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on December 19, 2011
The author is both an historian and a political scientist. He, also, perhaps unwittingly, is a brilliant theorist. Because of the latter, this treatment of capitalism and slavery is a superb, comprehensive, dispassionate, critical and scholarly analysis of the invention and perpetuation of the English led industrial revolution, and the role slavery played as an inportant concomitant in carrying that revolution to completion.

In this regard, there is both a long and a short version of the story. The short version sticks most closely to his theory about the morality of capitalism, so it is only appropriate to give the short story in this review, which is this: Slavery and monopoly (mostly of sugar and cotton) powered the English led industrial revolution. Everything else is just cultural decoration, a tying up of all the moral loose ends very much after the fact, and building post hoc rationalizations for how (not why) slavery was engaged in. The why is already self-evident: It was done for profits and for no other reason. But slavery was its own economic closed system.

This gets us to the second part of the book, the amorality or moral innocence of economic processes. This is a theme that runs along side the narrative in the subtext. For my needs, this part of the book was perhaps the most important part. For like Charles Beard (in his fabulous book "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the U.S."), this author also puts in the foreground the economic origins of many well-known social, political, and intellectual movements (including of course, the topic of this book, slavery). In doing so, he clears the air and resets the moral parameters for those who might want to deal exclusively in morally correct fantasies (like myself) when dealing with an issue as sensitive as slavery.

What he tells us here, with a kind of moral clarity that cannot be mistaken for anything else: is that every brick in Buckingham palace was cemented in Negro blood. But then he gives us a brutal lesson in the ethics of (or the lack of morality in) economics: Politics, economics and morals in the abstract make no sense. The infrastructure of political and economic systems are more important than their respective super-structures, and are more important than the ideological base that sustains them after the fact. This is not to say that morality and ideologies do not count or that all men are simply racist and thus venal. However, the chilling message of the book is one that we already knew from the bible: "Where your treasure is; there will your heart be also." That basically is the moral story of the European pursuit of slavery.

We thus tend to forget that the use of Negroes as slaves was not at first imposed by any Hitler-like racial doctrine. It was based on a simple economic calculus: Black slaves paid better than enslaved Indians, Irish or Scottish prisoners-of-war, or the use of indentured white servants more generally. Plus, and (this was the economic deal breaker, especially with the coming of the ban on the Atlantic slave trade), the children of Negro women were slaves in perpetuity. Slaves could be bought and sold; used to produce crops, and then perpetuate or replenish themselves(!). A black slave thus constituted a tight closed economic loop, out of which emerged free-standing profits, more capital, and the bonus: more slaves. End of story. Morality did not play a role here; it was purely economics in the raw. So long as the system was profitable, it was rationalized, defended, and praised. Justification for continuing it, became its own ideology and its own legitimacy.

The author's finely-tuned theory teaching us that the only thing that cannot be seen in hindsight is how economic forces tend to coalesce as they come into being with their own built in justifications. They do so gradually, almost imperceptibly, having an irresistible and cumulative effect that is difficult to reverse, once started. Morality takes a back seat when gradual processes emerge and when questionable economic practices are used to either feed the family, build a nation, or an empire. Drug trafficking is the perfect modern case in point. Moral reckoning can always be delayed and dealt with after the fact, when profits have run their course. Such was the case in both the slave trade of the 17th and 18th Century, and the drug trade of today. The warning of this book is a morally sobering one: Capitalist profits always try to bring with them, their own moral legitimacy. We see it again in the 2006 Housing crash based on a greedy Wall Street Ponzi scheme.

The longer story of the slave trade, we already know: its origin and development, the Atlantic triangulation, the coming of the American revolution and the development of British capitalism. But here we begin to understand how slavery so easily got under the moral radar of a European world full of religious Puritans claiming to be struggling for their own freedom. Five Stars
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on May 11, 2006
The basic theory underlying Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery is that slavery in the colonies, particularly the West Indies so far as this analysis is concerned, brought about capitalism, and thereby led to its own decline.

The first five chapters of the book explain the nature of British economics prior to the American Revolution. Synthesizing information rather than expressing his own view, Williams discusses triangular trade among England, the African coast, and the slave-holding colonies. In essence, England exported goods and ships, Africa exported slaves, and the colonies exported slave-produced raw materials.

American independence destroyed the mercantilist scheme of triangular trading. The ex-colonies now had no incentive to trade with the West Indies at their monopoly prices, instead turning to French islands for their sugar, at considerably lower prices. Consequently, British businessmen were no longer interested in giving economic protection to the West Indies because doing so without mainland North America would cost them money. One basic tenet of Adam Smith's capitalism is that business should be efficient and profitable, and monopolies simply were neither. The laissez-faire approach, or Smith's "invisible hand," meant eliminating monopolies and letting economics take its course.

