Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

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.

James Hakewill (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica: Kingston and Port Royal 


‘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.

Map of Jamaica with relief and other marks, 1763.

Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

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.

Interior of a Cuban sugar mill