In our last regular blog before the autumn, Professor Trevor Burnard provides a summary of his recent article in the Historical Journal.
Jamaica was the wealthiest and most unequal colony in the eighteenth-century British Empire. It established a distinct culture among its white inhabitants – what we might call the lifestyle of the ‘British male abroad’. That culture was characterized by various forms of libidinous excess, as seen in sexual behaviour that was depraved, deviant and debauched by the standards of the time, and by our standards today, involving as it did the sexual exploitation of enslaved women and free women of colour. It involved, moreover, reprehensible and exploitative attitudes to non-white people both directly and also indirectly – the gluttony and drunkenness of white Jamaicans contrasted glaringly with enslaved people on the verge of starvation. Commentators such as the historian Edward Long praised the white inhabitants for their commitment to an ethos of hospitality and generosity but the reality of white Jamaican ‘hospitality’ was much more sordid. A better guide than Long to the realities of white culture in eighteenth-century Jamaica, even though Long is by far the more important writer, is J.B. Moreton, who wrote a racy guide for the benefit of ‘cowskin heroes’ or young male immigrants seeking wealth and fortune in managerial positions as overseers of enslaved people on plantations.
Tropical Hospitality, British Masculinity, and Drink in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica uses Moreton’s guide as a means to investigate Jamaica’s debauched drinking culture. It shows that drink, dancing, and illicit sex combined to create a milieu in which activities frowned upon in Britain, or which were confined to specific and highly regulated homosocial encounters, defined white male cultural practices in the island. They drank to excess, adopted libertinism as a mode of behaviour, and saw hospitality less as a virtue than as a way of obtaining pleasure, often at the expense of enslaved women. In short, white Jamaicans were hospitable but they were not polite. If anything, they grew less polite over time, as their positions as privileged parts of the plantation system made them feel especially entitled. Ideas about the tropics formed in the Caribbean quickly migrated to other regions, notably to India. This revealed that British rule was not inevitably linked with ‘moral progress’. The tropical male abroad was devoted to very hard drinking, a vice which harmed their health, turning their well-formed British bodies into diseased Creole ones. This transformation showed in the malign effects of the tropics on character and physiognomy. The white tropical male abroad was thus not generous and hospitable, as patriotic Jamaican writers tried to insist was an intrinsic part of Jamaican culture. Instead, the tropical male abroad, at least those that took enthusiastically to island life, was typically a drunkard and a sexual predator. Their drinking culture provides a window into how white men devoted to satisfying their urges and seeking pleasure as a major goal adapted themselves to the peculiar social conditions, including slavery, of eighteenth-century Jamaica.
Insurance Covered! offers a series of podcasts on all matters relating to insurance, created and compered by Peter Mansfield, a partner with the law firm RPC (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain). As part of this series Professor Trevor Burnard was invited to discuss the most notorious insurance case in history, Gregson v Gilbert (1783), commonly known as the Zong Massacre. In the podcast Professor Burnard places this case in its Jamaican historical context, explains why the case came about and notes its importance in the burgeoning British abolitionist movement. A summary of the podcast is provided below.
The Zong massacre, long recognised as a notorious event in insurance history, involved the despicable murder of enslaved people in an attempt to claim back losses in insurance. During November and December 1781, the crew of the ship named the Zong threw more than 120 enslaved captives overboard in order to claim insurance on these ‘losses’. This took place only a month after Britain had lost the American Revolution with the Battle of Yorktown. French ships were at that stage just moving in towards the Caribbean, and it looked like Jamaica would be conquered by the French fleet. At that point, Jamaica, which was Britain’s most valuable and important colony, was in a terrible state. The great majority of Britons were invested in the slave trade and Britain was the greatest slave trading nation in the world.
The Zong was a ship captured in Ghana by the Gregson family, Liverpool slave traders, who used this captured ship to transport a very large number of captives to the West Indies, ideally to Kingston, but with only a very small crew. The ship encountered trouble en route, found itself off course and running low on supplies. With not enough water to go round the crew had three choices. The first and the most obvious was to wait for water to arrive, in other words, rain, or another ship, and to sail for Montego Bay as quickly as possible. The second was to batten down the hatches so the slaves could not escape, accept that some would die from dehydration and disease and then to try and sell as many as they could for whatever price they could get when they got to Montego Bay; that’s what normally happened on slave ships in this sort of situation. The third, and the one they chose to take, was to throw 54 women and children overboard in order, they claimed later on, to stop an insurrection; this took place on 29th November 1781. A further 42 individuals, all men, were thrown over on 1st December and sometime after 6th December the crew threw over another 26; 10 Africans threw themselves overboard. This equates to the abhorrent murder of 122 captives and a total of 132 deaths.
