Eric Williams, the premier of Trinidad and Tobago, takes to task British historical scholarship concerning the former British West Indies and shows the great disparity that existed between the oftstated “trusteeship” principle of British rule in the area and the rather barren colonialism that existed in practice. Moreover, he demonstrates that British rule rested for the most part on a strong belief in the racial supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon which was deliberately nurtured and perpetuated by a whole host of British nineteenth-century historians and rationalized by a number of more recent writers.
Williams covers the period from the decline of mercantilism and slavery in the late eighteenth century down to the dawn of independence for the English-speaking Caribbean in the 1960s. He places major emphasis on the aftermath of slavery and significant developments of the nineteenth century such as the Jamaica rebellion of 1865, which was almost entirely ignored by British historians both for its impact on imperial policies and its significance in English domestic politics at the time of the Second Reform Act. He also devotes much attention to the termination of representative government for the nonwhite colonies in the Caribbean—at least in those areas where a white oligarchy was not securely entrenched—and the changing economic fortunes of the United Kingdom, which had an important bearing on colonial affairs.
Not all Britons writing on the West Indies and slavery appear as racists or insensitive imperialists. Williams commends the economist Adam Smith, the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, the anti-imperialist historian Goldwin Smith, and the Fabian colonial governor Lord Olivier for humanity and objectivity in assessing the Negro and the West Indies. He also pays tribute to those Britishers who made a positive contribution to British democracy by supporting the committee to indict Governor Eyre for his handling of the Morant Bay rebellion. Yet the great majority of British historians appear to have either deliberately avoided consideration of such important topics as the slave trade and slavery and their impact on internal English politics. Although they do not care to admit it, British colonial policy in the West Indies may be legitimately criticized for its determined effort to sustain the plantation economy at the expense of the freedman and later the indentured laborer. British historians have been quick to condemn Spanish, Ottoman, Romanov, or Hapsburg imperialism for oppressive metropolitan control but loath to recognize it in their own colonial empire.
A number of criticisms can be made of this work. The author was not comprehensive in his coverage but omitted the views of important writers on the West Indies, such as C. P. Lucas, Herman Merivale, James Stephen, Sr., Lord Brougham, W. L. Mathieson, Alan Burns, R. M. Martin, and W. M. MacMillan. These men deserve attention, since many of them took up issues raised by Williams and in some cases even substantiate his thesis. It is regrettable that he has not given references for the many passages quoted from the works of writers being analyzed. He might well have surveyed the whole question of apprenticeship and its rather uncritical treatment by Mathieson and Burns, if only to show up its bogus nature and the degree to which it failed to prepare the Negro for real freedom. Olivier was not the only British writer to look at the causes of the Morant rebellion (p. 208), for both Underhill and Mathieson tried to analyze the controversy over whether Eyre was a “hero” or a “butcher.” Again the Morning Journal was not a planter organ (p. 108) but the mouthpiece of the Jamaican colored middle class in the 1860s. Lastly this reviewer is not convinced that “the campaign for emancipation (in Cuba) was an integral part of the campaign for independence,” merely because some Cubans realized that Spain was using the bogey of slave rebellion as a means of intimidating creole nationalism (p. 219).