Eric Williams and the Tangled History of Capitalism and Slavery

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello.

Before he became a celebrated author and the founding father and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Eustace Williams was an adroit footballer. At his high school, Queen’s Royal College, he was a fierce competitor, which likely led to an injury that left him deaf in his right ear. Yet as Williams’s profile as a scholar and national leader rose, so did the attempts by his critics to turn his athleticism against him. An “expert dribbler” known for prancing downfield with the ball kissing one foot, then the other, Williams was now accused by his political detractors of not being a team player. Driven by his desire to play to the gallery—or so it was said—he proved to be uninterested in whether his team (or his nation, not to mention the erstwhile British Commonwealth) was victorious.

What his critics described as a weakness, though, was also a strength: His willingness to go it alone on the field probably contributed to his willingness to break from the historiographic pack during his tenure at Oxford University, and it also led him to chart his own political course. Williams, after all, often had good reason not to trust his political teammates, particularly those with close ties to London. Moreover, he was convinced that a good politician should play to the gallery: Ultimately, he was a public representative. And this single-minded determination to score even if it meant circumventing his teammates, instilled in him a critical mindset, one that helped define both his scholarship—in particular his groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery—and his work as a politician and an intellectual, though admittedly this trait proved to be more effective at Oxford and Howard University than during his political career, which coincided with the bruising battles of the Cold War.

A new edition of Capitalism and Slavery, published by the University of North Carolina Press with a foreword by the economist William Darity, reminds us in particular of Williams’s independent political and intellectual spirit and how his scholarship upended the historiographical consensus on slavery and abolition. Above all else, in this relatively slender volume, Williams asserted the primacy of the enslaved themselves in breaking the chains that bound them, putting their experiences at the center of his research. Controversially, he also placed slavery at the heart of the rise of capitalism and the British Empire, which carried profound implications for its successor, the United States. The same holds true for his devaluation of the humanitarianism of white abolitionists and their allies as a spur for ending slavery. In many ways, the book augured his determination as a political actor as well: Williams the academic striker sped downfield far ahead of the rest and scored an impressive goal for the oppressed while irking opponents and would-be teammates alike. But his subsequent career as a politician also came as a surprise: Despite his own radical commitments as a historian, as a politician Williams broke in significant ways from many of his anti-colonial peers. For both reasons of his own making and reasons related to leading a small island nation in the United States’ self-proclaimed backyard, Williams as prime minister was hardly seen as an avatar of radicalism.

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