The Gregsons then put in an insurance claim, citing the action taken to be lawful to prevent insurrection and rebellion, which at the time was a common claim to make. The underwriter however refused to pay out on the claim. This is thought to have been because the actions of the crew made him doubt that this was a legitimate claim – it looked more like a scheme to maximise profits and make up for the poor return on the voyage. The decision was then left to the courts to decide. Initially the decision went in favour of the slave traders, but on appeal, Lord Mansfield reversed the decision. There were two key reasons for this: the manner in which a number of captives had thrown themselves off the ship; and the claim that a lack of water had been the reason for insurrection, when in fact there had been heavy rain before, during and after the massacre. Despite Mansfield’s ruling the story has an unsavoury ending: the Gregsons may not have won their claim but they ultimately got away with 122 murders. The case of the Zong was nevertheless of key importance in helping to kickstart the abolitionist movement.
In today’s blog Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of the last of his publications in 2020.
The Atlantic in World History (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)
Atlantic history as a way of envisioning the making of the early modern world is a historiography that arose in the 1970s, became more fully developed in the 1990s and 2000s, and has by 2020 become an established field of historical inquiry. My synthesis of Atlantic history, based on being a practitioner of such history for nearly thirty years, provides a quick introduction for students and the general reader to this interesting field. It is a field that at bottom is an exploration of movement across the ocean and between the four continents of Africa, the Americas, and Europe – that movement being the movement of people, things and ideas. It starts with European involvement in Africa in the mid-fifteenth century and Columbus’ epoch-making voyages to the Caribbean from 1492. It ends in the mid-nineteenth century, with the abolition of slavery in most New World societies. The book explores how the peoples and the environments of Atlantic places were linked together, in ways that were both good and bad, but always historically interesting. I show how the Atlantic has been more than just an ocean – it has been an important site of circulation and transmission, allowing exchanges and interchanges between various peoples in ways that have profoundly shaped the development of the world beyond, as well as within, the Atlantic.
As the Atlantic world was about more than slavery, so slavery forms only part of a book in which gender, religion and trades are extensively discussed. Nevertheless, slavery is a vital part of the Atlantic world and indispensable to its workings. I explore its Iberian origins, its African dimensions and its apogee in the eighteenth-century Caribbean and North America before examining how the institution most central to Atlantic history, outside empire and the monarchy, was abolished in a very quick time. From the late eighteenth century abolition was built on two foundations: the establishment of an abolition movement by a determined and small number of evangelical Britons led by William Wilberforce, and the resistance of the enslaved in the Americas. The most important slave resistance to planter power was in Haiti between 1791 and 1804, an event that has a prominent role in my chapter on the age of revolutions.
I end my account by recalling the quintessential American song `Oh! Susanna’ written by Stephen Foster in 1847. It is a very African and Atlantic song as well as an American song – a `negro melody,’ as Foster called it. It is a comic, indeed tragicomic, retelling of the story of an enslaved person left behind in the many breakups that characterized African American slavery in the nineteenth century. It is a song written by a person of European heritage using the voice of a descendant of Africans wanting to leave a place which had once been Native American land. Thus, it unites through culture the ways in which peoples of the Atlantic were brought, often unwillingly, together. These many connections point to the continuing relevance of Atlantic history today.
‘Atlantic Slave-Systems and Violence,’ in Erica Charters, Marie Houllemare and Peter H. Wilson, eds, Violence in the Early Modern Period (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020)
In this chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade, I start by noting how we have to be careful when talking about violence and slavery. There are good reasons not to luxuriate in the details of violence and thus re-inscribe the problems of violence as experienced by enslaved people. Brutal language hardens rather than softens the reader to the violence of slavery, especially when acts of brutality are catalogued at repeated length, making it hard to engage fully with a more important subject – what did violence mean and how did violence operate to strengthen or weaken the institution of enslavement. I argue here that brutality, violence and death were not mere by-products of the extremely lucrative early modern plantation system but were the sine qua non of the plantation world.
