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

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.