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Capitalism & Slavery

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  801 ratings  ·  49 reviews
Slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in England. Plantation owners, shipbuilders, and merchants connected with the slave trade accumulated vast fortunes that established banks and heavy industry in Europe and expanded the reach of capitalism worldwide.

Eric Williams advanced these powerful ideas in Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944. Years ahead of its ti
Paperback, 307 pages
Published October 14th 1994 by University of North Carolina Press
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George Roper
Jun 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
You will hear it often said that British West Indian (BWI) slavery was ended because it was no longer profitable for the slave owners. That assertion always seemed paradoxical to me. Eric Williams explains in a logical, dispassionate and cogent manner the real truths, which are this:
1) BWI slavery was instituted to meet the needs of the mercantile impulses of the 17th century (which reached their peak in the 18th century). In the end, commercial considerations also played a major part in its dem
David Anderson
Mar 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Slavery was integral to the early development of capitalism, following the period of primitive accumulation of capital. The rise of industrial capitalism would not have been possible without the profits derived from slavery and the slave trade. Williams does a superb job of demonstrating how slavery turned Britain into an economic power. This book illustrates the economic aspects of the international slave trade and who benefited from it, how it contributed to capital formation and where did tha ...more
Jan 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely critical book on the entangled origins of slavery, race, and racism, from a historical materialist perspective. Empirically demystifies so many capitalist lies about race, slavery, and the abolition of slavery. Everyone must read this.

"A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery."
Nov 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015-favorites
Astoundingly ahead of its time - I would never have guessed that such a book was published in the 40s, and it's clearly an important foundation for later scholarly work on colonialism, race, and capitalism. Highly recommended reading - for me, it filled in historical gaps and challenged some really fundamental assumptions I didn't even know I held. ...more
Jul 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020
read this book!!!

fantastic analysis of accumulation of capital from slavery, and the politico-economic reasons the british govt ended up abolishing the slave trade/slavery--including massive slave revolts that are frequently excluded from histories

fun fact: british slave owners were compensated for their slaves that were emancipated
Benjamin Eskola
Oct 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This has been on my “to read” list for a couple of years now, ever since coming across it in a British Empire seminar, and I finally picked it up for my dissertation.

It’s pretty much a seminal, though not uncontroversial, work on the history of the slave trade and industrial revolution, and how the latter built upon the former; and, in particular, how the abolition of the slave trade was not purely humanitarian but itself economically motivated.

He covers the slave trade and slave-labour-dependen
Gregory Klages
Dec 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Williams wrote a highly influential, challenging, detailed history of the relationship between the economic gains to be made in the sugar trade that motivated the British and West Indians to develop and support slavery. The voluminous detail Williams includes reminded me of texts such as Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, and Tooze's Wages of Sin. In this respect, the book is not for the faint of heart, nor does it constitute 'light and informative' reading.

Williams' analysis is challenging in t
Sep 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the marginalia in this book just as much as the text itself; evidently, previous readers took great exception to Williams' thesis that capitalism, not racism, was the driving force behind the development of West Indian slavery and the slave trade. Although I too am doubtful that a racist logic wasn't anterior to slavery (even if, as another reviewer writes, "race" is not a transhistorical concept), these readers seemed to assign to Williams the position that because slavery was first a ...more
John Armwood II
Aug 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. This should be required reading for every student studying the history of European and North and South American economics.
Marts  (Thinker)
Nov 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellent exposition on the relations of slavery to the development of capitalism...
The author Eric Williams was the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago...
Jun 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own
This is a research book first and foremost. The main point of the book is that without slavery there is no capitalism. This is the book that convinced me to go back to school and get a degree in economics. While maybe not riveting it certainly is an information packed book that backs up its argument really well.
Jan 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Every Trini should read this book..
Simon Butler
Apr 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A justly influential classic that still reads extremely well for a work published in 1944. At the outset Williams makes clear that the book's purpose is not to provide a history of the institution of slavery. Rather, its a study of how slavery contributed greatly to the development of capitalism, and British capitalism in particular.

He outlines how British capitalists derived immense profits from the 18th century slavery 'triangular trade', which helped develop British manufacturing, agricultur
Feb 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Its called "Capitalism & Slavery". Its specifically about British Capitalism & the West Indies. While each given western power with imperialist & colonial leanings will likely have unique conditions with which to grapple both at home & among the lands they colonized, I do believe general understandings of imperialism, its effects in general & how it affects the colonized can be gained from reading books such as this.