In this article, I ask the following questions. First, was violence central or incidental to the ideology of enslavement and to the workings of the Atlantic slave trade, in particular? I argue it was central. I also ask about the effectiveness of violence in maintaining planter power. I argue again that violence produced generally efficacious results for slave owners in keeping control over enslaved people. It was less effective in convincing rulers in Europe that planters’ authority over their slaves was legitimate.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that acts of violent resistance by enslaved people were ineffective and pointless, even though such acts seldom met with any success. When enslaved people were violent, it demonstrated three things. First, it showed fellow enslaved people that some of their compatriots were prepared to reject their place in the system. Second, it showed to opponents of slavery that slave masters’ propaganda about slaves being happy with their place in society was just that – slavery was not a benevolent institution but one upheld by coercion and through punishment. Finally, violence by slaves was often interpreted by abolitionists through a Christian lens, in which the iconography of Christ’s martyrdom was equated with suffering slaves.
In this final blog of 2020, Trevor Burnard and Andrew Smith provide updates on recent initiatives to tackle modern slavery. First, Andrew provides an overview of practical developments in our region that aim to combat modern slavery, taken from his November newsletter.
Tackling Modern Slavery
Seven-strong purge on Modern Slavery A unique and trail blazing approach to tackling modern day slavery is set to crank up the heat on those who exploit people through business activities and supply chains. Seven Police and Crime Commissioners and their respective Chief Constables including Humberside have worked together to develop a Modern Slavery Transparency in Supply Chains (TISC) Statement. In Humberside, the commitment by Police and Crime Commissioner Keith Hunter to fund the partnership coordinator role and support the creation of our dedicated Operation Wilberforce police team means that our Anti-Slavery efforts are now firmly part of daily business. While there is still much work to do to embed a sustainable and meaningful response in all sectors, stakeholders, partners and those who have a statutory duty to respond to modern slavery in our area have more support than ever before to meet their obligations.
Force wide strategy to tackle modern slavery – Humberside Modern Slavery Partnership Strategic Plan 2020 – 2023 To coincide with Anti-Slavery Day 2020, the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership released the first modern slavery strategy for the Humber region. This progressive move sets the tone for partnership action over the next three years in combatting this despicable crime. Spanning all four local authority areas in our region, this new, overarching strategy brings together statutory and non-statutory partners including law enforcement, academics and health and third sector professionals to give a focused and targeted approach to modern slavery and human trafficking. For more details see Andrew’s earlier blog at: https://wilberforceinstitute.uk/2020/10/26/combating-modern-slavery-in-the-humber/
Innovative new workshops will help frontline workers respond to cases of modern slavery The University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute has helped launch a new series of innovative resources, designed to help frontline workers respond to individual cases of modern slavery. Launched to mark Anti-Slavery day this year, the Institute, in partnership with The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, has announced new resources and workshops. These have been led by a team at the Institute, in collaboration with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership and Fresca Group. The workshops provided to partnership coordinators across the country will help support the training needs among partners working in our communities. For more details see the earlier blog by Alicia Kidd, who led the project, at: https://wilberforceinstitute.uk/2020/08/13/modern-slavery-partnership-workshops/
In the second part of this blog, Trevor Burnard introduces the launch of a major new appeal for tackling modern slavery.
ACTion to End Modern Slavery
At the University of Hull we are proud of the work carried out at the Wilberforce Institute in understanding and tackling modern day slavery. However, success has been hard won, and the uphill battle continues in the face of increased incidences of modern slavery in the UK.
The Wilberforce Institute is therefore delighted to launch a funding drive for a major new initiative increasing knowledge about the Modern Slavery Act and its operations here in the UK. Action is needed now. Modern slavery and human trafficking are among the UK’s biggest criminal industries and we can only defeat them together. That’s why we’re asking for your support. This week we are launching our fundraising campaign to help the Wilberforce Institute become a hub in the fight against this evil crime. The UK government passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, but without additional expertise within the justice system, as well as insight and support for those working to de-criminalise victims, this legislation is too complex to be effective.
