W.F. Carlton

The West Indies in Review

Recent Developments in the Caribbean Colonies

(June 1943)

From New International, Vol. IX No. 6 (Whole No. 76), June 1943, pp. 191–184.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 117–125, with the title On The Negro in the Caribbean by Eric Williams
Transcribed by Damon Maxwell.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The discovery of the West Indies by Christopher Columbus at the end of the fifteenth century speeded the development of the world market and aided in the creation of capitalist society. From that day to this, the islands have been an epitome of capitalist development. The expropriation of the laborers, the rise of commercial capitalism, the transformation to industrial capitalism, the law of uneven development, monopoly capitalism and imperialism; the accumulation of vast capital and vast misery; the necessity for socialism; the growing discipline, unity and organization of the masses; the proletariat leading the peasantry and preparing unconsciously for the seizure of power; all this supposed to be a teleology imposed upon historic chaos by Marxian schematism, all this unrolls before us in unbroken sequence in this packed, incisive study by Prof. Eric Williams of Howard University. [1] It is as if in these islands history had concentrated in tabloid form the story of four hundred years of capitalist civilization.

The evidence is all the more valuable because Williams is no Marxist. But approaching the facts from the point of view of the Negro, i.e., from the point of view of labor, his mastery of his material forces upon him an inevitable pattern, economic necessity, class struggle, etc. He is sure of the past, clear as to the present, but the future demands more than Williams has. It needs a conscious theory. He is a sincere nationalist and a sincere democrat, but after so sure a grasp of historical development as he shows in this history of four centuries, he displays an extreme naivety in his forecasts of the future. He seems to think that the economic forces which have worked in a certain way for four hundred years will somehow cease to work in that way because of the Atlantic Charter and the warblings of Willkie and Wallace. What makes the sudden slide downward so striking is that the whole book is a refutation of just such expectations.

“Capitalism” in Early Agriculture

Williams’ method is strictly historical and we shall follow him.

For three centuries the sugar economy and the slave trade dominated the West Indies and the world market. Together they formed one of the twin foundations of the glory and the greatness of Britain. A few years ago Churchill stated:

“Our possession of the West Indies, like that of India, ... gave us the strength, the support, but especially the capital, the wealth, at a time when no other European nation possessed such a reserve, which enabled us to come through the great struggles of the Napoleonic Wars, the keen commerce in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and enabled us not only to acquire this appendage of possessions which we have, buy also to lay the foundations of that commercial and financial leadership which, when the world was young, when every thing outside Europe was undeveloped, enabled us to make our great position in the world” (p. 14).

Churchill’s word are literally true, and for a considerable period of time those islands were of far greater importance to Britain than the thirteen colonies which later became the United States of America.

Such is the unevenness of capitalist development. The reason is not generally recognized. It was not because so many people consumed sugar and rum. It was the other way about, cane sugar production demanded from the start the application of machinery to raw material on the spot and this soon expanded on a scale far surpassing the application of machinery (not only to agricultural but to many contemporary manufacturing processes as well).

The great commerce built up on the slave trade and slavery had its foundation in a very highly advanced and essentially capitalistic mode of production, although this was in the colonies. The Indians were expropriated and the importation of Negroes followed; they were slaves, but slaves in the large-scale production of the cane fields and slaves in the machine production of the factories. Marxism would profit by a study of this highly important phase of capitalist development which Marx did not treat in Capital.

Williams does not quite grasp the full economic significance of this phenomenon. Disdaining a clutter of qualifications, he boldly bases his whole thesis on the indisputable fact that: “The black man, emancipated from above by legislation or from below by revolution, remains today the slave of sugar.” But he misses the point when he says: “To tree the Negro it was necessary not so much to alter the method of production in the sugar industry itself.” To alter the method of production! But you could not alter the method of production in 1833, because it was already capitalistic in essence, large-scale production by machinery and production for the world market. Nor could it ever be altered except in one direction: socialism. The French peasant in 1789 could get the land and improve on feudal agriculture. The Russian peasant could get the land and be more or less collectivized. When the West Indian slave was emancipated he found himself free in a highly capitalized agricultural industry. What was to be done with him? On that rock humanitarianism has broken its head for a century, and Williams breaks his also. There has been no other industrialization of any scope to offset, even for a time, this domination by sugar. The sugar problem must be solved in terms of sugar.

