Capitalism and Slavery

This study, though treating specifically of Britain, has been given the general title of "Capitalism and Slavery." The title "British Capitalism and Slavery," though pedantically more accurate, would nevertheless have been generically false. What was characteristic of British capitalism was typical also of capitalism in France. Gaston-Martin writes: "There was not a single great shipowner at Nantes who, between 1714 and 1789, did not buy and sell slaves; there was not one who sold only slaves; it is almost as certain that none would have become what he was if he had not sold slaves. In this lies the essential importance of the slave trade: on its success or falure depended the progress or ruin of all the others."

Britain, far ahead of the rest of the world, and France were countries which ushered in the modern world of industrial development and parliamentary democracy with its attendant liberties. The other foreign stream which fed the accumulation of capital in Britain, the trade with India, was secondary in the period we have presented. It was only with the loss of the American colonies in 1783 that Britain turned to the serious exploitation of her Indian possessions.

The crisis which began in 1776 and continued through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars until the Reforin Bill of 1832, was in many respects a world crisis similar to the crisis of today, differing only in the more comprehensive range, depth and intensity of the present. It would be strange if the study of the previous upheaval did not at least leave us with certain ideas and principles for the examination of what is going on around us today.

1. The decisive forces in tbe period of history we have discussed are the developing economic forces.

These economic changes are gradual, imperceptible, but they have an irresistible cumulative effect. Men, pursuing their interests, are rarely aware of the ultimate results of their activity. The commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealih of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly. But in so doing it helped to create the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, which turned round and destroyed the power of commercial capitalism, slavery, and all its works. Without a grasp of these economic changes the history of the period is meaningless.

2. The various contending groups of dominant merchants, industrialists and politicians, while keenly aware of immediate interests, are for that very reason generally blind to the long-range consequences of their various actions, proposals, policies.

To the large majority of those responsible for British policy the loss of the American colonies seemed a catastrophe. In reality, as was rapidly seen, it proved the beginning of a period of creative wealth and political power for Britain which far exceeded all the undoubted achievements of the previous age. From this point of view, the problem of the freedom of Africa and the Far East from imperialism will be finally decided by the necessities of production. As the new productive power of 1833 destroyed the relations of mother country and colonies which had existed sixty years before, so the incomparably greater productive power of today will ultimately destroy any relations which stand in its way. This does not invalidate the urgency and validity of arguments for democracy, for freedom now or for freedom after the war. But mutatis mutandis, the arguments have a familiar ring. It is helpful to approach them with some experience of similar arguments and the privilege (apparently denied to active contemporaries) of dispassionate investigatioin into what they represented.

[Eric Williams, Capitalism & Slavery, North Carolina 1944, S.209f.]