“The capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery and then helped to destroy it. When British capitalism depended on the West Indies, they ignored slavery or defended it. When British capitalism found the West Indian monopoly a nuisance, they destroyed West Indian slavery as the first step in the destruction of West Indian monopoly.”
To understand the origins of modern capitalism it is essential to trace its roots back to slavery. This truth has been undeniably and irrefutably established by Dr. Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery, his PhD dissertation cum historical primer. Dr. Williams’ scholarly masterpiece substantiates that slavery in all its inhumanity, savagery and greed is ingrained fundamentally in the DNA of capitalism. The crux of Dr. Williams’ thesis is essentially that the enormous wealth generated by the European enslavement of Africans on plantations in the Caribbean, spawned an affluent mercantile class in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, who in turn used their vast capital to bankroll the industrial revolution thereby paving the way for modern capitalism. What I found most insightful in Capitalism and Slavery was Dr. Williams’ proposition that the demise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the British West Indies did not come about due to the concerted moralistic efforts of abolitionists nor to the sudden dawning of conscience on the part of the British government about the barbarity of slavery, but rather it was wrought by purely economic imperatives in the early part of the 19th century. In particular, the monopoly on slave-based cash-crop cultivation in the British Caribbean islands was no longer profitable by the late 18th century, in the face of pervasive soil exhaustion (caused by the extended period of monoculture cultivation in the long colonized British islands) and stiff competition from the French and Spanish, on the larger Caribbean islands, that were vastly more profitable (by a factor of an order of magnitude or more). This dire economic situation was further compounded by the devastating loss of America as a colony in 1776. Out of desperation stemming from their waning economic fortunes, Britain first sought to abolition the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807, in order to cutoff the replenishment of the African slave labor supply of their European competitors. However, this failed to achieve the desired debilitating economic effect. As a result, by 1834, when it was abundantly clear that slavery in the British West Indies was untenable and would never make it a comeback to its glory days, and furthermore that it no longer served the economic interests of the metropolis that favored free trade, the British unceremoniously abolished slavery. Although Britain was the second European country to abolish slavery in 1834 (officially France was first in 1794, although it was later reinstated by Napoleon in 1802), it had no qualms, even in the late 19th century, about consuming slave produced goods and commodities from Cuba, Brazil and the United States. This convincingly reveals the absence of any scruples on the part of the British with regards to ending slavery or the slave trade. In summary, Capitalism and Slavery is essential reading for student’s of Caribbean as well of modern economic history.
Thanks as always for stopping by! Please feel free to share your thoughts or reactions in a comment below. Also, if you would like to receive more updates about my writing please consider joining my newsletter mailing list by subscribing below.