Summary of author’s recent publications

Trevor Burnard

Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Today, Professor Burnard discusses two of his recent publications on Jamaica.

Jamaica in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

Between the start of the Seven Years War in 1756 and the onset of the French and Haitian Revolutions after 1789, Jamaica was the richest and most important colony in British America. White Jamaican slaveowners presided over a highly productive economic system, a precursor to the modern factory in its management of labour, its harvesting of resources, and its scale of capital investment and output. Planters, supported by a dynamic merchant class in Kingston, created a plantation system in which short-term profit maximization was the main aim. This led to a powerful planter class, a dynamic slave system and impoverished and oppressed enslaved people, living lives of desperation and unhappiness.

My aim in this book is to explore through a series of interlinked essays how this brutal, rich, extraordinary, modern, and highly exploitative society worked. I start with Jamaican planters and their vision of the ideal plantation order, as seen through the lens of Thomas Hobbes as a theorist of societies held together by fear and through the writings of the proslavery racist but very astute historian, Edward Long. Long was a fervent promotor of the Jamaican planter class but he also saw their faults, notably their addiction to short-term profit making and in their `rage to develop their estates’ how they exposed themselves to enormous risk from a brutalized enslaved majority. The enslaved population, I argue, were the victims of a profitable and efficient plantation system that was based at bottom on a pernicious doctrine whereby the exploitation of enslaved people was vital for the success of the system. Enslaved people were systematically ignored and their interests neglected, making them the worst treated group in all of British America. Jamaica was a society at war. It was a place divided between entrepreneurial but vicious white (and occasionally mixed-race) planters and merchants and brutally mistreated enslaved people. Sometimes this ‘Cold War’ became a hot war, as in Tacky’s War in 1760-61 – the event, I argue, which was pivotal in the internal history of eighteenth-century Jamaica. Tacky’s War was one of several defining events in Jamaican history, all of which led Britons to question the morality of imperialism in this realm, no matter the material benefits that plantation agriculture brought to Britain at a time when Britain was developing new forms of mercantile and industrial capitalism. I look at two of these events – the Somerset legal case of 1772 and the Zong scandal of the early 1780s – and the disruptions of the American Revolution in order to re-evaluate Jamaica in a period when its white residents were at a height of prosperity while its enslaved population was at the nadir of its colonial experience. The question for white Jamaicans in this period was whether their happiness, self-satisfaction and undeserved wealth was sustainable. My answer is that it was not. They learned in retrospect that the halcyon years of the American Revolution were the last period in which white Jamaicans exercised real power and autonomy.

Jamaica in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

On Thursday 23 July 5-7pm, the Wilberforce Institute will host a round table of distinguished international experts on the causes and consequences of Tacky’s Revolt from 1760 in Jamaica.

Please use this link to register.


`Living Costs, Real Incomes and Inequality in Colonial Jamaica,’ Explorations in Economic History, 71 (2019), 55-71 (with Laura Panza and Jeffrey Williamson)

I wrote an article in 2001 in The Economic History Review where I argued that estimates of the wealth of Jamaica needed to be revised substantially upwards. That argument showed that Jamaica was the richest colony in British America in 1774. What I might have emphasized more strongly is that this wealth accrued to a tiny percentage of the population – wealthy planters and merchants. The great majority of the population, by contrast, were among the poorest people in the world, with the worst living standards of any early modern population. Utilizing a large body of quantitative evidence about Jamaican incomes and commodity prices put together to furnish `baskets’ that can be used to evaluate standards of living, myself and my two economist collaborators constructed cost of living and purchasing parity indicators. Our new analysis lowers Jamaica’s per capita income compared to the rest of the Atlantic economy.

We note that while the wealth of Jamaica was substantial, and made it very valuable to imperial statesmen, it also, as a net food importer, had extremely high costs of living. These living costs rose sharply during the American War of Independence, placing extreme strains on the enslaved population of the island. Enslaved Jamaicans were in the uncomfortable position of being extremely poor in a land of great plenty and extreme riches. They lived at the best of times at a subsistence level. In harsh times, they faced famine and dearth.

Jamaica was the most unequal place yet studied in the pre-modern world and inequality also extended to much of the white population. Nevertheless, white people were shielded from the worst of such income inequality by a remarkably generous but racially discriminatory system of welfare. Putting enslaved people front and centre of our analysis means suggesting caution when describing Jamaica as Britain’s richest eighteenth-century colony. If places like Pennsylvania were, as Benjamin Franklin heralded and which has been confirmed in recent literature, the best poor person’s place on earth, then Jamaica was the worst, particularly for its majority enslaved population.