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An essay on Eric Williams and Winthrop Jordan
In Eric Williams' essay, "Capitalism and Slavery", the first thing he stresses is that racism came from slavery, not the other way around. Of course I was immediately put off by this statement after reading Winthrop Jordan's "White over Black: American attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812", which has quite the opposite idea stated in it. Fortunately, Eric Williams' essay nearly tears itself apart on its own without any help from me, as he failed to recognize his own inherent classism and racism. It is his idea that because blacks were not the first to be used for free labor, just the cheapest form of free labor, that it was not racism that made the English, Spanish, and French use them. That, of course, is complete bullshit. Here's why.
Eric Williams starts his essay by telling us about the use of Indians as slaves. He mentions that it was attempted to only enslave those Indians that didn't give up their heritage for Christianity. This brings me back to Winthrop Jordan's essay in which we recall the Christians encountering heathenism in Africa which certainly applies here:
"Heathenism was treated not so much as a specifically religious defect but as one manifestation of a general refusal to measure up to proper standards, as a failure to be English or even civilized." The first encounter with and eventual poor treatment of the Native Americans was all too similar to the relationship formed between the whites and blacks in Africa. Eric Williams goes onto say: "The Indian reservoir, too, was limited, the African inexhaustible", which sounds as if he was speaking of a resource rather than groups of human beings. Interesting.
And as if this were to completely prove his point, Williams speaks of how "not the Negro", but poor whites were used next to make rich whites richer. It started off as indentured servitude, where a person would sign a contract to work for someone for a certain number of years in exchange for his passage to America. It was later that kidnapping and forced shipment of humans was used for labor. This might not be an example of racism, but it would be a good example of classism.
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Later on, Williams again stresses that the choice to use Africans as slaves was due to the cheapness of labor, not the color of their skin or the nature their culture. "The features of the man, his hair, color and dentrifice, his subhuman' characteristics so widely pleaded, were only later rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed labor and resorted to Negro labor because it was cheapest and best." Winthrop Jordan, after reading this must have laughed a good bit, because in his own essay on the American attitudes toward the Negro, he stresses that the Europeans and Americans saw the Africans first as subhuman, comparing them to apes, and therefore had no moral problem enslaving them. Even Williams says in a statement that completely tears down his own argument: "Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery, to exact the mechanical obedience of a plough ox or a carthorse, to demand that resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjection which alone make slave labor possible." I think Winthrop Jordan would have agreed with that.
We also must look at why using Africans as labor was cheaper. Well, the whites felt absolutely no compunction to pay them or ever set them free. Why? Because they were greedy racist bastards, that's why. Okay, that was the short angry answer. Here's the real answer. Their attitudes toward the African were on the same level as the first Europeans who encountered them, which Jordan says was not favorable. I'd say much less favorable than they were towards the white servant, no matter what their social status was. They saw the Africans previous culture as savage, the Africans themselves as beasts. And what's wrong for putting beasts to work, as long as they're fed and given shelter so they might continue to work?
In closing, it is my belief that one cannot enslave another and still believe they are equals. Winthrop Jordan's essay establishes the idea of the beginnings of the relationship between Europeans and Africans, and Eric Williams establishes nothing but lengthy excuse for the Americans' actions thereafter.
From Eric Williams Essay:"Capitalism and Slavery" and Winthrop Jordan's "White over Black: American attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812", both found in the book "Readings for the World and its Peoples" edited by James Quirin, Tapestry Press.