Eric Williams’ seminal work on slavery republished

A groundbreaking book on slavery by Catz alum Eric Williams (1932, Modern History) has been republished, more than 80 years after it was first rejected by publishers in the UK.

The work, Capitalism and Slavery, was later published in the United States, but it was 25 years before it was published in Britain, where it has now been out of print for decades.

Williams was a scholar of history, studying at St Catherine’s Society before going on to complete a DPhil. He wrote a number of books before entering politics, becoming the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago and leading the country through independence from Britain.

Capitalism and Slavery, which was based on Williams’ doctoral work, examines the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and concludes that its ban was introduced chiefly for economic reasons, not for moral ones. This assertion was the reason for the initial rejection by British publishers, who felt it didn’t fairly reflect the humanitarian campaign leading up to abolition.

While controversial when published, the book has been widely praised. Historian Kenneth Morgan, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, described it as ‘perhaps the most influential book written in the twentieth century on the history of slavery.’

Williams donated copies of this, and his other books, to the College library. In one, Williams inscribed a message addressed to Reverend VJK Brook, who was the Censor of St Catherine’s Society during his time in Oxford.

The handwritten message (pictured) reads: ‘To Rev. V. J. K. Brook, In appreciation of many pleasant and hospitable years under you at St. Catherine’s.’

Williams featured in an exhibition of notable black alumni of St Catherine’s, created jointly by students and staff of the College for Black History month in 2020.

Capitalism and Slavery is available now from Penguin Modern Classics.

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