Monopoly Capitalism at Work

From their heritage of slavery the islands have never recovered. The capitalistic production not only created a large mass of landless laborers. It had made the islands subservient to the one-crop system. It was cheaper for the slave-owner to import food for the slaves, as it is cheaper for the capitalist to import food for the wage-laborers. Thus the slaves starved during the Seven Years War (1756–63) owing to the depredations of the French privateers, just as the workers suffer today owing to the depredations of the German submarines. At the mercy of the capitalist oligarchy, the Negro laborer works sometimes for as little as twenty-five cents a day, three days a week. As in all economies dominated by a single crop, that crop sets the standard of living and the working conditions for all the others.

With the development of imperialism, the West Indian laborers were at the receiving end of this most cruel of all exploitations. In a few years, American finance-capital accomplished in Puerto Rico a devastation which had taken centuries in the other islands. Ten millions of American money are invested in Haiti, forty-one millions in the Dominican Republic (three-fourths of this in agriculture), six hundred and sixty-six millions in Cuban enterprises. Some of these islands are self-governing, such as Cuba; others are plain colonies, such as Puerto Rico, Martinique and Trinidad. In some, e.g., Jamaica, new agricultural industries, such as the banana industry, have developed Haiti produces coffee. But over all the islands, taken as a whole, hangs the pall of the sugar industry, now in advanced stages of that world-wide disease – monopoly capitalism.

Helpless before the absentee owners and soulless corporations of London and Wall Street, without democratic rights until in very recent years he fought for and won a few, the laborer combines in his fate the worst features of capitalist production in its early unregulated days, of capitalist production in its latest stages unmitigated by progressive legislation, with the special vices of industry in agriculture. Williams’ chapter entitled The Condition of the Negro Wage Earner is a masterpiece of compression, a compendium of workers’ misery and capitalist callousness marshalled with apparent dispassion but with a suppressed indignation visible between every word. Quotation or abstract is unnecessary. The chapter should be read. Sufficient to say that some fifteen years after America had taken over the tiny Virgin Islands, 951 of the burials in one year were pauper burials.

The Nature or Imperialist Rivalry

The future of these islands has been complicated by the entry of America as a contender for the islands now owned by Britain and France. The American proletariat thus has a direct interest in their fate. Today, as Lenin pointed out, imperialism has passed beyond the stage of grabbing territory only for purposes of direct economic exploitation. It grabs for strategic reasons and sometimes for the mere purpose of keeping out other imperialisms. The islands are Britain’s last outpost in the New World, invaluable as air bases (both military and commercial) and as ports of call for ships. America wants them for precisely the same reason and a tenacious under-cover struggle is going on for control of these economically bankrupt islands. The Negro wage earner is for the time being the focus of imperialist attention. This is why.

In 1937 and 1938 a series of riots broke out in Trinidad, followed by similar revolts in Barbados, Jamaica and other islands. They were suppressed with great difficulty and the British government sent out two commissions, the Trinidad Commission of 1937, and the West Indies Royal Commission of 1938–39 under Lord Moyne. The Moyne Commission wrote a report which was suppressed by the British government. Suppression was superfluous. To take one example: In 1897 the Norman Commission (also Royal) had written: “the existence of a class of small proprietors among the population; is a source of both economic and political strength.” Mayor Wood (now Lord Halifax) had written what amounted to the same in 1922. Lord Olivier had written the same for the Sugar Commission of 1929. Williams does not quote but obviously anticipates the recommendations of the 1938–39 commission, which have been published. Here is an extract: “The improvement of existing land settlements and the establishment of new settlements.” (Recommendations, Cmd. 6174, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, p. 23) For forty years British commissioners have recommended the break-up of some of the large estates and the settlement of a substantial peasantry. Nothing has been done for the simple reason that I the economic and political power is in the hands of the white merchants and the plantation owners. They are supported by the mulatto middle class, which fills the government offices and the professions.

