Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery: debates, legacies and new directions for research


Panel Discussion

17:00 BST, Tuesday 13 June 2023, Online 

Watch the recording of this event


Speakers at the event

  • Dr Heather Cateau (University of the West Indies and University of St Andrews)
  • Dr Stephen Mullen (University of Glasgow)
  • Professor Harvey Neptune (Temple University)
  • Professor Meleisa Ono-George (University of Oxford)
  • Professor Matthew J. Smith (University College London, and chair)

About the event

Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944) remains a powerful, provocative and influential work of historical scholarship. For Williams, chattel slavery provided Britain with the capacity to develop commercial and industrial capitalism, and—in turn—the means to power an eighteenth-century industrial revolution. As the profits of slavery declined, Williams argued, so did British commitment to the slave trade—the motivations for abolition of the slave trade (1807) and of slavery (1834) being economic rather than humanitarian.

In this international panel, historians working in the fields of eighteenth-century Caribbean slavery and slave economy, and Anglo-Caribbean society, come together to consider the debates and legacies of Capitalism and Slavery. First published in the UK by André Deutsch in 1964, Williams’ classic text — ‘perhaps the most influential book written in the twentieth century on the history of slavery (Oxford DNB) — is gaining a new readership following its republication as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2022.

Panellists will introduce, and set in context, the scholarly and political work of Eric Williams (1911-1981), as well as review nearly 80 years of responses to Capitalism and Slavery. Our panel considers the value and contribution of the ‘Williams’ thesis’ in contemporary scholarship. Speakers will also offer their perspectives on future research directions for histories of slavery and the slave economy, as well as the social and economic history of the Caribbean, in the long eighteenth century.


About our panellists

  • Heather Cateau is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of the West Indies where she teaches Caribbean history, economic history, and Caribbean historiography. Heather is a specialist in the study of plantation systems and comparative systems of enslavement. Her books include Capitalism and Slavery Fifty Years Later (2000, with Selwyn Carrington); History of the Caribbean in the Atlantic World (2005, with John Campbell), and Beyond Tradition: Reinterpreting the Caribbean Historical Experience (2006, with Rita Pemberton). From 2023 Heather is a Senior Research Fellow in the History department at the University of St Andrews.
  • Stephen Mullen teaches History at the University of Glasgow and is the author of The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy. Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838, published in November 2022, which considers the Williams’ thesis in a Scottish context. Stephen’s other publications include the reports Glasgow, Slavery and Atlantic Commerce: an Audit of Historic Connections and Modern Legacies (2022, for Glasgow City Council) and Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow (2018, with Simon Newman).
  • Harvey R. Neptune is Professor of History at Temple University, Philadelphia, specialising in the post-emancipation history of the Caribbean. Harvey’s publications include Caliban and the Yankees: Trinidad and the US Occupation (2007) and ‘Throwin’ Scholarly Shade: Eric Williams in the New Histories of Capitalism and Slavery’, Journal of the Early Republic (2019).
  • Meleisa Ono-George is Associate Professor and Brittenden Fellow in Black British History at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford. A social-cultural historian of race and gender, Meleisa’s research and publications consider Black women’s histories in Britain and the Anglo-Caribbean from the late eighteenth century.
  • Matthew J. Smith is is Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London. A specialist in the history of Haiti and Jamaica, Matthew’s recent publications include The Jamaica Reader: History, Culture Politics co-edited with Diana Paton (2021) and Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica After Emancipation (2014).

Watch the recording of this event >

More on the Royal Historical Society’s events programme, 2023 >