Window to the Mind: On Brinsley Samaroo and Eric Williams’s “The Blackest Thing in Slavery Was Not the Black Man”

May 1, 2023   •   By Devin Leigh

The Blackest Thing in Slavery Was Not the Black Man: The Last Testament of Eric Williams

Brinsley Samaroo

ERIC WILLIAMS WAS one of the most influential historians of the 20th century. Born in 1911 on the island of Trinidad in the southern Caribbean when it was a British colony, he overcame prejudice to become one of a small number of Black people to receive a PhD from Oxford University before World War II. After a professorship in the United States, he returned to Trinidad in 1948 and reinvented himself as an anti-colonial politician, serving as the country’s first prime minister.

The historian Elsa Goveia remarked in 1964, “There is no doubt that Dr. Williams’ name alone can and will sell whatever he chooses to write.” Nearly six decades later, it seems that this statement holds true in death as in life. If The Blackest Thing in Slavery Was Not the Black Man: The Last Testament of Eric Williams (2022) were written by anyone other than this renowned scholar and statesman, it is doubtful that it would be critically reviewed, let alone published. This is a book that has been produced solely upon the reputation of its author. Its value lies not in its historical arguments—all of which can be found better documented and more coherently articulated elsewhere—but rather in the insights it provides into Williams’s development as a historian in the final decade of his life.

Williams must be regarded in a context far beyond Trinidad and the Caribbean. In 1944, he published what scholars consider to be his masterpiece, Capitalism and Slavery. This work argued that the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery in the colonial Americas generated the capital that financed Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and that Britons abolished slavery in the early 1800s not for humanitarian reasons but because it was economically advantageous.

The Blackest Thing is quite different and is perhaps best described as an abridged compilation of Williams’s reading notes on a book that he never finished, even though he worked on it until he died in 1981. Now the Trinidadian historian Brinsley Samaroo, himself an expert on Williams, has edited the sprawling 1,000-page manuscript down to a concise text a quarter of the length. Without that context, a reader would be forgiven for thinking it all half-baked. There is a short preface by the eminent biographer Arnold Rampersad, and a helpful introduction by Samaroo, in which he unpacks the final decade of Williams’s life and explains the history of the manuscript, but the rest of the book is not exactly recognizable as a finished product. It consists of eight thematic and loosely chronological chapters about race, slavery, colonization, and immigration.

Connections between the chapters are more implied than stated. The book’s title signals that it’s about slavery, while some of the introductory material suggests that it’s a critique of white racism. These themes are certainly prominent, but such signs imply that the work has more cohesion than it does. Perhaps most frustrating, the book is replete with arresting historical quotes and precise statistics—maybe 100 of them in each chapter—and almost no citations.

Like many other intellectuals who attained secular sainthood, Williams is frozen in our collective imagination during a particular moment of his life: the 1930s to early 1960s, when he was writing Capitalism and Slavery and spearheading the anti-colonial movement in Trinidad. This freezing is partly Williams’s own doing, as he wrote a memoir, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister (1969), that narrated his life up to the year 1968. But then he withdrew from public life and became disillusioned with politics. The Blackest Thing permits readers to see how Williams responded to the developments of the 1970s and to earlier scholarship that he had ignored during his more active years in office.

Williams became a voracious reader in his final years, abdicating his political responsibilities in favor of history. The manuscript’s excessive length, the book’s lack of notes, and the sometimes questionable claims and interpretations are all reminders that Williams was engaged in an accretive research process, more interested in collecting than in scrutinizing. Too many passages read like parades of facts and statistics. One pictures Williams seated at his desk, a half-dozen books splayed out in front of him, literally copying down the “facts” as he encounters them.

In earlier work, Williams rarely cited the studies of others and generally avoided peer review. In The Blackest Thing, however, we see him citing widely, not just emerging scholars of the 1960s and ’70s but also so-called classic scholars whom he had generally ignored in the past. His citations and discussions range from Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois to Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney. That so many of these thinkers were Black radicals tells us that Williams desired to be included in this tradition, despite his conservative tenure as prime minister.

Williams also took on Asian history, in part to dispel a common misperception that he favored Trinidad’s Black population over its comparable Indian population. So, he went out of his way to include Indian history, with awkward references to ancient cities like Mohenjo-daro and modern politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru. His overarching purpose is to write Asians into the wider story of non-white labor exploitation in the Western world. On this point, he argues that Indian contract labor to the Caribbean after 1839 was “the new slavery,” as it helped compensate white planters for the emancipation of their enslaved Black laborers the previous year. Meanwhile, it kept freed peoples in poverty by suppressing their wages and taxing them to subsidize their own competition.

For scholars of Williams, perhaps the most anticipated chapter of The Blackest Thing is also the shortest and the last. In a brief 15 pages, Williams covers the history of Black Power activism over the course of the 20th century. Though he never writes in the first person or references himself, this chapter was clearly therapeutic for him. In 1970, Williams’s government was shaken when Black Power activists protested and the army revolted. The event left him confused about his status as a revolutionary and benevolent leader.

Williams tries to work out those feelings by turning to history—but the result is revisionism. As a politician, he had sided with the United States in the Cold War and banned Stokely Carmichael from returning home to Trinidad. But he now honors, as a scholar, the revolutionary work of Carmichael and Fidel Castro. It is puzzling to hear Williams, after having repressed his own nation’s Black Power movement, unironically make pronouncements like this one: “The Ras Tafari movement, unique to Jamaica, represents the first effective Caribbean repudiation of Europe—after Haiti—and return to the inspiration of Mother Africa.”

The Blackest Thing may be enlightening for anyone interested in the history of slavery, race, immigration, or labor in the Western world, and who would be unbothered by an almost complete lack of citations. For those interested in Williams the historical person, The Blackest Thing is a necessary book. It shows a much different side of him than can be found elsewhere, as he continued to develop as an intellectual in his last days. Most importantly, it shows that his view was expanding beyond the Caribbean and the British Empire, and that he had turned back to his original comfort as a historian to understand a world that had passed him by as a politician.


Devin Leigh is a historian based in the Bay Area. His writing has appeared in such academic journals as Eighteenth-Century Studies, The Journal of Caribbean History, and Slavery & Abolition.