work of Karl Marx through his Trinidadian teacher, the communist intellectual C. L. R. James.2 Williams reserved his sharpest barbs for conservative and liberal historians of Britain who imagined Britain as a land of free trade and anti-slavery activism while ignoring the nation’s complicity in and dependence on slavery.3 He aimed, too, at free-market economists who imagined free trade to be on the side of freedom. Free trade, for Williams, was a bad faith gesture that allowed Britain to take advantage of colonial impoverishment (by buying cheap raw goods from slave-owning territories) while disavowing the legacies of slavery and empire.
Of course, the empire struck back. Dozens of British political and economic historians from David Landes to Ralph Davis responded from the 1950s through the 1980s, arguing that the colonies had never been that important to Britain’s economic growth. Instead machinery, international shipping, and liberal banking laws had been the “engines” of economic growth in the mother country. By the end of the century, however, Williams...