During this time the Industrial Revolution also occurred, generating new machinery, most notably Watt's steam engine, and simplifying the extraction of raw materials. Ironworks were now much more efficient, for example, as was the process of turning wool into useable cloth. These advantages put Great Britain in a position to economically dominate the world. During this time also Spanish colonies in South America began breaking away from Spain, opening up vast regions for British trade. Similarly, Asia became a possibility for a wide variety of goods, most notably, in the scope of Williams' book, East Indian sugar. All these opportunities and Britain's economic superiority culminated in the end of monopolistic practices.

Slavery had precipitated these developments by generating fantastic wealth through triangular trading; without slavery, that trade scheme would not have existed. Once these developments came to pass, however, slavery proved itself largely pass?. Without the monopoly on West Indian sugar, slave trading became substantially less profitable. At the same time, when the American mainland split from Great Britain, suddenly Britain was no longer dependent on slavery for economic success, but instead could be a global distributor for goods. Furthermore, abolitionists in England gave cry to the crime of slavery, since they were no longer directly dependent on it, and eventually Britain banned the slave trade.

Williams's analysis is interesting and well worth reading. That said, his assertion that slavery declined is only partly true; it was alive and well in the southern United States. Furthermore, while Williams claims slavery brought about triangular trading, which in turn brought about the Industrial Revolution, one wonders if slavery simply expedited the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Finally, he focuses to a significant extent on British humanitarianism in ending slavery; cynically, one must consider the relevance of slavery to those humanitarians, and how many there were after the Industrial Revolution.
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VINE VOICEon August 2, 2003
The transformation from subsistance society where everyone more or less consumed what they produced, to international capitalism required as a precondition the accumulation of capital. That is, some people had to be able to produce more than they consumed before they could have anything to invest.
Williams contribution to the literature of this transformation is to focus on the role of the slave trade. On the one hand, it provided a source of raw materials (human beings) which could be sold at a profit by traders, and then used to produce even more wealth by the buyers (slaveholders). This double accumulation of wealth went a long way toward allowing a few very wealthy people to accumulate capital, which coul;d then be invested in things like machinery.
At the same time, the slave trade provided an economic foundation for a large scale international trading network (the famous molasses, slave, rum triangle, later includeing cotton). Without this international network of shippers and merchants, the English (and later New England) cotton mills would not have had anywhere to sell their manufactured product (cotton cloth), nor a cheap source of cotton to use as raw materials.
Williams' ground breaking contirbution was to link all of this together, and argue that without the immoral slave trade, the industrial revolution, and thus capitalism as we know it, would not have happened. The inescapable conclusion is that since much of modern wealth was founded on slavery, some form of reparations is warranted.
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on March 20, 2006
I recently read this book for graduate school and highly recommend it. This book was written in 1940 and while critics have been able to pick at a few details within the book, noone has every successfully disproven his entire thesis - that the rise of industrial capitalism would not have been possible without the existence profits derived from slavery and the slave trade. Williams does a splended job of illustrating how slavery influenced all facets of the triangular trade, which in turn shaped Britian into an economic power. It also brings put the economic reasons for the abolitionist movement (namely, that abolitionists were motivated by free-trade, no necessarily compassion in their opposition to the slave trade).This is a must-have book for anyone interested in a strictly economic look at slavery, it's rise, fall and demise.
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on November 12, 2005
The last two reviewers who seemed to criticize Williams for not discussing other forms of slavery miss the point. Williams was not engaged in some sort of West bashing but attempted to explain the significance of slavery in the development of the Caribbean. Insofar as Islam is concerned, the reviewers once again miss the essential point. Rather than investigate what Islam actually says about slavery they go with a knee-jerk assumption. Here is what Kecia Ali has written about slavery in Islamic society:

"The Qur'an, which Muslims believe to have been revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, makes numerous references to slaves and slavery (e.g., Q. 2.178; 16.75; 30.28). Like numerous passages in the Hebrew bible and the New Testament, the Qur'an assumes the permissibility of owning slaves, which was an established practice before its revelation. The Qur'an does not explicitly condemn slavery or attempt to abolish it. Nonetheless, it does provide a number of regulations designed to ameliorate the situation of slaves. It recommends freeing slaves, especially "believing" slaves (Q. 2.177). Manumission of a slave is required as expiation for certain misdeeds (Q. 4.92; 58.3) and another verse states that masters should allow slaves to purchase their own freedom (Q. 24.33).

