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  • Eric Williams and the Reversal of the Unequal Legacy of Capitalism and Slavery
  • Ralph M. Henry (bio)


It is the thesis of this paper that Williams’ monumental work was a classic not only in respect of its fundamental thesis on slavery and capitalism, but also in the modus operandi it dictated in reversing the economic relations between the descendants of the slaves and their erstwhile masters on the wider plain of international economics and in respect of income distribution in the societies that emerged out of slavery and colonialism. Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944, established itself as a radical interpretation of the role that the enslavement of black Africans had played in the development of capitalism in Europe generally, and in Britain, specifically. Williams’ thesis was that commercial capitalism of the 18th century was founded on slavery and monopoly capital, which, in turn, had led to the emergence of industrial capitalism. In this regard, then, the blood, sweat and tears of generations of Africans had been the grist of the industrial revolution that unleashed new productive forces in the North Atlantic countries, and established their preeminence over the rest of the World.

Enslavement constituted the most complete domination of a people. In the context of the development of Europe, African slavery entailed the total appropriation of the labour power of the African in the New World in the interest of Europe. Plantation slavery was the most total expression of exploitation of the Caribbean but had been preceded by the indentureship of whites which had proved unsatisfactory, having regard to the demand for output in the metropole. When plantation slavery itself became uneconomic, the underlying colonial arrangement allowed for the continued exploitative relation over a subject people: in the case of Trinidad, a relatively new colony, Indian indentees made up for labour shortage. Colonial rule in the post-slavery period was simply another variant in a continuum of levels of exploitation.

Inherent in the thesis of Capitalism and Slavery, therefore, was the notion of dominance in economic relations. Slavery created the means for the fullest exploitation of labour, in a particular economic space. Europe held that dominance. But the relationship between Europe and the Caribbean at the macro-systemic level was mirrored at the micro-systemic level in the relationship among peoples in the colonial space. Whites always superseded non-whites in all essential respects, even where the [End Page 829] latter had achieved the status of freed man. Plantation slavery, according to Williams, generated an ideology of racial superiority and inferiority.

Williams arrived at certain key principles at the end of his study and suggested that these were general over time and space. He argued that the economic forces were decisive in the period during the emergence of a capitalism built on plantation slavery. Moreover, the political and moral ideas of the age had to be examined in relation to economic development: the defense and the attack on particular political and moral issues could be “measured in pounds sterling, or pounds avoirdupois in dollars and cents, yards, feet and inches.” 1 Williams, from early on, was concerned about the racist ideologies that derived from the economic rationalizations underpinning patterns of exploitation under slavery and colonialism. He noted that some ideas continue long after the interests on which they were founded had been destroyed, and may wreak havoc for that reason alone. He adverted to the dangers of one example relating to racial distinctions in which

. . . unfitness of the white man for labor in the tropics and the inferiority of the Negro which condemned him to slavery. We have to guard not only against these old prejudices but also against the new which are being constantly created. No age is exempt.


The encyclopedic nature of the work Capitalism and Slavery inevitably brought Williams in contact with a wider scholarship than was normally the lot of scholars in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The contributions of French, Spanish, and, in particular, Latin American thinkers were accessed by Williams, who developed tremendous respect for Jose Marti, the Cuban philosopher and revolutionary. Indeed, Williams regarded this Cuban revolutionary of the last century as a colossus of the Americas, of similar stature...

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