AFRICANGLOBE – To start at the beginning. Here is the opening sentence of Eric Williams’ magisterial book Capitalism and Slavery:
“When in 1492 Columbus, representing the Spanish monarchy, discovered the New World, he set in train the long and bitter international rivalry over colonial possessions for which, after four and a half centuries, no solution has yet been found.” Williams was writing in the 1930s and his book would eventually be published in 1944. Today, his words still apply and whatever we may say of Williams, his historical work cannot be ignored.
On Friday, we celebrated Emancipation Day. What were we celebrating? For Williams, the freedom of the slaves was not an ideological moment when Europe realised blacks were human, but rather the product of mercenary forces: the colonies had reached a certain phase in economic development which made the slave trade unpalatable. In other words, freedom was granted because slavery no longer paid.
In the first chapter of Williams’ book comes this seemingly counter-intuitive, audacious statement: “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Williams argues that the so-called New World presented economic challenges for the feuding colonialists. In an age of agriculture, large tracts of land had to be made profitable and this was impossible without labour. The native populations were decimated, there were not yet enough people in the colonies for a large enough labour market to supply the needs of mass production, therefore a huge gap developed. The solution was the large-scale use of slaves, even if this was not the most efficient mode of production. Free men are more likely to be industrious, but there was an urgent need. While the colonial motherlands claimed the New World in the name of God, it was money and the prospect of wealth that drove them. Once the colonies had adequate pools of labour and once all tracts of lands reached a stable state of apportionment, there was no longer an urgent need for slavery. Wrote Williams, “When slavery is adopted, it is not adopted as the choice over free labour; there is no choice at all.”
“With the limited population of Europe in the sixteenth century, the free labourers necessary to cultivate the staple crops of sugar, tobacco and cotton in the New World could not have been supplied in quantities adequate to permit large-scale production. Slavery was necessary for this and to get slaves, the Europeans turned first to the aborigines and then to Africa.”
Thus, Williams writes, “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.”
The implications of this perspective are far-reaching. On an immediate level, it makes clear that once the freed slaves declined to continue work on large-scale cultivation estates, a new crisis in the New World emerged. Another labour gap of sorts irrupted. The solution was indentured labour. We celebrate Emancipation Day and Indian Arrival Day separately, when in truth the economic forces responsible for the arrival of a wide range of races here were one and the same and not tied to any single finite point.
Further, though we celebrate the emancipation of the slaves, it remains true that racism is still with us. Williams’ account gives us a plausible explanation as to why, centuries later, countries such as the United Kingdom still remain beset with racist attitudes, its parliament comprising mainly upper-class white men notwithstanding the racial diversity of its population as a whole.
What is more, Williams’ insight gives us a different lens through which to view contemporaneous events. While the slaves were emancipated and colonies were made, eventually, independent, the same capitalist forces responsible for the slave trade arguably colour our lives today. Former colonies still remain at the mercy of larger, imperial nations with their powerful multi-national corporations still reaping profits in the region. We deal with the consequences of the actions of global actors who remain concerned primarily with money and power. But in this sense, while we are subjugated thus, we are united with millions across the world and beyond boundaries.
The democratic freedoms which we enjoy today are qualified and their boundaries are under constant challenge from a wide range of sources. Freedom remains a work in progress.
Williams’ book does, at times, have flaws. For instance, an ideological component of the movement he describes cannot be completely ruled out. If racism was the consequence of slavery, racism was nonetheless still a mechanism by which slavery could be justified and therefore perpetuated. Still, Capitalism and Slavery teaches, on a basic level, the lesson that sometimes the narrative of collective experience can be white-washed. The book urges a more critical engagement with history and the inclusion of marginal voices in the writing of that history.