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Capitalism and Slavery after Fifty Years (1997)

  • Seymour Drescher

Abstract

Ten years ago I began an assessment of Capitalism and Slavery with my understanding of a classic: ‘If one criterion of a classic is its ability to reorient our most basic way of viewing an object or a concept, Eric Williams’ study supremely passes that test’.1 The passage of a fifth decade has provided abundant evidence of the pivotal status of Capitalism and Slavery. The original publisher reprinted the book in 1994 with a new Introduction by Colin A. Palmer.2 Hilary Beckles, Selwyn Carrington, William Darity and Thomas Holt, among others, have assessed Eric Williams’ impact upon, and inspiration for, West Indian scholars. Most recently, Walter Minchinton has demonstrated the sustained discussion of the Williams-Drescher debate among historians of Caribbean slavery. During the past decade Barbara Solow edited the results of two international conferences inspired by Williams’ scholarship. And, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Capitalism and Slavery, Joseph Inikori delivered his Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture on ‘Slavery and the Rise of Capitalism’.3

Keywords

Economic History Grand Coalition Slave System Slave Trade Atlantic World 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Seymour Drescher, ‘Eric Williams, British Capitalism and British Slavery’, History and Theory, 26(2) (1987), pp. 180–96; see also Chapter 12 in this volume.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    See Hilary M. Beckles, ‘Capitalism and Slavery: The debate over Eric Williams’, Social and Economic Studies (Jamaica), 33(4) (1984), pp. 171–89;Google Scholar
  3. William Darity, Jr., ‘A General Equilibrium Model of the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Slave Trade: A least-likely Test for the Caribbean School’, Research in Economic History, 7(1982), pp. 287–326;Google Scholar
  4. Thomas C. Holt, ‘Explaining Abolition’, Journal of Social History, 24(2) (1990), pp. 371–8;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Selwyn H. H. Carrington, ‘The State of the Debate on the Role of Capitalism in the Ending of the Slave System’, Journal of Caribbean History, 22(1–2) (1988), pp. 20–41;Google Scholar
  6. Barabara L. Solow and Stanely L. Engerman (eds.), British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The legacy of Eric Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987);Google Scholar
  7. Barbara L. Solow (ed.), Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991);Google Scholar
  8. Joseph E. Inikori, ‘Slavery and the Rise of Capitalism’, 1993 Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture, Mona, University of the West Indies, 1993; Walter Minchinton, ‘Abolition and Emancipation: Williams, Drescher and the Continuing Debate’, in Roderick A. McDonald (ed.), West Indian Accounts: Essays on the history of the British Caribbean and the atlantic economy (University of the West Indies: The Press, 1996), pp. 253–73.Google Scholar
  9. 4.
    See inter alia, John Thornton, Africa and the Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992);Google Scholar
  10. Ira Berlin, ‘From Creole to African: Atlantic creoles and the origins of African-Americans in mainland North America’, William and Mary Quarterly, 53(2) (1996), p. 251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 5.
    See, most recently, David Hancock, Citizens of the World: London merchants and the integration of the British atlantic community, 1735–1785 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), appendix IV, pp. 419–24.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (New York: Pantheon, 1987), p. 18.Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    P. C. Emmer, ‘Capitalism Mistaken? The economic decline of Surinam and the plantation loans, 1773–1850: A rehabilitation’, Itinerario, 20(1) (1996), pp. 11–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 8.
    On Spain and Cuba, see Luis Alonso Alverey, ‘Comercio exterior y formacion de capital financiero: el trafico de negros hispano-Cubano, 1821–1868’, Anuario de Estudios Americanos, 51 (1994), pp. 75–92;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Robert Whitney, ‘The Political Economy of Abolition: The Hispano-Cuban elite and Cuban slavery, 1868–1873’, Slavery and Abolition, 13(1) (1992), pp. 20–36. On the general role of the periphery, see P. K. O’Brien, ‘Economic Development: The contribution of the periphery’, Economic History Review, 35 (1985), pp. 1–18; and idem, ‘The Impact of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793–1815 on the Long-Run Growth of the British Economy’, Economic History Review, 12 (1989).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 9.
