- Eric Williams and Slavery: A West Indian Viewpoint? *
Is there a distinctly West Indian viewpoint in the historiographical literature on slavery? If so, to what extent does Eric Williams bear responsibility for the insertion of the West Indian viewpoint into an established body of research on slavery? Or does simply the fact that Eric Williams managed, as a native of Trinidad and Tobago, to have a marked impact on the historiography of slavery inherently mean that he must have contributed a West Indian viewpoint?
One of the difficulties in addressing this question is the lack of a comprehensive study on the nature of West Indian scholarship on slavery prior to Eric Williams’ inquiries. The combination of colonialism and racism arrested the emergence of university-based scholarship among West Indians. West Indian intellectual activity during the pre-World War II pre-independence period of necessity had to be a largely non-academic affair. Indeed, the idea of a West Indian university did not become a subject for serious consideration until 1948. 1
In my own research I have referred to a Caribbean School of thought on slavery and slave trading from Africa to the Americas via European merchants, ships and planters. 2 I cast the triumvirate of Williams, fellow Trinidadian C.L.R. James, and the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney as the central figures in a singular tradition of thought in economic history. By combining the perspectives of all three, the following propositions emerge:
1. The Atlantic slave trade and the slave plantation system in the West Indies, and in the Americas in general, was crucial to European industrialization—Williams making the case for England in his classic Capitalism and Slavery and James making the case in more limited fashion for France in his classic The Black Jacobins. 3 Rodney extrapolated the proposition to Europe generally in the context of his broader theory of uneven development and active underdevelopment of Africa by the Europeans. 4 [End Page 801]
2. British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was prompted by practical reasons as the slave trade and West Indian plantation slavery diminished in importance for British economic performance, rather than a broad humanitarian impulse. This is one of the central themes of Williams’ writings, a theme he himself described as being inspired by a section of James’ Black Jacobins. It was a subtle argument in Williams’ hands. Since Williams argued that the slave trade played an important role in British industrial development, Williams’ abolition thesis required a companion argument of progressive deterioration in that role toward the close of the 18th century.
3. The slave trade precipitated the secular economic backwardness of the African continent, subsequently aggravated by the plunder of late 19th- and early 20th-century colonialism. This was, of course, the central thesis of Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney did not extend the argument fully, as he could have, to say that slavery was the genesis of the comparative economic backwardness of African peoples wherever they may be. Ralph Henry’s pithy observation merits mention here: “African people either live in poor countries or are among the poorest people in rich countries.”
Now, are these specifically West Indian intellectual propositions—and does it matter whether they are or not? I will consider each of them in reverse order.
Rodney’s thesis probably was the first explicit statement to gain prominence of the proposition that Africa’s lag behind the West was precipitated by the slave trade. It certainly was among the most unrelenting and comprehensive statements of the proposition. Was it uniquely his or even uniquely West Indian? In a strict sense, such uniqueness is unlikely. Rodney’s intellectual experiences involved extensive cross-fertilization with African intellectuals, particularly Tanzanians.
Rodney’s idiosyncratic blend of Marxism and dependency theory owed something to the Latin American scholars who had risen to challenge orthodoxy in the 1960s as well as a Pan Africanist perspective that was carried by West Indian activists, like George Padmore and C.L.R. James, to Europe and North America. Certainly the latter constitute West Indian antecedents for the Rodney proposition, but my suspicion is there were antecedents in the writings...