Republished: Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”

Many thanks to Peter Jordens for sharing information on this republished classic— Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery—and recent reviews. Here are excerpts from a review by David Barnett (The Guardian):

A book of unpalatable truths about Britain’s slave trade has become a UK bestseller, almost 80 years after author Eric Williams was told by a British publisher: “I would never publish such a book, for it would be contrary to the British tradition.”

Capitalism and Slavery was first published in the US in 1944. It was published in the UK by the independent publisher André Deutsch in 1964, with a number of reprints over the next 20 years.

Published in a mass-market edition for the first time in the UK by Penguin Random House this week, it has sold what the publisher calls an “astonishing” almost 3,000 copies in its first few days and will appear at No 5 in the Sunday Times paperback non-fiction chart this weekend.

The contentious core of the book by Williams – who was the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago for 25 years until his death in 1981 – was that the abolition of the slave trade was not born out of humanitarian wishes but of economic necessity.

His thesis was that slavery just became economically unviable, and that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was driven more by the Industrial Revolution changing the way that Britain did business rather than any moral desire to stop the practice of slavery in its colonies.

Britain’s role in the slave trade has come under fresh scrutiny in the last couple of years, with organisations such as the National Trust publishing reports into the links between many of the historic properties and stately homes it manages and profits made on the back of slavery in the Caribbean. And a new generation of activism has seen events such as the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol being toppled by protesters in 2020.

Chloe Currens, the UK editor of Williams’s book for Penguin, said on Wednesday: “The publication of Capitalism and Slavery represented a watershed moment in the historiography of empire; it has proven to be a true classic among historians. We’re so excited to see its vital, urgent analysis reach a new generation of readers almost 60 years after it was first released in the UK.”

Although virtually unknown in the UK, Capitalism and Slavery has never been out of print in the US since its first publication by the University of North Carolina Press. It is now on its third edition and between that and the second edition, just a few years ago, has sold 40,000 copies.

While studying at Oxford, Williams, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1911, wrote his thesis on the subject. That formed the basis of Capitalism and Slavery. He took it to Fredric Warburg, a leading publisher of revolutionary texts who had put out all of Stalin’s and Trotsky’s works. Warburg categorically refused. “Mr. Williams,” he said, “are you trying to tell me that the slave trade and slavery were abolished for economic and not for humanitarian reasons? I would never publish such a book, for it would be contrary to the British tradition.” [. . .]

Capitalism and Slavery
Eric Williams
Penguin Classics, February 2022
304 pages
ISBN 978-0241548165
https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/446/446668/capitalism-and-slavery/9780241548165.html

Book reviews:
“Eighty-year-old study of British slave trade is back in the bestsellers list,” David Barnett, The Guardian (UK), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/02/capitalism-and-slavery-eric-williams-back-in-bestsellers-list.
“The Enduring Importance of Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery,’” Ralph Leonard, Areo magazinehttps://areomagazine.com/2022/03/10/the-enduring-importance-of-eric-williams-capitalism-and-slavery.
“At last! Eric Williams’ classic book Capitalism and Slavery republished,” Ken Olende, Socialist Workerhttps://socialistworker.co.uk/reviews-and-culture/at-last-eric-williams-classic-book-capitalism-and-slavery-republished.

Also see these interviews with Erica Williams-Connell and Dr. Claudius Fergus on TTT Live Online: 80 Years Later – Capitalism and Slavery goes to print In the UK, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfLd7fR-UDI.
A Historical Perspective on Capitalism and Slavery, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HH3WybzoCLE.

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