    See P. K. O’Brien and S. L. Engerman, ‘Exports and the Growth of the British Economy from the Glorious Revolution to the Peace of Amiens’, in Solow, ed., Slavery, pp. 177–209; S. L. Engerman, ‘The Atlantic Economy of the Eighteenth Century: Some speculations on economic development in Britain, America, Africa and elsewhere’, Journal of European Economic History, 24(1) (Spring 1995), pp. 145–75; esp. pp. 168–9;Google Scholar
  17. and Kenneth Morgan, ‘Atlantic Trade and British Economic Growth in the Eighteenth Century’, in Peter Mathias and John A. Davis (eds.), Nature of Industrialization, vol. IV, International Trade and British Economic Growth from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (London: Blackwell, 1997).Google Scholar
  18. See also François Crouzet, ‘Toward an Export Economy: British Exports during the Industrial Revolution’, Explorations in Economic History, 17 (1980), pp. 48–93; see also n. 8 above. The revival of a positive assessment of Williams’ hypothesis of slavery’s major contribution to capitalist development has been linked to a general revaluation of the ‘commercial revolution’s’ impact upon industrialization. See Joseph Inikori, ‘Eric Williams and the Changing Explanations of the Industrial Revolution’, presented to the 1996 Trinidad conference on Capitalism and Slavery.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 10.
    Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 544. See, inter alia, Jacob M. Price, ‘Credit in the Slave Trade and Plantation Economies’, in Solow, ed., Slavery, pp. 293–339; the essays of Solow, Inikori and David Richardson in Solow and Engerman, British Capitalism; Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the era of abolition (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1977), chs. 5–6, pp. 65–112; and most recently, Javier Cuenca-Esteban, ‘Britain’s Terms of Trade and the Americas, 1772–1831: Back to demand as a dynamic factor in British industrialization?’, delivered at the Eleventh International Economic History Congress, Milan, 12 September 1994. I thank P. C. Emmer for bringing this paper to may attention. Emmer’s commentary at the same session was extremely sceptical of attempts to demonstrate a link between intercontinental oceanic trade and markets on the one hand, and innovative change in metropolitan manufacturing on the other.Google Scholar
  20. 11.
    Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, p. 544. The most recent estimate, that of Cuenca-Esteban, locates ‘the turning point’ in the very year that Britain abolished the slave trade. Until then, ‘Britain’s net barter terms of trade appear to have improved sharply’ (p. 13, emphasis in the original). Only one of the historians at the fortieth anniversary conference on British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery followed Williams in seeing the West Indian slave system ca 1775–1815 ‘as an obstacle to British growth’ (Solow and Engerman, Introduction, British Capitalism, p. 15). The twelve years since that conference have witnessed a steady strengthening of the case against the Ragatz and Williams’ versions of the decline thesis. See, inter alia, S. Drescher, ‘The Decline Thesis of British Slavery since Econocide’, Slavery and Abolition, 7(1) (1986), pp. 3–24, table 1; see also Chapter 4 in this volume. Robin Blackburn concludes: ‘Dating the decline of the British West Indies from as early as 1783 is a myth which has been demolished’, The Making of New World Slavery, p. 550, n. 58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 12.
    See S. H. H. Carrington and S. Drescher, ‘Debate: Econocide and West Indian decline, 1783–1806’, Boletin de Estudios Latinoamericanos y del Caribe, 36 (1984), pp. 13–67; S. Drescher, ‘The Decline Thesis’. See also Carrington, The British West Indies During the American Revolution (Dordrecht, Holland and Providence, USA: Foris Publications, 1988); Carrington, ‘The State of the Debate on the Role of Capitalism in the Ending of the Slave System’, Journal of Caribbean History, 22(1 and 2) (1988), pp. 20–41. See also Michael Craton, ‘The Transition from Slavery to Free Wage Labour in the Caribbean, 1790–1890’, Slavery and Abolition, 13(2) (1992), pp. 37–67, esp. 51–2. For a balanced recent assessment, see B. W. Higman, ‘Economic and Social Development of the British West Indies, From settlement to ca. 1850’, in Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Vol. I, The Colonial Era (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996), pp. 297–336.Google Scholar
  22. 13.
    David Brion Davis, ‘The Benefit of Slavery’, New York Review of Books, 31 March 1988.Google Scholar
  23. 15.
    S. Drescher, ‘Whose Abolition? Popular Pressure and the Ending of the British Slave Trade’, Past and Present, 143 (1994), pp. 136–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 16.
    P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688–1914 (London: Longmans, 1993), p. 84n. On the relative economic significance of West Indian vs. industrial wealth in Britain before emancipation, see W. D. Rubinstein, Elites and the Wealthy in Modern British History (Brighton: Harvester, 1987).Google Scholar
  25. 17.
    See, above all, Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, labour, and politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938. Holt’s inspiration is David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975). Holt notes, however, that Davis had already distanced himself from his original position during the 1980s. See Holt, ‘Of Human Progress and Intellectual Apostasy’, Reviews in American History, 15 (March 1987), pp. 50–8.Google Scholar
  26. 18.