The Wilberforce Institute has the ability to play a unique role in building a collaborative network within the legal profession and beyond. With our networks, research and expertise, we can develop strategic and coordinated approaches in protecting, investigating and prosecuting, turning dry legislation into an effective tool for emancipating victims.
More information about the campaign can be found here.
The city of Kingston-upon-Hull has been twinned with Freetown in Sierra Leone for forty years. That twinning is a natural fit given the close history of both places with the age of abolition in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and with major abolitionists, black and white, in Britain, Canada and Sierra Leone. The Wilberforce Institute has developed close links with a variety of institutions in Freetown and values very highly its connections with individuals and societies in that city and in the country of Sierra Leone.
One of our primary links in recent times has been through an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, led by John Oldfield of the Wilberforce Institute in conjunction with the Universities of Liverpool and Nottingham. This project, the Antislavery Knowledge Network has developed community-led strategies for creative and heritage-based interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa. It includes individual projects such as one working with film makers in Sierra Leone to shed light upon vulnerable seaside communities.
A recent event connected with the Wilberforce Institute is worth noting. We have been involved with the Wilberforce Lodge in Hull (it is based in Beverley but has a strong Hull connection) in informing members of this Masonic lodge about the person after whom both the lodge and the Institute are named. As part of its outreach activities this year, I was delighted to attend an online meeting between the three Masonic Lodges named after Wilberforce – one in Hull, one in South London and another in Sierra Leone. We took part in what we might term a Covid-inspired event, which was an online meeting between members of the three lodges, in which they shared their history and outlined their philanthropic aims and objectives, many of which connect with the vision of the Wilberforce Institute. We were delighted to receive from the Hull lodge a very generous gift of a book series – The Cambridge History of Violence – which is now added to our library at the Wilberforce Institute.
We very much hope these links continue and develop, especially once life returns to whatever normality is going to be in the future.
Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent publications.
Britain in the Wider World, 1603-1800 (London: Routledge, 2020)
2020, it now seems clear, is a decisive year in British history, however it ends. It is a year that has seen the disaster of a major pandemic, will probably see Britain’s withdrawal from Europe and possibly even herald the breakdown of the United Kingdom itself. Just potentially, 2020 will see the final end of a process that began as long ago as 1603, when England/Wales and Scotland were joined together through a common monarch, coming together properly in 1707 and being enlarged by the addition of the kingdom/colony of Ireland into a new polity in 1801 called the United Kingdom. 1603 preceded by a couple of years the founding of the East India Company, giving England and then Britain a toehold in India, which became much bigger after Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War in 1763. It was followed by the tentative start of a British Empire in the Americas, begun in a chaotic and disastrous fashion in England’s first settlement in North America, in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By 1800, that empire, despite the political loss of the 13 colonies and the creation of the USA, was extremely large and world-spanning. My book on how England and then Britain went through this dramatic transformation between 1603 and 1800, one that might be on the verge of finally collapsing, is a British history as written by an historian of the Atlantic world. It explores how the British nation was made in this period and how England/Wales moved from being the pariah of Europe – insular nations devoted to Protestantism and the killing of monarchs – to near global dominance, with a powerful empire and an even more flourishing economy. Britain by 1800 had become a mighty world power and through the Industrial Revolution the richest country in the world, overturning in a few decades China’s millennium-long presence at the top of wealthy nations. I pay particular attention in my book to three things: imperialism, economic growth and changes in gender relations.
Within these three topics, slavery is important, though it is only one of many themes that I cover in this survey of a lengthy period in British history. I deal with slavery here less than I do in other works but I take for consideration Barbara Solow’s famous statement that `it was slavery that made the empty lands of the western hemisphere valuable … [and] what moved in the Atlantic … was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies and the goods and services purchased with the earnings of slave products.’ America was valuable to Britain because it had plantations and it had plantations due to the work of enslaved Africans. Britain became the most important slavery nation in the eighteenth century. That this was the case makes us pause when thinking about imperialism and the development of settler societies in North America and Australasia. Britain’s movement into the wider world was immensely successful for Britain itself, not least for its poorest inhabitants, who got goods that they wanted from the colonies and could improve their standard of living by moving out of Britain. It came, however, at great cost, including the immiseration of thousands of enslaved people, living miserable lives as coerced workers. The gap between British prosperity and the misery Britain caused its non-white imperial subjects was something that increasingly bothered thinking Britons, not least of whom was a young Hull-born politician and evangelical, William Wilberforce. Born in the triumphal year of 1759, when Britain acquired Canada, Senegal and Bengal, he lived his life in a time when Britain and its empire were important in the world in ways never seen before.