Capitalism is rife with contradictions always which seem to distort the overall
Dec 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An exceptional mixed historical / macroeconomics-type book, published in 1944 . . . now truly a classic . . . well ahead of its time in terms of its then seemingly bold concepts. Yet, most of its economic principles are spot on, although perhaps too mildly stated. The thesis was initially presented for Mr. Williams' PhD thesis and has long thereafter spawned many similarly themed books (e.g., Black Labor, White Wealth: The Search for Power and Economic Justice by Claud Anderson (1994); The Makin ...more
Dec 02, 2020 rated it liked it
“ I am persecuted because of my writings, I think, therefore, that I should write some more.”

“Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. As compared with Indian and white labor, Negro slavery was eminently superior. “In each case,” writes Bassett, discussing North Carolina, “it was a survival of the fittest.”

“the harsh treatment of the underprivileged classes, the unsympathetic
Gage Hoefer
Dec 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This is an incredible historical materialist account charting the development of the slave trade, slavery within the West Indies, and how the Industrial Revolution in Britain and France was funded almost entirely by profits obtained from slavery within the colonies. I think Williams drew some inspiration from C.L.R. James when writing this work- "The Black Jacobins" would make an excellent companion piece to this at least. One of the best (if not the best) books I've read all year. ...more
Jakob Myers
Sep 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
A bit of a slog through the middle third or so, but starts really heating up after that. Incredibly dense with insight on British abolition and the evolution of the capitalist class from depending on supplying and being supplied by west Indian plantations to depending on Britain's parasitism on India and remaining slave states in the mainland Americas. His attention to slavery's environmental degradation as a historical mover is also strikingly prescient. Highly recommended reading. ...more
Holly Anderson
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting narrative, vital in questioning traditional perspectives on abolition.
Natalie McLaughlin
Oct 21, 2019 marked it as to-read
referenced by Angela Davis
Dec 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
A book the revival in popularity of which is not at all underserved.
Aug 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A brilliant survey of the inextricable links between the rise of capitalism and the development of slavery, as well as resistance by slaves themselves to their situation.
gaverne Bennett
Sep 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Book of genius...
Oct 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: phd-readings
A crucial book for understanding arguments about abolition.
Laurel Schuster
Jan 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
in case you werent sure that racism exists as it does because of capitalism, this is a detailed history of the transatlantic slave trade and the end of mercantilism
May 12, 2021 rated it liked it
Essential reading.
May 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: econ-history, history, x, race
Such a great book.

There's so much that I never knew about, like how the British empire used indentured servitude as a prototype for the enslavement of West Africans during ~1670s-1833. There's a crucial distinction between slave trading and slave owning, each with massive economies (10-14% of GDP!!) at their peak due to the inputs, byproducts, plantation outputs and stimulation of the triangular trade. Most of British slavery took place in The West Indies/Caribbean where there were around 2,000
Oct 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing

The fascinating point of attention for me is subjective. The economics and commerce of previous generations have provoked my curiosity. The history of slaves in this book is sourced from the economic powers of the time. The historical record keeping. For the minds of many men are in self-interest in this account in Capitalism and Slavery. Commerce compels people to earn income and governance continues to keep the status quo. The distant imperial home front such as, Great Britain, tried to enact
Sep 26, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, political
Less of a depiction of the relationship between the ideas of these two institutions and more of a historical account of how they came to influence, create, and destroy one another in Britain and its colonies in the 18th & 19 centuries. Bogged down at some points by what seems extraneous detail, the detailed research still gives credence to the fact that slavery arose not only out of a sense of white European superiority, but of economic "need" and a way to maintain (mostly economic) power on the ...more
Nov 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
The argument is simple: slavery helped in financing the British Industrial revolution via capital mobility and large scale investments and it was abandoned when it stopped being profitable. Whether the conclusion is true or false, this book remains a very serious economic analysis of slavery. It was written in 1944 and it's mostly focused around the British West Indies. It's also very cynical, with subtle commentary on the commodity status of human beings that would made any person's skin crawl. ...more
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105 likes · 22 comments
“slavery was an economic institution of the first importance. It had been the basis of Greek economy and had built up the Roman Empire. In modern times it provided the sugar for the tea and the coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton to serve as a base for modern capitalism. It made the American South and the Caribbean islands.” 3 likes
“Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. As compared with Indian and white labor, Negro slavery was eminently superior. “In each case,” writes Bassett, discussing North Carolina, “it was a survival of the fittest.” 2 likes
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