    See Thomas Bender (ed.), The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and abolitionism as a problem in historical interpretation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 1–2, 69–70, 119, 161, 180–1. On the simultaneous disappearance of Africa, the West Indies and Capitalism and Slavery from the Antislavery Debate, see also David Ryden, ‘Planters, Slaves and Decline’, a paper presented at the 1996 Trinidad conference. For other recent works that build on the reassesment of the relationship between economics and culture during the past decade, see David Turley, The Culture of English Antislavery, 1790–1860 (London: Routledge, 1991); and Judith Jennings, The Business of Abolishing the British Slave Trade, 1783–1807 (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1997). See also Martin A. Klein’s concise summary of the state of the discussion, ‘Slavery, the International Labour Market and the Emancipation of Slaves in the Nineteenth Century’, in Paul E. Lovejoy and Nicholas Rogers (eds.), Unfree Labour in the Development of the Atlantic World (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1994), pp. 197–220.Google Scholar
  27. 20.
    On the Spanish Caribbean see M. Moreno Fraginals, Frank Moya Pons and Stanley L. Engerman (eds.), Between Slavery and Free Labour: The Spanish-speaking Caribbean in the nineteenth century (Baltimore and London, 1985),Google Scholar
  28. on the French Caribbean see Dale W. Tomich, in Slavery in the Circuit of Sugar: Martinique and the world economy, 1830–1848 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990);Google Scholar
  29. Josette Fallope, Esclaves et Citoyens: les Noirs à la Guadaloupe au XIXe siècle dans le processus de résistance et dintégration, 1802–1910 (Basse Terre: Société d’Histoire de la Guadeloupe, 1992.Google Scholar
  30. On Africa see, inter alia, Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, oriental, and African slave trades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  31. On Portugal, see João Pedro Marques. ‘Uma Revisão Critica Das Teorias. Sobre a abolicão do Trafico de Escravos Português’, Penelope (1994), pp. 95–118.Google Scholar
  32. 21.
    See, inter alia, on the United States, R. W. Fogel and S. L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The economics of American negro slavery (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974);Google Scholar
  33. R. W. Fogel et al., Without Consent or Contract 4 vols. (New York: Norton, 1989–92);Google Scholar
  34. for Cuba, Rebecca Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The transition to free labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985);Google Scholar
  35. Laird Bergad, Fe Iglesias Garcia and Maria de Carmen Barcia, The Cuban Slave Market, 1790–1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. for Brazil, R. W. Slenes, ‘The Demography and Economics of Brazilian Slavery: 1850–1888’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1975),Google Scholar
  37. and S. Drescher, ‘Brazilian Abolition in Comparative Perspective’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 68(3) (1988), pp. 429–60; see also Chapter 5 in this volume; for the nineteenth century Atlantic as a whole David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); for the French colonies, Pieter Emmer, ‘Capitalism after Slavery? The French slave trade and slavery in the Atlantic 1500–1900’, Slavery and Abolition, 14(3) (1993), pp. 234–47; for the Dutch Caribbean, Gert Oostindie, Fifty Years Later: Antislavery, capitalism and modernity in the Dutch orbit (Leiden: KITLV 1995 and Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), pp. 89–178, essays by Edwin Horlinga, Alex van Stipriaan and Gert Oostindie; for the British Caribbean, S. Drescher, Econocide: British slavery in the age of abolition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977); and John R. Ward, British West Indian Slavery: The process of amelioration (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 22.
    See S. Drescher, ‘The Long Goodbye’, in Oostindie (ed.), Fifty Years Later, esp. pp. 44–53; see also Chapter 7 in this volume; and S. L. Engerman, ‘Emancipation in Comparative Perspective: A long and wide view’, in ibid., esp. pp. 227–33, and David Eltis, Economic Growth, passim. The spreading scepticism about both the decline thesis and the applicability of industrial of laissez-faire explanations of abolition are summarized in Julian Gwyn, ‘The Economics of the Atlantic Slave Trade: A review’, Social History [Canada], 25(49) (1992), pp. 151–62,Google Scholar
  39. and David Murray, ‘Capitalism and Slavery in Cuba’, Slavery and Abolition, 17(3) (December 1996), pp. 223–37. On scepticism about the correlation between political economy and anti-slavery in British Parliamentary voting behaviour, see Tom L. Franzmann, ‘Antislavery and Political Economy in the Farly Victorian House of Commons: A research note on ‘capitalist Hegemony’, Journal of Social History, 27 (1994), pp. 579–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 23.
    On the erosion of a sharp demarcation line between slave and free labour, see inter alia, Mary Turner (ed.), From Chattel Slaves to Wage Slaves: The Dynamics of Labour Bargaining in the Americas (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1995), esp. pp. 1–10;Google Scholar
  41. and Michael Twaddle (ed.), The Wages of Slavery: From chattel slavery to wage labour in Africa, the Caribbean and England (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1993).Google Scholar
  42. Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848, (London: Verso, 1988), p. 26;Google Scholar
  43. Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American slave revolts in the making of the modern world (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1978), p. 159. Historians increasingly see a convergence of modes of labour regulation in slavery and industrializing free wage labour economies. Whether planters borrowed the time-discipline of the factory or vice-versa is another question. See Mark M. Smith, ‘Old South Time in Comparative Perspective’, American Historical Review, 101 (1996), pp. 1432–69.Google Scholar
  44. 25.