‘Terror, Horror and the British Atlantic Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ in Robert Anthony, Stuart Carroll and Caroline Dodds Pennock, eds, The Cambridge World History of Violence vol. III 1500-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 17-35
The Cambridge World History of Violence is a path-breaking four volume series, edited by Australian scholars Joy Damousi and Philip Dwyer, which argues that violence was a key driver of history from ancient to modern times. My chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade is in the early modern volume, running from 1500 to 1850. It contributes to an intensive, profoundly meaningful and often disturbing conversation about how violence speaks to critical issues such as the problem of civility in society, the nature of political sovereignty and the state, the legitimacy of conquest and subjugation, the possibilities of popular resistance, and the manifestations of ethnic and racial unrest. I start with J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 masterpiece, Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying and connect to a notorious incident in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from 1781. That incident was the murder of 122 African captives on the Zong, becalmed off south-west Jamaica, in order to make an insurance claim. I use this and other cases of violence in the Atlantic slave trade to argue that one of the effects of that slave trade was the evocation in slaves of the emotion of terror – the apprehension of worse things happening if one did not obey commands. To show how this worked, I analyze James Field Stanfield’s The Guinea Voyage to explore the workings of terror and horror (a related but different emotion to terror) through violence as it operated in the Atlantic slave trade. I conclude with a consideration of how the terror that was involved in the British Atlantic slave trade inspired abolitionists, not least William Wilberforce, though I concentrate in this chapter on Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, to protest against the slave ship as a place of radical disorder, an essentially lawless place presided over by cruel tyrants. Without the revulsion that was aroused in metropolitan Europeans and Americans about the terror that resulted from the multiple acts of violence that characterized the Atlantic slave trade, abolitionism and humanitarianism would have taken a different shape – and possible been less immediately successful.
Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent articles on Jamaican history.
‘Slaves and Slavery in Kingston, 1770-1815,’ International Journal of Social History 65 (2020), 39-65
If you wander down to the magnificent Kingston waterfront, you will see nothing which marks the fact that Kingston was the `Ellis Island’ of African American life in British America. It was the place where nearly 900,000 Africans were landed to begin a usually miserable and often foreshortened life as slaves working on sugar and other plantations and occasionally enjoying a slightly better life as an urban enslaved person in Kingston. Slavery and the slave trade were central to eighteenth-century Kingston and in turn Kingston is vital as a place to study so that we understand Jamaican and Atlantic slavery in the period of the Atlantic slave trade. But our knowledge of Kingston and its slaves is very limited. This article looks at slavery in Kingston from when the slave trade was at its height, between the early 1770s, through to the immediate aftermath of the ending of the slave trade in Jamaica in 1807.
This article summarizes what we know about slavery in Kingston already and provides some empirical data which can be helpful in drawing attention to Kingston’s importance in the history of slavery. The Atlantic slave trade in Kingston was easily the largest business in eighteenth-century British America and had a very distinctive character. Contrary to popular legend, African captives were seldom sold directly from ships in what was described as a `scramble’, when potential buyers pushed and shoved each other in order to acquire valuable property. Slaves cost too much money for any factor selling slaves to allow such chaos to occur. Instead, Africans were purchased in large lots by carefully selected merchants and were moved to merchant houses where they were corralled (`like sheep’, Olaudah Equaino lamented) and then sold usually in small lots to planters. In short, the slave market in Kingston harbor was a wholesale market and was followed by retail sales. Everyone took their cut at all times and the money that flowed was so substantial as to make Kingston and its slave merchants very wealthy.
The manner of slave sales meant that enslaved Africans experienced the transformation of themselves into ‘commodities’ first in Kingston. That was a profound, and profoundly disturbing, human moment. From Kingston, they were dispersed throughout Jamaica, in ways that made enslaved populations very polyglot – Africans from various ships from various places in West Africa were purchased together and sent to very ethnically diverse plantations. Some enslaved people, of course, stayed in Kingston, and I discuss what they did as tradespeople, domestics and sailors in the article.
