Capitalism and Slavery
Eric Williams analyzed the causes of slavery in his famous book, Capitalism and Slavery. In this important work, Williams examines the beginnings of slavery in the Caribbean, as well as in North America. The historian not only focuses on the start of the African slave trade, but he discusses how other races of people were not free, such as whites and Native Americans. He lays out the central explanation and thesis of Capitalism and Slavery in the first chapter of the original edition published in 1944. In Capitalism and Slavery, he states that slavery was not the result of bigotry against Africans. That instead, slavery helped to bring on racism. As Williams writes, “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” According to Capitalism and Slavery, the real root of slavery was economics. Rich, white Europeans needed African slaves — very cheap labor — to overcome the limited supplies of workers that they could find in Europe. They needed huge armies of workers, especially in the Caribbean, because they were setting up large-scale plantations for such crops as sugar, tobacco, and cotton. “Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery,” Williams explains. “The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the laborer.”
Williams makes his case in Capitalism and Slavery, in part, by demonstrating how other people fell into this economic trap set up by rich Europeans. Un-free labor, as Capitalism and Slavery shows, was made up of people of all skin colors, ethnicities, and religions. When colonists first settled the New World and began establishing an agricultural economy there, they preyed upon the Native Americans first. The masters turned to fellow white Europeans next after the Native Americans failed to provide the sheer numbers of workers necessary for the burgeoning New World agriculture. These poor whites consisted of indentured servants, who came to the New World under contract with an employer. There were also “redemptioners,” Europeans who laid their labor on the line for a trip across the Atlantic. If the redemptioners could not pay their trip fee, they became indebted to the ship’s captain or owner, who could then sell them. Many other Europeans came across the ocean in shackles because they were convicts. Some whites found themselves in the New World because they were being punished for their religious or political beliefs, like the Irish during Cromwell’s reign. Worse yet are the numerous European individuals who were kidnapped and sold into slavery.