Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’: A Blueprint for Reparations

*This essay is part of our online forum on Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), organized by historian Sasha Turner. The forum is in honor of Williams’ birthday on September 25th.

Enslaved African Americans hoe and plow the earth and cut piles of sweet potatoes on a South Carolina plantation, circa 1862-3 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Enslaved African Americans hoe and plow the earth and cut piles of sweet potatoes on a South Carolina plantation, circa 1862-3. (Library of Congress)

Those who have read Capitalism and Slavery may note that Eric Williams never explicitly expressed a view about reparations in his path-breaking work. In fact, the strongest “R” word Williams used was “Resistance,” on which he elaborated in Chapter 12—”The Saints and Slavery.” This is unlike another Trinidadian, Sir Ellis Clarke, who in 1964 said explicitly, “Justice requires that reparation be made to the country that has suffered the ravages of colonialism.”1

Upon further examination, however, one finds that while Eric Williams may not have written Capitalism and Slavery to directly support the reparations cause as it is articulated today, he provided data to support it. His work has now become an indispensable handbook for all those seeking the evidentiary basis for the reparations claim in the specific case of Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean that Britain colonized. It has also provided critical direction for the claim against other European powers. One may still ponder why, with all the evidence he mustered against Britain’s colonial project and his firm anti-colonial and social justice stance, Williams did not in his book use the word reparations outright as restitution for colonial wrongs. But Sir Arthur Lewis did not use the word either; but no one can doubt that both can be identified as early articulators of the idea that Britain must be held responsible for Caribbean underdevelopment; that Britain has a historic obligation to provide compensation. In his 1939 work Lewis said, “It is the British who by their action in past centuries are responsible for the presence in these islands of the majority of their inhabitants, whose ancestors as slaves contributed millions to the wealth of Great Britain, a debt which the British have yet to repay.”2

Later on, as Williams and others negotiated an independence golden handshake, he made a clear demand for a financial settlement. Before the fracturing of the West Indies Federation into independence talks, however, Williams and other federalists had opted for a unified political and economic structure that would redirect Caribbean economies towards producing the goods needed domestically and create a program for development and industrialization. Federalists believed that, over time, the Federation would transform dependence into self-sufficiency. Added to this, as Stephen Vasciannie wrote in his article “Jamaica’s Brexit: Remembering the West Indies Federation,” it was occasionally posited that closer union would strengthen labor unity in the region and create stronger bargaining power for the Caribbean entities as a whole in international negotiations. As we now know, however, the Federal project collapsed in 1962, ending Williams’s preferred model for a self-sufficient and independent Caribbean.3 Williams then placed the responsibility of cleaning up the colonial mess squarely on the shoulders of Britain. That did not materialize. It was no wonder that post-independence for Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, others started to posit the view that formal independence and nationalism had failed to fulfill the promises of development, democracy, and autonomy—and that reparations was a better option. Gordon Lewis hinted at this when he wrote in the Growth of the Modern West Indies, “Britain sought withdrawal from the Caribbean area without providing the sort of economic aid to which, on any showing, the colonies were entitled.” The reparations demand rests on the political claim that slavery and the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans were crimes against humanity; that these crimes are deeply connected to contemporary global inequalities; and that the root of these crimes are traceable to the fact that that slavery and the Maafa enriched Europe and impoverished the Caribbean.

It took several decades after for Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the current stand-in for the Federation, to realize that, as Adom Getachew put it, “We live in an age that can no longer conceive of its aspirations for postcolonial futures in the terms and idioms that animated Williams and other federalists.” Of course, individual politicians had been in the movement before 2013; but it was in 2013 that CARICOM as a collective formally placed its hat in the reparations ring, joining in the activism of Rastafari, civil society and academics and took up the mantle of finding a solution to the underdevelopment that is a legacy of British colonialism. A discarded and marginalized Caribbean in the British economic and political project has now returned to make the case for reparations, using Williams’ 1944 argument in Capitalism and Slavery that Britain’s rise to a position of global power had been dependent on the Caribbean and Africa; but as decolonization had not been met with adequate financial support, the time had come to confront Britain and other complicit nations about their obligation.