One would think that the end of a lucrative slave trade would spell disaster for Kingston and its wealthy merchant class. Surprisingly, this did not happen. Why not? What seems to have occurred, although much more work needs to be done on this subject, is that Kingston moved quickly from being a major slave trading entrepot to being the centre of trade with Spanish America. It was a depot from which British manufactured goods were dispersed throughout the Spanish American empire. In an ironic restatement of the famous thesis by Eric Williams that slavery created capitalism, after 1807 capitalism remade slavery as capitalism in the form of British manufactured goods stimulated the slave system and slave economy in places like Cuba.
The slave trade ended in 1807 but slavery remained in Kingston, I finish this article with the perspective of the enslaved, and their participation in festivals, such as Jonkunnu. A spatial inversion occurred during these carnivals, during which black entertainers invaded the spaces of white authority. Slavery was complicated and diverse in Kingston, as in the rest of Jamaica.
‘Security, Taxation, and the Imperial System in Jamaica, 1721-1782,’ Early American Studies 18, 4 (Fall, 2020)
Aaron Graham of Oxford and myself have written an article, soon forthcoming in Early American Studies, which examines the question of how white Jamaicans ensured their security in a colony where the majority of the inhabitants were enslaved people who hated them and which was periodically subject to severe challenges to white authority coming from black people. The most serious eighteenth-century challenges were the first Maroon War in the 1730s and Tacky’s Revolt in 1760-61. These challenges were existential threats to the Jamaican state and the people – in Britain and among colonial elites – who ran that state. What these threats showed was that Jamaica was a society at war. Societies at war needed to be well funded – something Britain was very good at in the eighteenth century as it developed and perfected a fiscal-military state, designed to fight wars without incurring state bankruptcy.
White Jamaicans welcomed a strong fiscal-military state as the basis for colonial rule because they realized the perilous nature of their rule in their peculiar society. White Jamaicans were willing to pay relatively high rates of taxation to support a powerful and assertive state in schemes of settlement and security. The schemes for settlement did not work, mainly due to dire demographic conditions for white people, but white Jamaicans’ security concerns were generally answered, leading to a settler society that was reasonably content with what the state offered (unlike in the settler societies developed by their American cousins, which opted for rebellion in the 1770s) right up until the end of the American Revolution. White Jamaicans paid relatively high taxes willingly because they were satisfied with what they received from the state and because they were wealthy enough to afford high rates of taxation. Furthermore, in this period white Jamaicans believed that they had a significant stake in the processes by which taxes were collected and spent. Jamaica provides a case study of how the imperial state worked satisfactorily for imperial rulers and those colonists whom they ruled when both the state and colonial settlers shared common beliefs and where negotiations made it clear that the interests of all parties coincided.
Though an extreme example, by virtue of its exposed strategic position, the demographic imbalance between whites and blacks, and its economic importance, Jamaica differed in degree rather than kind from other colonies and territories of the British Atlantic. Eighteenth-century statesmen as different as Charles Townshend, Benjamin Franklin and Edmund Burke understood these imperial realities. Less sophisticated thinkers like Lord North and George Grenville, however, were seduced by plans that forced the empire into one colonial model and thought that the same solutions were applicable to the problems throughout the empire. The American War of Independence resulted from a failure to understand this fundamental reality about the need to treat colonies within an imperial framework according to their local circumstances, rather than as if they were all Jamaica and equally committed to the expansion of the colonial fiscal-military state.
Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent articles on slavery, capitalism and labour
‘Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,’ (with Giorgio Riello), Journal of Global History 15, 2 (2020), 1-20.
