Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Eric Williams on the 'Emancipation Complex'

Capitalism and Slavery (1944) by Eric Williams - A classic.

[In 1938, Trinidadian historian (and later Prime Minister) Eric Williams wrote the following short article for 'The Keys', journal of the League of Coloured Peoples on the centenary anniversary of the abolition of colonial slavery in the British Caribbean. Entitled 'That Emancipation Complex', I think it is worth putting online as Williams makes a number of pertinent points relevant to the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade this month]:

That Emancipation Complex by Eric Williams.

In 1833 the British Parliament passed a law providing for the abolition in 1838 of slavery throughout its territories. This measure was accompanied by a provision for the payment of an indemnity of twenty million pounds to the slaveowners. The "freed" slaves were left to fend for themselves - propertyless, uneducated, destitute, and almost naked, they stood on the threshold of a new era gazing wistfully into the future. The so-called emancipators having relieved their consciences of the "sin" of theoretical slavery were not prepared to carry their idealism into the realm of the practical and actual abolition of slavery. The "emancipated," left to themselves and compelled by the force of economic facts to work for their former masters, who now opposed their progress at every turn, were yet spirited enough to accept the challenge and to carve out for themselves and their children some sort of place in the scheme of things.

Since for the past hundred years the possessors of the "emancipation complex" have been engaged in spreading persistent propaganda to the effect that the abolition of slavery was a gift from heaven due to the efforts of a few reformers, we feel it to be our duty to prick the "emancipation bubble".

With all due respect for the idealism that inspired the "abolitionists," we call attention to the fact that such reformers have existed in all ages and throughout all periods of human history; also that it is only when the socio-economic relations of a given period demand it that any attention is ever paid on the part of the "powers that be" to the desires and counsels of such persons. The West Indies at the time of "emancipation" no longer provided a secure field for the successful investment of British capital. Many of the leading supporters of abolition themselves possessed substantial trading interests in the East India Company which was then busily engaged in the exploitation of black and brown labour in the East. At the same time multitudes of white "slaves," including tiny boys and girls and women, were being mercilessly exploited in the fields, mines and factories of Britain; and the protagonists of the abolition of black slavery merely winked an eye at such "necessary" evils. Similarly in our time effusive and self-congratulatory speeches are delivered on "emancipation" anniversary days by pharisaical patriots while Africans are being daily robbed of their lands by such gentlemen, and reduced to a level of living far lower in many respects than that which obtains in chattel slavery.

In the face of these facts we are forced to conclude that there can be no place for sentiment in a just consideration of the "emancipation" question. The discovery of America and the consequent investment on a large scale of European capital in this new land brought with them a demand for cheap labour. Millions of native Indians were enslaved and worked to death by the masters of capital. White European slaves of whom there were many thousands in the West Indies - men, women, boys and girls - proved incapable of working sufficiently well in the hot climate. Hence the demand for sturdy Africans who became the prime object of attention on the part of the capitalist slave-masters encouraged by their respective governments which incidently also reaped a rich harvest from the profits of the slave trade. The great civilisation of West Africa, as represented by the Songhay Empire, was then in decline, and the resulting disunity and chaos made of this section of Africa a tempting field for the unscrupulous capitalist adventurer. It was to this part of Africa that the slavers directed their efforts. A parallel to this state of things could be seen a few years ago in the case of China whose citizens, after the disintegration of their empire as a consequence of the imperialist attacks of the Western powers, were sold as indentured slaves in the South American and Caribbean countries. This practice was to some extent countered by the attitude of the Japanese government which sternly opposed the exportation of orientals into slavery in the West. Here it may also be mentioned that in the earlier part of last century during the period of German disunity thousands of indentured German slaves were worked to death in the forests and swamps of South America.

The African, like the Briton, like the Chinaman, like the Indian, like the German, was thus a victim of socio-economic conditions inherent in the contradictions of a system of society which employed him for the making of quick and handsome profits. For those who understand the real nature of slavery there can be no "emancipation complex". Emancipation should mean freedom to compete successfully - and therefore with equal instruments - with ones fellow-citizens in every branch of endeavour. In the West Indies, as elsewhere, the appalling conditions of today are the direct result of the "emancipation" so fervently acclaimed by the theoretical eulogists of imperialism.

For the benefit of those who are yet victims of the "emancipation complex," we quote the following from the Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 23; 14th Edition. Pages 537-538:-

"One of the most important developments in the history of the West Indies was the abolition of slavery. In the French, British, Dutch and Danish islands the negro and mulatto element had become so numerous that it was no longer possible to hold them in bondage. Long continued agitation and repeated revolts, particularly in the French colony of Haiti, where the white population was nearly exterminated, made it necessary to remedy the evil. In 1838 the British freed all slaves in their West Indian possessions, the French and Danes following ten years later."

For which let us thank such leaders as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Henri Christophe, and countless unknown heroes.

Congratulations on "emancipation" are quite out of place in a world in which so much remains to be done.

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