Britain and the World, 4.1 (2011): 40–64
In his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith famously asserted that colonies were usually a drain on the mother country. However, even Smith’s authority could not lay to rest the question of whether empire in the later eighteenth century was a loss to the metropolis or a priceless resource of great material advantage to the mother country, as it developed toward economic transformation and industrialisation.
Much later in time, in 1944, Eric Williams published his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery. In it, he not only made a stimulating contribution to the intellectual debate which Smith’s assessment had encouraged, but raised the issues to a much more polemical and controversial level. His focus centred on the role of the African people in the development of the world’s first Industrial Revolution in Britain. Williams himself described his book as ‘an economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the Industrial Revolution in England . . .’. Ironically enough, however, despite its later fame, if not notoriety, this thesis formed a relatively small section of a much broader study which also included an analysis of how mature industrial capitalism was ultimately responsible for the destruction of the slave system. Moreover, at first, the book provoked little published reaction in scholarly circles. It was only in the 1960s that the response began. It proved to be unambiguously negative.