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Eric Williams' Three Faces of West India Decline

David Beck Ryden
Review (Fernand Braudel Center)
Vol. 35, No. 2 (2012), pp. 117-133
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43551697
Page Count: 17
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Eric Williams' Three Faces of West India Decline
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Abstract

Eric Williams' recently published dissertation, The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014 [1938]) provides a more nuanced explanation of the "decline thesis" than what is found in Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina, 1944). In light of the enormous impact Capitalism and Slavery has had on the abolition literature, it is surprising that historians engaged in this particular facet of the "Williams debate" have not invoked this earlier work. Williams, in his dissertation, makes it clear that there were three different, but overlapping economic and political-economic forces that undermined Britain's slave system in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. First, he explains that in the years leading up to the abolition of the British slave trade (1807), British sugar growers faced economic distress due to foreign competition and a subsequent collapse in sugar prices. Secondly, he observes that this downturn in the plantation's profitability was cotemporaneous with the decline in the sugar sector's relevance to the British economy, as Britain's domestic industrial sector expanded. Lastly, Williams argues that policy makers turned against the sugar planters' cherished colonial system and embraced a freer trade policy in the mid-1820s. Because of the liberalized commerce with Latin America, in particular, the United Kingdom was able to emancipate its own slaves and still enjoy the fruits of other nations' enslaved labor.

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