Eighty years late: groundbreaking work on slave economy is finally published in UK?

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By Donna Ferguson, The Guardian

Seminal work by scholar and future politician Eric Williams, shunned for decades, is issued by mainstream imprint

Enslaved people working in the cane fields, 1826. Much of Britain’s wealth came from sugar. Photograph: Getty

In 1938, a brilliant young Black scholar at Oxford University wrote a thesis on the economic history of British empire and challenged a claim about slavery that had been defining Britain’s role in the world for more than a century.

But when Eric Williams – who would later become the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago – sought to publish his “mind-blowing” thesis on capitalism and slavery in Britain, he was shunned by publishers and accused of undermining the humanitarian motivation for Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act.

Slavery, Williams argues, was abolished in much of the British empire in 1833 because doing so at that time was in Britain’s economic self-interest – not because the British suddenly discovered a conscience.

“The capitalists had first encouraged West Indian slavery and then helped to destroy it,” he writes. In the early 19th century, slave-owning sugar planters in the Caribbean British colonies enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of sugar to Britain, because of an imperial tax policy of protectionism. Williams argues: “When British capitalism depended on [sugar and cotton plantations in] the West Indies, they [the capitalists] ignored slavery or defended it. When British capitalism found the West Indian monopoly [on sugar] a nuisance, they destroyed West Indian slavery as the first step in the destruction of West Indian monopoly.”

Dr Eric Williams in 1961, when he was president of Trinidad and Tobago, speaking at Central Hall in London’s Westminster. Photograph: Val Wilmer/Getty

The Industrial Revolution could not have happened without slavery – Williams made the case for this in 1938.”

Prof Kehinde Andrews, Birmingham City University

In great detail, he lays out the scale of the wealth and industry that was created in Britain, not just from the slave plantations and in the sugar refineries and cotton mills, but by building and insuring slave ships, manufacturing goods transported to the colonies – including guns, manacles, chains and padlocks – and then banking and reinvesting the profits.

Read the full article here.

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