The Origins of Negro Slavery by Eric Williams

1. In sum, what is the Williams thesis? What is his main point and central argument?

Eric Williams is an important black intellectual who witnessed, documented and analyzed African slavery in America firsthand. His main argument is that multiple factors were behind the origins of Negro slavery. The powerful papacy of the Roman Catholic Church, in collusion with powerful European Kingdoms of Spain, Portugal, and later Britain and France, permitted the practice of slavery. Since African Negroes were not of Christian faith, they were deemed infidels by the Catholic Church along with Muslims, Pagans and the rest. Williams contends that economic exploitation went hand in hand with religious dogma in perpetrating slavery. Theories of white racial supremacy were another source of this hideous institution.

2. The Williams thesis critiques which interpretations of the origins of plantation slavery? In other words, which other explanations of the origins of plantation slavery is he attacking?

Williams objects to the simplistic view that Negro slavery was merely a product of labor shortage in the colonies. That Negroes were shipped away to these alien lands merely to fulfill local agricultural needs is a convenient myth. Williams highlights other key factors at play, including, religious dogma, racial contempt and dehumanization of Negroes.

3. What is the importance of the rise and fall of white indentured servitude and how does it explain the turn to African labor in plantation slavery? This also requires you to explain why indentures began and ended according to Williams.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the population of Europe was stagnant. This meant that European imperialists were unable to supply requisite labor for the ever expanding overseas colonies. And as the example of white laborers shipped to Canada and Australia proved, they begin to assert their independence after reaching the shore. White laborers preferred to till their own lands (which was plentiful in the colonies) rather than take orders from a master. Moreover, indentures were an attractive option for the indebted due to promise of freedom at the end of the tenure. Those European laborers who were already fairly free in their native lands did not see the need to take up this option. The captured Negroes from West Africa, on the other hand, were much easier to dominate. The lack of a shared language, culture and religions between master and slave made enslavement, rather than reconciliation, the favored option.

4. What type of example does Williams offer to support his thesis? Give as many examples from Williams’ chapter as possible.

Williams peruses a wide range of examples to support his claims. Perusing the exchange of communication between Christopher Columbus and the Spanish royalty, Williams disabuses the reader of misrepresentations surrounding the institution of slavery. Similarly, the sweeping decrees of the Roman Papacy that legitimated slavery is also shown by Williams. The markedly different fortunes of white labourers and black slaves are contrasted through apt phrases. For example, the former is referenced as ‘earth scratchers’ in the context of farming in the Canadian wilderness – a term that succinctly expresses their independent yet precarious existence. While Negroes had more security in terms of subsistence, they lacked that vital human aspiration, namely, liberty.

5. Do you agree with the Williams thesis? If yes why? Why not?

Eric Williams brings perspective, balance and insight to his analysis of the origins of Negro slavery. I agree with his thesis as it is supported by factual evidence from various sources. It was a bold, honest and independent analysis of the institution of Negro slavery.

Work Cited:

Eric Williams. 1944. The Origins of Negro Slavery, Capitalism and Slavery, Richmond, Virginia. University of North Carolina Press, 1944.