Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ and the Archive of Freedom

*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.

(Schomburg Center Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books, History of Slavery and Slave Trade Collection)

In his 1944 magisterial treatise Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams describes his work as an economic rather than a social history from the outset. But in the fourth chapter on the West India Interest, Williams actually offers many pages of what could be deemed a social history of planters’ economic ascendancy. He declares outright, “the sugar planter ranked among the biggest capitalists of the mercantilist epoch.” He introduces the “Interest” via genealogies of the generational wealth of certain prominent slaveholding families from the late 1600s onward. We learn of their humble origins, their incredible enrichment in the West Indies which allows them to return to Britain in the 1700s, become a nouveau landed gentry, and form (along with colonial agents and merchants) a substantial voting bloc in Parliament. The vignettes end with the receipt and reuse of substantial funds upon abolition by prominent members of its ranks. Men such as the Beckfords of Jamaica, the Gladstones of Jamaica and Guyana, or the Codringtons of Barbados, Antigua, and Barbuda, collected handsome sums within a few years of 1834 and reinvested those monies into a variety of British businesses, banks, academic and religious institutions. Here Williams directly links not just abolition but also post-slavery compensation of slave owners to transatlantic capitalist expansion.

His brief exploration anticipates the trove of data in the impressive Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database that Catherine Hall, Nick Draper and their colleagues at University College of London recently assembled to track the excessive funds doled out to former slaveowners in the British Empire, forever to the benefit of slavery and emancipation scholarship such as my own. I want to build on this foundation that Williams laid and the UCL team expanded, by offering a small slice of social history of the compensation of an Antiguan slave owner. I tell his story in concert with the history of one of the enslaved women his family claimed and whose labor enriched this family abundantly during and after slavery. The economic effects of abolition remain inextricably linked to the social history of freedom’s attendant losses for emancipated people. Ultimately, the contours of British post-slavery compensation compounded the incomplete and elusive nature of freedom, the foundation of silences, and beneath those silences the incomprehensible violence on which slavery’s archive is built.

My recent book, Troubling Freedom, explored how British emancipation set forth a number of contradictory pairings at once, experienced simultaneously but distinctly by former enslavers and former bondspeople: enrichment and impoverishment; value and worthlessness, belonging and autonomy, freedom and violence. To that end, let us begin with William Mackinnon, a Tory MP from the 1820s thru the 1860s, a Scot by descent, and a historian who ironically theorized extensively on liberty. Mackinnon argued for the “savagery” of nations that engaged in “cruel” slavery in his 1846 two-volume treatise History of Civilisation in which he somehow failed to mention West Indian slavery.1 His oversight becomes all the more vexing considering that his ability to theorize the link between liberty and the rise of the British middle class, and his own ascendancy in his lifetime to Britain’s political nobility, rested in part on the £3942 compensation he received in 1836 on behalf of his late father who claimed ownership of 276 enslaved Antiguans, an amount that by some scales is worth at least tens if not hundreds of times more at present. A family dispute unfolded over who would receive the funds but William emerged the victor. These 276 women, men and children who toiled on sugar fields on a small island formed a “shadow archive,” as filmmaker Allan Sekula has termed the silenced but broader trough of knowledge propping up the main messages in any text, for Mackinnon’s History of Civilisation volumes, and his infinitely more charmed metropolitan life upon emancipation.2 Or to make this point at once broader and more personal, the shadow archive for Mackinnon’s wealth and political power, and the continued prominence of the Mackinnon line, whose descendants hold a peerage to this present moment, includes Antigua’s history of Black struggle then and now, as well as enslaved Antiguans and their descendants then and now, including me.

My book opens with Juncho, a woman enslaved on the Mackinnons’ estate in Antigua, who upon emancipation in 1834 insisted that, despite the hunger and privation she encountered in freedom, slavery had been worse. Her words appeared in a contemporary history of Antigua penned by a planter’s wife. Advanced in age but finally free, Juncho boldly declared, “me no b’longs to dem,” signaling that she took solace in the self-mastery that legal freedom brought. As a freedwoman, she had control of her body and her time. Reportedly, Antigua’s freedpeople used the phrase “me free, me no b’longs to you!” as a “constant boast” when they ignored or defied whites. The phrase also evokes Black women’s relief at the freedom to protect their bodies from sexual violation. Juncho and her formerly enslaved compatriots relished their new status and the liberty to express it publicly to all whites within earshot.

Yet Juncho, rather than hailing abolition as an unalloyed blessing, also underlines the many difficulties that Black working people faced following their legal release from enslavement. Juncho admitted that some aspects of her circumstances in bondage proved better than those she experienced in freedom. In slavery, she had access to her own house and a private garden, where she grew produce and raised poultry. When emancipation came, her owner’s representative expelled her from her home and reclaimed her provision ground as Mackinnon property. Too old to be employed profitably, she became a liability in this new regime of wage labor to her owners and even to her daughter’s impoverished family with whom she sought shelter after expulsion.

Her words poignantly convey the paradox of freedom for ex-slaves. Emancipation from chattel status into poverty and continued subjugation meant that freedom, while long awaited and celebrated, entailed material distress and personal uncertainty. Her story also highlights the particular difficulties of freedom for Antigua’s Black women, who faced an unreliable labor market that favored black men while they shouldered responsibility for their children and extended kin, often without assistance from male partners. Essentially, these inadequacies meant that freedpeople like Juncho had to imbue freedom with deeper meaning through new social, political, and ontological struggles. Her testimony reveals that self-ownership marked only the beginning of such struggles. Freedpeople were still poor and bereft of the resources required to improve their material and social circumstances.

Even from as suspicious a source as a planter’s wife’s observations, we inadvertently witness Juncho at work theorizing freedom’s incompleteness through this devastating slice of her life story. This Black woman’s misfortunes and those of her cohorts served as a shadow archive quietly buttressing the transatlantic power of the Clan Mackinnon. Freedom conceptually bears a shadow archive of dispossession, whose cast is long, stretching in some ways to the present day. The post-1834 economic regime was fully hostile to Afro-Caribbean people’s determination to uphold their humanity. Eric Williams’ work was one of the first I read that alerted me to this indisputable fact, and the social history implications of his economic inquiry is a significant part of why his text still remains foundational for research on Atlantic slavery and freedom 76 years later.

  1. Catherine Hall discusses William Mackinnon, his History of Civilisation and his compensation in her essay “Reconfiguring Race: The Stories the Slave-owners Told,” in Catherine Hall, et. al., eds., Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014),170-171; and note 16 on p.198.
  2. Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter 1986), 3-64.
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Natasha Lightfoot

Natasha Lightfoot is Associate Professor of History and Faculty Fellow in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University. She specializes in Caribbean history and slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World. Follow her on Twitter @njlightfoot.

Comments on “Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ and the Archive of Freedom

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    Thanks Natasha for this great cameo piece. I will look out for the book.

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