The Graduate Review


In 1944, the publication of Eric Williams’ thesis Capitalism and Slavery sparked a historiographical debate that continues to rage to this day. In particular, his work’s foundational premise, in which he argues that the eighteenth-century slave plantation system of the Caribbean laid the economic foundations of the British industrial revolution in the nineteenth, has been hotly contested by historians since the year of its publication. Invariably, historical interpretations of the “Williams Thesis,” as it came to be known, are largely informed by the political and social leanings of the scholars who tackle the issue. In this article, I argue that the historical understanding of the Williams Thesis is subject to the fluctuations of economic historical theory in contemporary scholarship. In particular, cliometrics understandings of history according to the New Economic school of thought tends towards criticizing the basic economic tenets of the Williams Thesis, while socially minded Marxian schools of historical thought uphold it. The result is an unsettled debate regarding the nature of slavery and industrialism’s relationship that reveals larger historiographic tensions between economic interpretations of studying history and social ones.

Note on the Author

Jennifer Agel completed her Master in Arts in Teaching (History) in 2023. Her research project was completed in the fall of 2022 under the mentorship of Dr. Brian Payne. She plans to continue her career as a secondary teacher, with ultimate plans to pursue a PhD.