EIGHTY-FOUR years after publishers there rejected it for confronting the status quo, a book by Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister Dr Eric Williams, challenging Britain’s narrative that humanitarianism fuelled its Slavery Abolition Act, is to be published by the United Kingdom’s Penguin Modern Classics.
The February 24 print of Capitalism and Slavery will mark the first publication of Williams’ book by a mainstream house in Britain, according to an online article by the UK’s The Observer last Sunday.
Capitalism and Slavery sought to upend the telling of a history where Britain’s decision to abolish slavery there in 1833 was based in “conscience”, and instead asserted that the move was in the British empire’s economic self-interest. Williams’ book was published in the United States of America 78 years ago, since when it became a “highly influential anti-colonial text”, The Observer’s Donna Ferguson stated.
The article noted that the book began as a thesis in 1938, when Williams was “a brilliant young Black scholar” at Oxford University and challenged “a claim about slavery that had been defining Britain’s role in the world for more than a century”.
When Williams sought to publish the work as a book in Britain, he was “shunned by publishers and accused of undermining the humanitarian motivation for Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act”, Ferguson stated.
The book also “traces the emergence of the slave trade in the 16th century when the demand for labour exceeded the number of white convicts and poor, white, indentured servants willing to work the land cheaply”.
Williams, who died in 1981, asserted that “a racial twist has been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon” and that “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery”.
The manuscript was taken to the most “revolutionary” publisher Williams could find in 1930s Britain, Fredric Warburg, who had published Hitler’s Mein Kampf in 1925 and later George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Williams was rejected and according to Ferguson, Warburg said any suggestion that the slave trade and slavery were abolished for economic and not humanitarian reasons ran “contrary to the British tradition”, adding: “I would never publish such a book.”
Range of fans
Williams’ radical writings, which also stated that the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century was powered by slavery, has over decades picked up a slew of followers.
Ferguson said fans include the rapper and author Akala; British-based Trinidad-born novelist Monique Roffey; poet Michael Rosen; and Empireland author Sathnam Sanghera.
“I think it’s amazing he hasn’t been published until now, because you can’t really make sense of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery without reading his book,” Sanghera was quoted as saying.
“You cannot begin to talk about slavery without talking about it. It’s so important.”
Williams’ book detailed the wealth and industry created in Britain, not only from the slave plantations, sugar refineries and cotton mills, but also by building and insuring slave ships, manufacturing goods transported to the colonies – including guns, manacles, chains and padlocks – and then banking and reinvesting the profits.
Ferguson also quoted Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, who said one reason the book still has the power to shock is that British historians still do not take Williams’ arguments seriously.
“The orthodoxy of the history of the Industrial Revolution is that slavery wasn’t important. If you go to most universities, most academics will say that and they’ll dismiss the book – because they just cannot accept that the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without slavery,” Andrews, the author of The New Age of Empire, was quoted as saying.
Capitalism and Slavery continued to be spurned by British publishers until 1966, when a small university press gave it a very limited print run there, Ferguson stated.
The text, still in print in the US and which has been translated into nine different languages and published all over the world, has been inaccessible and out of print in Britain for years, Ferguson said.