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  • Capitalism, Slavery, and Caribbean Modernity
  • Hilary McD Beckles (bio)

C.L.R. James’ 1938 seminal text, The Black Jacobins, and Eric Williams’ 1944 tour de force, Capitalism and Slavery, constitute much more than foundational works in West Indian nationalist historiography. 1 Both authors, born in colonial Trinidad and writing Caribbean history within its Atlantic context, made significant contributions to development discourse within the traditions of Enlightenment Idealism. As critical realists they considered popular historiography indispensable to any attempt to root philosophical ideals within recognizable terms of everyday living. In The Black Jacobins, James documents the struggles of the enslaved peoples of St. Dominique, the mercantile showpiece of French colonial capitalism in the West Indies for freedom and social justice. In addition, he details the transformation of this successful anti-slavery rebellion into something much more elaborate in terms of Atlantic history—the creation of Haiti, the Caribbean’s first nation-state. In Capitalism and Slavery, Williams expands and develops the paradigm of African labor enslavement and European capital liberation, first outlined by James in The Black Jacobins, that became the basis of the revolutionary reorganization of productivity for European economic development.

The James-Williams paradigm has had an extensive discursive impact on thinking about the relationships between slavery, Atlantic modernity, and development discourse. In the Caribbean these works represent points of departure for studies in historiographical decolonization and the signal birth of an insider, creole, nationalist canon. Both texts have received considerable criticism and enormous acclaim; they continue, half a century later, to stimulate the most expansive areas of Caribbean historical writing. 2 James’ explicit attention was to locate the politics of black liberation within the philosophies of Enlightenment discourse. Williams’ related concern was to illustrate the contradictory and paradoxical nature of modernist rationality as expressed in the economic and ideological effects of the application of the principles of political economy to the relationship between colonial development and European industrialism.

Conceptually, The Black Jacobins and Capitalism and Slavery situate the Caribbean as the primordial site of Atlantic modernity, and as one of several important locations where its contradictory tendencies were acted out as ideological contest. For James, the politics of bringing Enlightenment ideas nearer to reality is seen as a mandate taken up by the enslaved against colonizing men who sought to monopolize privilege 7and power. 3 The Caribbean in the aftermath of the Columbus enterprise is seen by Williams as culturally unique; Capitalism and Slavery is an economic study of Caribbean [End Page 777] modernity in action, while The Black Jacobins constitutes a statement of its exploding contradiction authored by subaltern people operating ideologically within the hegemonic philosophical paradigms of their oppressors.

Columbus did not lie as Caribbean culturalists and historians often assert. He “did” discover the Caribbean. It was as real for him as any construction of knowledge within a specific cultural tradition could be. He believed that he had done so, and that Europeans would encounter a new and different environment within which they could collectively discover themselves as free individuals and citizens. Europe was liberated by the experience and its subjects became citizens while the colonized became natives. The conception and construction of the “Latifundia” and “plantation,” as the organizing principle of socio-economic life brought these worlds together. For the European they became a metaphor for renaissance economic rationality, civilizing modernity, and entrepreneurial freedom from the constraints of dehumanizing material poverty. The colonial mission then, was a missile that launched the Caribbean, its European commanders, and African cargo on the path to modernity on board the plantation enterprise that rose on the site of native ruins.

Plantation culture was in every respect symbolic of the signs of the times. Capitalist political economy found expression during the 16th and 17th centuries in a proliferation of mercantilist tracts on trade, finance, and manufacturing; their authors preached the values of large scale production, surplus generation and the accumulation of wealth through foreign trade. The plantation developed as evidence of institutional commitment to these principles, and in opposition to the traditional culture of peasant production which was considered backward and ruinous to a modern nation. Large scale production required extensive resource mobilization and strategic entrepreneurial planning. The Caribbean planter...

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