In this largely historiographical essay, Giorgio Riello and I look at the relationship between slavery and capitalism, made famous 75 years ago by Eric Williams, by looking in particular at scholarship produced by an American-based historiographical movement that goes by the name `the New History of Capitalism.’ The new history of capitalism (NHC) places a great deal of emphasis on slavery as a crucial world institution. Slavery, it is alleged, arose out of, and underpinned, capitalist development. This article starts by showing the intellectual and scholarly foundations of some of the broad conclusions of the NHC. It proceeds by arguing that capitalist transformation must rely on a global framework of analysis. The article considers three critiques in relation to the NHC. First, the NHC overemphasizes the importance of coercion to economic growth in the eighteenth century. We argue that what has been called ‘war capitalism’ might be better served by an analysis in which the political economy of European states and empires, rather than coercion, is a key factor in the transformation of capitalism at a global scale. Second, in linking slavery to industrialization, the NHC proposes a misleading chronology. Cotton, produced in large quantities in the nineteenth-century United States came too late to cause an Industrial Revolution in Britain which, we argue, developed gradually from the latter half of the seventeenth century and which was well established by the 1790s, when cotton started to arrive from the American South. During early industrialization, sugar, not cotton, was the main plantation crop in the Americas. Third, the NHC is overly concentrated on production and especially on slave plantation economies. It underplays the ‘power of consumption’, where consumers came to purchase increasing amounts of plantation goods, including sugar, rice, indigo, tobacco, cotton and coffee. To see slavery’s role in fostering the preconditions of industrialization and the Great Divergence, we must tell a story about slavery’s place in supporting the expansion of consumption, as well as a story about production.
We conclude that scholars need to consider, in discussing slavery’s contribution to economic growth in eighteenth-century European empires, that we need to return to the global. If we accept the NHC’s totalizing tendency, the Americas, later narrowed to the United States, become the new core in a Wallersteinian narrative. This narrative is to the detriment of explanations that have emphasized a multiplicity of factors in the connections between capitalism and slavery; that have adopted comparative methodologies (between Europe and China, or Europe and India); and that have provided much thought on the economic mechanisms at play, beyond the commonplace view that the violence of thugs always wins. Thugs may win a great deal, but they win only when the structures that maintain their power make their thuggery viable.
‘“I know I have to Work:” The Moral Economy of Labor Among Enslaved Women in Berbice, 1819-1834’
In Trevor Burnard and Sophie White, eds. Hearing Enslaved Voices: African and Indian Slave Testimony in British and French America, 1700-1848 (New York: Routledge, 2020), ch. 9.
I have contributed a chapter to a co-edited book, coming out this northern hemisphere summer with Routledge, edited with Sophie White of Notre Dame, in which I look at an aspect of enslaved women’s lives in the sugar colony of Berbice, later part of Guyana, in north-eastern South America. It looks at slave testimony (as opposed to the better-known nineteenth-century genre of the slave narrative). Most chapters in this book, including mine, look at how enslaved people shaped testimony, often when they were in court and often when they were in great trouble. My court documents are a little different, as they are collected from women who are complaining about their treatment, usually unsatisfactorily, rather than enslaved people being charged with offences.
This chapter will feed into a larger project, utilising a very rich set of documents preserved at the National Archives – the Fiscal and Protector of Slaves records – in which enslaved people often give close to direct testimony about their lives and circumstances. In this project allied to the book I show how the Fiscal’s Records of Berbice, 1819–1834, provide rich evidence, direct from enslaved people, about what mattered to slaves trapped within enslavement and about what remedies they sought for their problems. Enslaved women were able to bring complaints before the Fiscal and the Protector of Slaves. A great majority of their complaints concerned the work they were forced to do as plantation workers. Such work was not gender-neutral. Enslaved women were employed as field workers more than were men and suffered enormous hardship to their health and even more to their ability to look after their families, especially infant children. This chapter shows that enslaved women had clear expectations on what they were owed from their master, based on their understanding of the moral economy between planters and enslaved women where the relationship was viewed by them as reciprocal, if unequal, in which both sides had rights and obligations that needed to be followed.
I concentrate on women’s complaints about work, as this is the area which elicited easily the most complaints about unfairness and mistreatment. Women were insistent that they should be expected to perform a reasonable amount of work defined according to customary rules and adjusted to the strength and competence of individual workers. Moreover, it had to be adjusted so that women’s special expectations relating to child care could be respected. Women complained even when, as was common, their complaints were dismissed. They wanted their voices to be heard. The Fiscals’ returns are a rich body of sources that outline at length the numerous times when women sought to have their concerns aired. Those concerns changed over time and as British officials attempted to circumscribe masters’ actions through such things as the Amelioration Act of 1826.
