The one-sentence summary

Racism arose as a means of rationalising an exploitative economic programme and was only abolished when it ceased to become financially viable.

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  • The author, who lived from 1911 to 1981, wrote the book as his dissertation at Oxford in 1938 and it was officially published as a book in 1944 after much resistance.
  • It states that it is a myth that abolishing slavery and emancipation was a mark of Britain’s moral progress. In fact, slavery played a critical role at the heart of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and only stopped when it was no longer viable.
  • The economist Adam Smith said that the prosperity of a new colony depends on one simple economic factor: plenty of good land. But there are two types of land: a self-sufficient and diversified economy of small farmers (so-called ‘earth scratchers’) and large-scale facilities for the production of staples for the export market. Although an ‘odious resource,’ slavery was an economic institution of the first importance.
  • Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly defined with the Negro (the author’s choice of word). In fact, unfree labour was brown, white, black, and yellow. The Indians were the first but were found to be weaker than the blacks and were replaced with poor whites before blacks. But many slavers felt that whites were more troublesome because they would have greater aspirations to freedom.
  • It sounds contradictory but many of the leading slave traders in the UK were humanitarians, and there were many in the church.
  • The whole system was based on what the author calls the Triangular Trade – England, France and Colonial America provided the exports and the ships, Africa the human merchandise, and the plantations the colonial raw materials. Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow were constant rivals in conducting the most trade, and regularly changed the cargo they were handling in order to stay ahead and earn more – wool, cotton, sugar, rum, tobacco, metals, and pacotille (glass and beads for decorative trinkets much loved on the African slave coast).
  • Investments of profits from all this then found its way into banking, heavy industry and insurance. All this activity pretty much peaked in 1750 and the British West Indies was in decline by 1820. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and slavery in 1833. Humanitarians were winning the argument.


  • The conclusions in the book are clear and, to many perhaps, unexpected.
  1. The decisive forces in the period of history discussed are the developing economic forces – gradual and imperceptible but with an irresistible cumulative effect.
  2. The various contending groups of dominant merchants, industrialists and politicians, while keenly aware of immediate interests, are for that very reason generally blind to the long-range consequences of their actions, proposals and policies.
  3. The political and moral ideas of the age should be examined in the very closest relation to the economic development.
  4. An outworn interest, whose bankruptcy ‘smells to heaven in historical perspective’, can exercise an obstructionist and disruptive effect which can only be explained by the powerful services it had previously rendered and the entrenchment previously gained.
  5. The ideas built on these interests continue long after the interests have been destroyed and work their old mischief, which is all the more mischievous because the interests to which they corresponded no longer exist.


  • This is a brutal subject and was written around 80 years ago. The reader needs to keep an open mind.