The Qur'an also suggests certain means of integrating slaves, some of whom were enslaved after being captured in war, into the Muslim community. It allows slaves to marry (either other slaves or free persons; Q. 24.32; 2.221; 4.25) and prohibits owners from prostituting unwilling female slaves (Q. 24.33). Despite this protection against one form of sexual exploitation, female slaves do not have the right to grant or deny sexual access to themselves. Instead, the Qur'an permits men to have sexual access to "what their right hands possess," meaning female captives or slaves (Q. 23.5-6; 70.29-30). This was widely accepted and practiced among early Muslims; the Prophet Muhammad, for example, kept a slave-concubine (Mariya the Copt) who was given to him as a gift by the Roman governor of Alexandria.

Traditional Islamic law (fiqh) elaborates significantly on the Qur'anic material concerning slavery. The enslavement of war captives is regulated, along with the purchase and sale of slaves. While it is not permissible to enslave other Muslims, the jurists clarify that if a non-Muslim converts to Islam after enslavement, he or she remains a slave and may be lawfully purchased and sold like any other slave. (This rule closes a potential loophole allowing for slaves to gain their freedom by the simple fact of conversion.) The law also prescribes penalties for slave owners who maltreat or abuse their slaves; these penalties can include forced manumission of the slave without compensation to the owner.

Islamic law devotes special attention to regulating the practice of slave marriage and concubinage, in order to determine the paternity and/or ownership of children born to a female slave. A man cannot simultaneously own and be married to the same female slave. The male owner of a female slave can either marry her off to a different man, thus renouncing his own sexual access to her, or he may take her as his own concubine, using her sexually himself. Both situations have a specific effect on the status of any children she bears. When female slaves are married off, any children born from the marriage are slaves belonging to the mother's owner, though legal paternity is established for her husband. When a master takes his own female slave as a concubine, by contrast, any children she bears are free and legally the children of her owner, with the same status as any children born to him in a legal marriage to a free wife. The slave who bears her master's child becomes an umm walad (literally, mother of a child), gaining certain protections. Most importantly, she cannot be sold and she is automatically freed upon her master's death."

As for the Aztec, they had a system of slavery that also came with a bundle of rights, far different from the chattel slavery of the European variety.
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on September 24, 2013
Superb book, excellent economic history and outstanding moral history. This book illustrates the economic aspects of the international slave trade and who benefited from it, how did it contribute to capital formation and where did those capitals go. From the Baring and Barclay families to Lord Nelson's wife, Williams examines the slave trade and how Liverpool and later Manchester saw their economies boom while the "African Trade" created a wealth that transformed poor Sailors into great Entrepreneurs and generated a "virtuous circle" known as the Triangular Trade that created new markets for British Products in Africa and the Caribbean ultimately triggering a boost in the local industry that helped create the Industrial Revolution.
Chapter 11 examines the facts behind the Abolitionist Movement and how it was fuelled by interests other than the humanitarian cause of Slaves. It looks at how West Indian monopoly of sugar created pressures for competition and illustrates how abolitionist criticized British treatment of slaves in the West Indies while on the other hand they favoured the booming slave trade with Brazil and other Plantation Economies.
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on February 2, 2016
I remember when my professor first introduced this reading to us as a class; as then and now the book still empowers me. Eric Williams research is groung braking, never before has anyone collected all the data necessary to piant a full depiction of the enslavement of Africans. This book educates on the African Holocaust and how world European powers benifited for the destruction of African. A must read for anyone who wishes to start from ground zero and rebuild the African Nation, Amen.
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on June 17, 2014
This is an old book (1947) but remains the only one economic study of the place taken by slavery in the development of british capitalism previous to the industrial revolution. A similar study of the North-South differential development in North America has
never even been tried and Williams got enough flack from his own thesis advisors when this study (his doctoral thesis) was finally published. In the days when people are finally trying to understand the role of the slave trade this is a must read and a profoundly engrossing book.
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on December 2, 2004
Although there may be complainants about Dr. Williams not addressing certain forms of slavery throughout history it has to be kept in mind that his thesis was about the hows and whys of African enslavement in the Caribbean. Williams firmly argues and details how today's culture of racism and capitalism was born.

This book is extremely well done and a great beginner for anyone interested in the topic of Caribbean history.
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on October 3, 2013
Written in 1944 as Eric Williams doctoral thesis this book is as important as The Wealth of Nations in understanding the rise of modern capitalism. Eric Williams later went on to become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
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