The commissions report, some speeches are made, and then everything goes back to where it was, to become progressively worse. However, in 1937 and 1938, the revolts had been powerful, the people were determined, labor organized itself and, to complete the awakening, American imperialism demanded and received military bases in Trinidad, Jamaica and other islands.

The entry of American imperialism accelerated the political development. The Americans saw that defense of islands composed of a population sullenly hostile to the existing government was dangerous from a strictly military point of view. It needed the islands to complete its mastery of North American water and especially in their relation to the Panama Canal The ruling classes were strongly pro-British and the mulatto middle classes more so, particularly because of their fear of American race prejudice. The Negro masses might be weaned over from Britain. Whereupon, with the report of the Royal Commission still hidden in a closet of the British government, Roosevelt appointed yet another commission, this time an Anglo-American commission on which the English personnel once more set out to tour the long-suffering West Indian Islands. In Trinidad, one of the American members of the commission stated that the commission had come to repair the economic and social grievances of the West Indian people. The speaker was Rex Tugwell, who is now busy repairing the social and economic ills of West Indians as Governor of Puerto Rico. It seems agreed on all sides that one of the first conditions of repairing Puerto Rican ills is that Rex Tugwell should leave, and should have no American successor. Meanwhile the BBC bombards the islands nightly with propaganda and OWI does the same for Washington in propaganda which subtly aims at making the masses feel that they will at last get some redress of their wrongs from America. With such a base established, America can then give Britain the works. Thus the “United” Nations.

Imperialist Bankruptcy

In reality, imperialism, of whatever stamp, short of abolishing itself, can do nothing except grudgingly subsidize these islands. On a few pages Williams tackles the fundamental problem of the Caribbean, the Negro wage earner’s future. Is his future peasant proprietorship? Williams gives arguments to show that as far as the production of the sugar cane is concerned, peasant proprietorship has not been proved to be economically less productive than large-scale ownership. In his admirable articles on Puerto Rico in Labor Action recently, V. Segundo has tackled the same problem.

The writer of the present article has for many years care-fully studied contradictory arguments by learned economists and tendentious politicians on this question, and can here merely state his own considered opinion. The break-up of the large estates would be economically a reactionary step, i.e., in its historical sense. But the political class relations, the needs of the masses, require another yardstick. If the masses want land, then they should have the right to decide and break up the estates. The economically progressive growth of large-scale production has been characteristic of sugar production in the West Indies from its very inception. What is needed is expropriation of the sugar proprietors and absentee landlords and capitalists and collective production by the laborers themselves – in other words, the socialist revolution. It will be the task of the Marxists to patiently explain, if it is at all necessary, the economic superiority of large-scale collective production.

Williams agrees that whatever reorganization takes place internally, the fate of West Indian sugar depends upon the world market. But without the socialist revolution in Europe and America the world market will still be the world market of old, dominated by American imperialism. Against that monstrous octopus, the West Indian laborer will be as he has always been, the miserable victim of a power which will continue to grind the life out of him as mercilessly as the mills grind the juice from the cane. That, as Williams so conclusively shows, has been his fate for four hundred years. What reason is there to think that without a revolution there will be any change? Williams’ whole book refutes the possibility of any such peaceful change. If America takes over, the la-borer will change masters. That’s all. Puerto Rico is the proof.