Women frequently made complaints after that date that they had been illegally whipped. The many post-1826 cases indicate that managers continued to fail to realise that enslaved women in Berbice were involved not just in production but also in reproduction – they were mothers as well as workers. The testimonies embedded in the Fiscal and Protector’s records allow us to recover a little bit of the perspective of the enslaved in the period of amelioration.
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.
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.
`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.
The study of historical epidemics is not an esoteric subfield for the interested specialist but is central to understanding historical change in general. Infectious diseases are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions and demographic change.
Throughout human history, infectious diseases have been far more devastating in their medical and social effects than other causes of illness. Their history is far from over.
We have been terribly complacent about infectious diseases. In 1969, the US Surgeon General declared the end of infectious diseases. This mood of optimism led to the closure at top universities like Harvard and Yale of departments of infectious medicine. There are some counter-currents, such as the US establishment of the Center for Disease Control and the great effort of the World Health Organisation and other international agencies against SARS, but the longstanding belief that pandemic disease was both controllable and could be consigned to the past has been noticeable, including in works of history. Our optimism has had catastrophic results.
Similarly, we were highly optimistic in the mid-twentieth century that slavery would disappear, after discourses of human rights were established in the late 1940s and slavery was made illegal everywhere in the world from the late 1970s. On the contrary, forms of modern slavery have increased and mutated (not altogether dissimilar to infectious diseases like SARS, Ebola and Covid-19) since the beginning of this century so that now many millions of people, mostly in the developing world but also in developed countries, experience precarity and vulnerability in their working and personal lives. That the increase in modern slavery and in the social effects of infectious disease have occurred simultaneously is not an accident.
Many of the features of a globalized society render the world acutely vulnerable to pandemic disease and the re-emergence of slavery: population growth, climate change, rapid means of transportation, the proliferation of megacities with inadequate urban infrastructure, warfare, persistent poverty and widening social inequalities.
Epidemic diseases are not random events, let alone ‘acts of God’, but medical events which reflect underlying social structures, standards of living, and political priorities. They need to be studied as major social events with significant economic and political consequences, conditioned by political choices. Medical crises have a significant impact, in particular, on the lives and political power of marginalized groups – in the past that has led many in those vulnerable groups into enslavement.
One way to think of pandemics as medical events with social causes and consequences is to adopt the term ‘syndemic’ which was a term developed by medics and medical anthropologists in the AIDs crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. A ‘syndemic’ occurs when two or more diseases form a cluster of epidemics affecting a given population in social contexts that perpetuate that disease and exacerbate its effects. Covid-19 is an excellent example of a syndemic as it interacts with underlying health conditions and seems to be disproportionately dangerous for specific sectors of society, notably people with underlying medical conditions and who are poor and vulnerable. Classic syndemics in the past include the Black Death and the ‘destruction of the Indies’ as measles and smallpox entered populations that had no resistance to them. The effect of these syndemics was to change the relationship of Europe with the rest of the world.
History is both a guide to epidemic disease and a means of realizing that what we are doing today – shutting down much of the economy in an attempt to restrict the spread of the disease – is unprecedented. In the past, we either did not have the ability to stop or reduce an infectious disease epidemic or else, as in recent years, the epidemic never got large enough to affect significant numbers of the population.
Public authorities draw on previous epidemics to fight new ones. Over the centuries, they have invoked strategies from the past to fight new threats. Doing this gives the impression of a forceful and energetic response, thereby providing the population with some sense of protection. What is seldom done is for authorities to consider the long-term effects of disease on such things as slavery, forced labour and the impact of disease on the poor and the vulnerable.
Epidemic disease has had an enormous social effect and has coincided with slavery in numerous ways, such as the following:
The Black Death 1348-53 ended serfdom and slavery in late medieval north-western Europe
The reduction of the population of the Americas by as much as 90 percent after the arrival of Columbus in 1492 meant that European settlers turned to millions of important Africans as chattel slaves
Continued disease in the Caribbean made that region dependent for centuries on the Atlantic slave trade
The death of thousands of European soldiers from disease was a major factor in ending slavery in Saint Domingue in 1804, which led to the creation of the world’s first black republic of Haiti
The Spanish flu of 1918-20 contributed to a sense of crisis in Germany, fuelling the rise of Hitler and the eventual restart of slavery in slave labour camps in Europe during World War II.