UK finally publishes Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery

Dr Eric Williams. -
Dr Eric Williams. -

THE Observer newspaper of the UK said on Sunday that a British publisher, Penguin, has finally published Capitalism and Slavery written by Trinidad and Tobago's first prime minister, the late Dr Eric Williams.

An article by journalist Donna Ferguson was headlined, “Eighty years late: groundbreaking work on slave economy is finally published in UK. Seminal work by scholar and future politician Eric Williams, shunned for decades, is issued by mainstream imprint.”

The work was, so far, published only by the University of North Carolina (UNC) Press in 1944, with a third edition last April.

Penguin said its edition will be available from February 22. It said, "Williams traces the rise and fall of the Atlantic slave trade through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to show how it laid the foundations of the Industrial Revolution, and how racism arose as a means of rationalising an economic decision.

"Most significantly, he showed how slavery was only abolished when it ceased to become financially viable, exploding the myth of emancipation as a mark of Britain's moral progress."

Ferguson said, "In 1938, a brilliant young black scholar at Oxford University wrote a thesis on the economic history of British empire and challenged a claim about slavery that had been defining Britain’s role in the world for more than a century.

"But when Eric Williams, who would later become the first prime minister of TT, sought to publish his mind-blowing thesis on capitalism and slavery in Britain, he was shunned by publishers and accused of undermining the humanitarian motivation for Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act.

"Now, 84 years after his work was rejected in the UK, and 78 years after it was first published in America, where it became a highly influential anti-colonial text, Williams’s book, Capitalism and Slavery, will finally be published in Britain by a mainstream British publisher."

She quoted writer Sathnam Sanghera saying, “I think it’s amazing he hasn’t been published until now, because you can’t really make sense of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery without reading his book. It’s so important.” The article said Williams had argued that British slavery was abolished owing to British economic self-interest, not British conscience.

Ferguson said Williams said the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without slavery.

"In great detail, he lays out the scale of the wealth and industry that was created in Britain, not just from the slave plantations and in the sugar refineries and cotton mills, but by building and insuring slave ships, manufacturing goods transported to the colonies – including guns, manacles, chains and padlocks – and then banking and reinvesting the profits.

"It was all this wealth created by slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries that powered the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, Williams argued."

She cited Williams as saying, “A racial twist has been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism; Rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”

Ferguson said Williams was rejected by even the 1930s most radical publisher Frederic Warburg, publisher of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Warburg's rejection of the book was because it contradicted the British narrative that abolition was due to humanitarian, not economic reasons, Ferguson said.

She cited Prof Kehinde Andrews of Birmingham City University as complaining that many British academics today disbelieve the Industrial Revolution was dependent on slavery and so dismiss Williams's book.

“It is good that the book’s being published by a major publisher, but it’s kind of an indictment that it has taken more than 80 years,” said Andrews.

“I hope people read it, and it’s nice it’s available. But I think it will probably just get ignored in Britain, the way it has been, largely, in the past.”


"UK finally publishes Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery"

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