The Proletariat Takes Charge

Is the idea of socialist revolution for these islands remote? No more than elsewhere; in tact, it is nearer there than for many other places. The recent history of these islands shows this. In 1938 Ormsby Gore reviewed the colonial empire in the House of Commons on the single day allotted per year to this task by that “democratic” body. He stated that $110,000 had been spent on land settlement in Jamaica. One weekend some months after, the Colonial Office received a cabled message from the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Edward Denham. It was an urgent message, for the British officials broke up their indispensable weekend. They cabled back to Sir Edward that he was to announce immediately to the Jamaica people that the sum of two and a half million dollars would be appropriated for land settlement. The excitement was too much for Sir Edward and he died that very week-end. The report is that his stomach tied up into a knot. Well it might. The stomach of a West Indian Governor is usually much more pleasantly employed than trying to digest a mass revolt of the Jamaica[n] people.

The series of revolts in both Jamaica and Trinidad began with organized labor, the dock workers in Jamaica and the oil workers in Trinidad. Thence they spread to the population. In Trinidad the strike was general and lasted fourteen days. Though the people are not yet thinking in terms of socialism, they are travelling fast. Labor has organized trade unions and formed a trade union federation in certain islands. In Trinidad and Jamaica, national parties have been formed which are pledged to national independence. The Jamaica stevedore union, which led the revolt there, was stimulated and materially aided by the sailors of the American Maritime Union. When British troops landed in Trinidad in 1937 some of them told the people: “Go ahead. We don’t want, to shoot you.” The people now have a passionate interest in foreign affairs and in the history and development of the trade union and labor movement abroad.

The stay-in strike in Trinidad in 1937 was directly inspired by the sit-down strikes in America which ushered in the CIO. The British, blind as only the doomed are blind, fought to retain all possible political power. But in the fall of 1942 the British Under Secretary of State for the Colonies visited Washington. At this gentleman’s press conference, Roosevelt, who sat with him, declared himself to be in favor not only of compulsory education but of universal suffrage for the West Indies. Caught between the revolting masses and the rival imperialism, the British in February, 1943, “granted” universal suffrage to one island, Jamaica. On the ground that the laborers were not yet fit for this, they had opposed the measure for twenty-five years. And now Roosevelt would get the credit. Roosevelt, on the other hand, in typical British fashion, carefully explains to Puerto Ricans that they are not yet fit for their demands. Even in Jamaica the concession, extorted at the point of the bayonet, so to speak, has only whetted the political appetite.

In Puerto Rico, in Jamaica, in Trinidad, in Barbados, behind all the complicated forms and stages of constitutions, the imperialist Governor governs in the interests of imperialism and its local representations. The West Indian masses today know this and are determined to put an end to it. They need all the help they can get. And none so deserve help. During the last six years they have travelled further politically and organizationally than they did in the whole century since emancipation. This they have done practically unaided, being swept into the current of the modern proletarian movement by their suffering at the hands of capitalism at home and the chaos of capitalism abroad. They still have their chief experiences before them. But this much is certain: that as soon as the proletariat of America, in particular, gives them the signal, they will seize power and put an end to the economic system which has choked them for so long. With in-creasing political power and labor organization, they have great battles ahead of them. They may even find it necessary to create peasant proprietors, and would be most eminently justified in demanding large subsidies for the purpose from the people who have leeched away their lifeblood for so many generations.

It is precisely by vigorous struggle for immediate needs that they have progressed so far, and the same course followed, in coordination with labor abroad, will ultimately bring them inevitably to the struggle for socialist power. Capitalism will see to that. Williams’ immediate demands, federation, national independence, political democracy, are admirable, but he commits a grave error in thinking, as he obviously does, that these will end or even seriously improve West Indian mass poverty and decay. But for this lapse, his book it a little triumph, admirably planned and very well written. It should be read not only by those specially interested in the Negro problem or in the West Indies. It is in its bourgeois way a short but instructive study of capitalist beginnings, maturity, decline; and, most important today, of the way in which it generates, out of its own bosom, the forces which are to destroy it.


1. The Negro in the Caribbean, by Eric Williams: Associates in Negro Folk Education, Box ?38, Ben Franklin Station, Washington, DC. Fifty cents. Bronze Booklet No.8. Introduction by Alain Locke.

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