By joining the movement, CARICOM had finally admitted what earlier reparation advocates had been saying—that decades after Independence, the people of the Caribbean are still struggling to achieve true political and economic independence and sustainable development; end poverty; and make the region less vulnerable to the ravages of natural and man-made disasters including the impact of climate change and centuries old environmental degradation. While many strategies have been pursued by the post-colonial political regimes in their efforts to overcome socioeconomic, environmental, and political challenges—as Western European Powers left the region un- and underdeveloped after having used our resources, with indigenous and forcefully imported labor, to ensure their own development—reparations as part of decolonial justice for such underdevelopment have been placed on the table. Dudley Thompson and others frame the reparations debate within the context of an unpaid debt that is still owed. It was Thompson who said that “The debt has not been paid, the accounts have not been settled”. He and others argue that the work of remaking the Caribbean is not possible without restitution.

Capitalism and Slavery has served reparations activists well. It is, after all, a study of the contribution of slavery to the development of British capitalism. Williams makes it clear that the Caribbean was central to capital accumulation in Europe and that slavery was critical to the making of British (European) modernity. The transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and plantation slavery and associated enterprises made industrialization in England possible, as they did the emergence and profitability of financial institutions. Capital generated from the Caribbean facilitated the development of banks (Lloyds, Heywood, HSBC, Barclays, Bank of Scotland). Slavery profits swelled the coffers of towns and cities like London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh; enriched families and individuals; and established schools, universities and churches. Williams’ thesis held that capitalism as an economic modality quickly replaced slavery once European elites accumulated the vast surplus capital from slavery that they needed in order to bankroll their industrial revolution.

The claim has to show Britain’s role in almost wiping out the indigenous people, specifically in the Eastern Caribbean; in conceptualizing and financing the enterprise that became chattel slavery; its culpability in the trafficking of Africans; its links to slave trading companies like the Royal African Company; the rise of its cities and ports because of slave trading; the enrichment of its citizens from all walks of life because of the exploitation of unpaid African laborers and the profits generated from colonial outputs; its use of slave-generated wealth to establish industries and financial institutions; its militarization of the Caribbean to suppress African protests and ward off competitors; its cruelty and barbarism towards Africans; its resistance to emancipation and when it capitulated, its payment of compensation to the enslavers, while leaving the formerly enslaved with nothing but freedom—in Eric Foner’s formulation—and its continuation of the mentalities and ideologies of slavery into the post-slavery period. Eric Williams’ book provides all of this evidence.

As a result of the evidence that Williams amassed against Britain, J.A Rogers, in his review of Capitalism and Slavery, according to Colin Palmer, “complimented Williams for showing better than I can recall ever having seen what the New world owes to the Negro, the victims of slavery and the slave trade, for its development, particularly in its pioneer stage; as well as England for its rise from a small power to the world’s greatest empire.”

Those of us who consider ourselves advocates for reparatory justice would do well to arm ourselves with Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery and go behind the veil to articulate its message for our times, even if pro-colonialists are seeking to destabilize the reparations movement.

  1. Sir Ellis Clarke was the Trinidadian Government’s United Nations representative to a sub-committee of the Committee on Colonialism in 1964; see quote in Gordon K. Lewis, The Growth of the Modern West Indies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968), 385.
  2. Arthur Lewis, Labour in the West Indies (London: New Beacon Books, 1977), 44.
  3. Also see Verene Shepherd, “Robert Bradshaw, Regional Integration and the Movement for Reparatory Justice: Betraying a Dream?” The Robert L Bradshaw Centennial Lecture Series, June 28, 2016, SKN.
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Verene A. Shepherd

Verene A. Shepherd is a Social Historian and current Director of the Centre for Reparation Research at The University of the West Indies. She is the author of 'Livestock Sugar and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica' (Ian Randle Pubs, 2009), and the forthcoming Biography of Lucille Mathurin Mair (UWI Press, December 2020). Follow her on Twitter @VereneAShep.