The Origins of Racism and Slavery

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The Philosophical Origins of Racism and Slavery

This essay concerns the work of West Indian historian and former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Dr. Eric Williams, who proffered the rationale in Capitalism and Slavery that the philosophical origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the Americas was based upon economics, not racism. My purpose of addressing Dr. Williams theory is not to argue that slavery was, above all else, a major economic enterprise. Rather, I am interested in examining the origins of African slavery in Europe in the modern era and the overall European mindset of the early 15th Century, including their attitudes and preconceptions regarding the African continent. While not disputing the hypothesis apparent in the title of Dr. William’s essay, “Economics, Not Racism, as the Root of Slavery,” I contend that economics alone was not the sole impetus behind the phenomenon of African slavery, and that the occurrence of racism was simultaneous. Furthermore, I am seeking to examine Dr. William’s theory in the context of the African-American experience amid early U.S. history. That is, I intend to describe the distinctive nature of slavery in the colonial U.S., being developed under the pretext of black inferiority. My overall supposition is that the genesis of racist attitudes coincided with the initial Portuguese contact with inhabitants of Old Guinea in 1441, becoming especially prevalent among the English through their early experiences with black Africans. Because these attitudes were formed prior to any English involvement in the trade of African slaves, this position stands at odds with Dr. William’s theory that racism was invented for the purpose of justifying the continuation of slavery.

Dr. Eric William’s Life and Philosophy

Dr. Eric Williams has often been called the “Father of the Nation” of Trinidad and Tobago. Born in 1911, Dr. Williams was educated at Queens Royal College, and received his PhD in philosophy from Oxford University, and became an assistant professor at Howard University in 1939, where he continued his teaching and writing career. Dr. Williams returned to his homeland in 1955, where he began his political career, forming his own political party, The People’s National Movement (PNM), winning elections and serving as Chief Minister, Premier, and Prime Minister, from 1956 until his death in 1981. (Trafford) Although he led a tumultuous and sometimes controversial life, characterized by marital turmoil, allegations of corruption, and international distrust, the influence of Dr. Williams on his country and his scholarly contribution cannot be ignored. In 1944, Dr. William’s book entitled Capitalism and Slavery was published, which was based upon his doctoral thesis “The Economic Aspects of the West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery.” The book’s central theme argues that the decline and abolition of slavery in the British Empire corresponded to the economic downturn of slavery, as opposed to philanthropic motives, a theory that has since received considerable recognition and acceptance among international scholars. (10) Capitalism and Slavery contained the forenamed essay entitled “Economics, not Racism, as the Root of Slavery,” which begins, “A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant, and pagan.” (Williams 3) As Dr. Williams points out, the condition of the Negro slave was, from the very beginning, institutionalized, as popular sentiment in the colonies demanded. Dr. Williams argues that this was not an issue of race, but of profit, as the native labor proved to be inefficient and unprofitable. When Indian enslavement was abandoned, the poor white, not the Negro, became the successor, in the form of the indentured servant. Dr. Williams traces...
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