    The image of the abolitionists as elite agents of divine power was classically presented by Reginald Coupland, in The Empire in These Days (London, 1935), p. 264; quoted in Capitalism and Slavery, p. 178. For the subsequent change in perspective see Holt, The Problem of Freedom, pp. 27–33.Google Scholar
  45. 26.
    See S. Drescher, Capitalism and Antislavery: British mobilization in comparative perspective (London: Macmillan, 1986; New York, Oxford University Press, 1987);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The mobilization of public opinion against the slave trade, 1787–1807; Leo D’Anjou, Social Movements and Cultural Change: The first abolition campaign revisited (New York: Aldine de Gruyton, 1996);Google Scholar
  47. S. Drescher, ‘Public Opinion and the Destruction of British Colonial Slavery’, in James Walvin (ed.), Slavery and British Society, 1776–1846 (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 22–48; see also Chapter 3 in this volume; S. Drescher, ‘Whose Abolition? Popular Pressure and the Ending of the Slave Trade’, Past and Present, 143 (1994), pp. 136–66, and Christopher L. Brown, ‘Foundations of British Abolitionism, Beginnings to 1789’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford University, 1994).Google Scholar
  48. 27.
    David Hempton, The Religion of the People: Methodism and popular religion c. 1750–1900 (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 165. For various emphases on popular anti-slavery see: Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery; David Turley, The Culture of English Anttislavery, 1780–1860 (London: Routledge, 1991); Betty Fladeland, Abolitionists and Working-Class Problems in the Age of Industrialization (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1984); S. Drescher, ‘Cart Whip and Billy Roller: Antislavery and reform symbolism in industralizing Britain’, Journal of Social History, 15 (1981), pp. 3–24; and Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  49. 28.
    On the metropolian side, see Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social movements, collective action and politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994);Google Scholar
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  51. John Markoff, Waves of Democracy: Social Movements and Political changes (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1996); and Leo D’Anjou, Social Movements and Cultural Change. On the interaction between the British working classes and Caribbean slaves see, inter alia, Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara slave rebellion of 1823 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), esp. pp. 283 ff.Google Scholar
  52. 29.
    However, for the most vigorous reassertion of the view that European industrialization was not dependent upon Afro-American Atlantic slave production, see David Eltis, ‘Slavery and Freedom in the Modern World’, in Stanley L. Engerman (ed.), The Terms of Labor: Slavery, serfdom and free labor (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), ch. 1,Google Scholar
  53. and Paul Bairoch, Economics and World History: Myths and paradoxes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). pp. 59–98.Google Scholar
  54. 30.
    See Robert Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor: The employment relation in English and American law and culture, 1350–1870 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); and his ‘The Myth of the Rise of Free Labor: A critique of historical stage theory’.Google Scholar
  55. 32.
    On gender see: Hilary Beckles, Natural Rebels: A social history of enslaved black women in Barbados (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989);Google Scholar
  56. Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton and Barbara Bailey (eds.), Engendering History: Caribbean women in historical perspective (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995);Google Scholar
  57. Moira Ferguson, Subject to Others: British women writers and colonial slavery, 1670–1834 (London and New York: Routledge, 1992);Google Scholar
  58. Clare Midgley, ‘Slave Sugar Boycott, Female Activism and the Domestic Base of British Anti-Slavery Culture’, Slavery and Abolition, 17(3) (December 1996), pp. 137–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. 33.
    Introduction to the 1964 edition. On Williams’ portrait of abolitionism as a cynically disguised humanitarian triumph, see David Brion Davis, ‘Capitalism, Abolitionism, and Hegemony’, in Solow and Engerman, British Capitalism, p. 209. Williams’ image continues to reverberate. See, for example, Markman Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 50–1. On the explicitly anti-colonialist and didactic intent of Capitalism and Slavery, see Williams, British Historians and the West Indies (London, 1966), p. 12. For further discussion see Howard Temperley, ‘Eric Williams and Abolition: The birth of a new orthodoxy’, in Solow and Engerman, eds., British Capitalism, pp. 229–57.Google Scholar
  60. 34.
    See John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol. 1: Commerce and Compromise, 1820–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 147. For Williams’ predecessors see Drescher, ‘Eric Williams’.Google Scholar
  61. 35.
    For a good pedagogical example of Readings for discussion see Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd (eds.), Caribbean Slave Society and Economy: A student reader (Kingston, Jamaica: I. Randle Publishers, 1991).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Seymour Drescher 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seymour Drescher
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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