Hugh Thomas tells us that he began writing this book over three decades ago, following an encounter with Eric Williams, then Prime Minister of Trinidad. Williams gave him a copy of his classic work Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944, which argued that profits from slavery had fertilised every sector of the British economy and made possible the Industrial Revolution. The literary and intellectual power of this work was such that it moved Thomas to embark on an area of study which other British historians were abandoning. However central colonial slavery and the Atlantic slave trade may have been to national enterprise in the eighteenth century, the attention paid to it by British historians has dwindled over recent decades to the point where it is no longer taught in schools or in most universities.
In the Fifties, Williams himself ironically observed that British historians wrote about the Atlantic slave trade as if Britain had only participated so massively in the traffic in order to have the satisfaction of abolishing it. However, he was referring to an epoch when imperial history lingered on and figures