Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times: Living the British Empire in Jamaica 1756

Sheryllynne Haggerty

Honorary Research Fellow

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


The Europa left Jamaica for London in November 1756. It was the start of the Seven Years’ War, and the vessel was taken by a French privateer on the 21st December, and then retaken by the British two days later. When the British retook the Europa, they found its letter bag from Jamaica hidden under a gun in the Captain’s cabin. The bag of letters – written by planters, merchants, ships’ captains, attorneys, artisans, ordinary sailors, and even some women, and sent to people in London, Bristol, Dublin and Liverpool – was taken as evidence for the Prize Courts in the High Court of Admiralty, as was usual, along with the vessel and its cargo. Those letters were never delivered. The cache of c.350 letters, covering September to November 1756, is preserved at The National Archives (HCA/32/189/22 and HCA 30/259). This is unique, because none of the original post bags of letters of the thirteen other vessels which were retaken as prizes returning from the British Caribbean during this conflict have been found.

I first discovered these letters in 2016 by accident, when I was looking for additional material for an article on privateering. I knew they were exciting, but had no idea what for, so I just photographed them all, including all the bills of lading, bills of exchange, ephemera and envelopes. It was about a year later that I realised that whilst others had used these documents for specific purposes such as prices of enslaved people and the processes of the prize courts, no one had used the letters as a discreet data set. Yet here were letters from people from a wide range of social backgrounds, writing on a vast array of topics. They provided a prism of Jamaican history – even of British imperial history – at a moment in time. Moreover, given that the Seven Years’ War would end with British hegemony in the Atlantic, and that Jamaican attitudes towards the enslaved would harden considerably after Tacky’s Revolt in 1756, they spoke to how life was experienced by ordinary people, white, black and of colour, men and women, free and enslaved, at this important moment in Jamaican history.

I decided to let the letters speak for themselves. Not knowing where to start I transcribed all the letters, associated documents, envelopes, ephemera – everything. This started possibly my largest academic journey. By following the letters I followed the themes they spoke to: trade and finance (okay I was fine with that) but the remaining themes pushed me into areas of history with which I was unfamiliar: war and politics; love, family and friendship; death and disease; consumerism. One area, if not missing entirely – but certainly unrepresented in the letters – were the enslaved. How was I to deal with this glaring omission of ninety percent of the population? In fact I dealt with this issue in the same way I had in fleshing out the lives of the white letter writers. I adopted an iterative methodology in which I used every source I could find for 1756 in conjunction with the letters. This has included: accounts of produce (statements of crops produced on estates of absentee planters); manumission records; court records; mercantile papers; wills; probate documents; and state and government records in Jamaica, Dublin, London, and many regional British archives. I also looked for further information beyond 1756 to tell me more about some of the people who either wrote the letters, were written to, or written about. I used the letters of the elite, but only for what they told me about others, rather than themselves. This methodology has enabled me to furnish far more information on the lives of the enslaved and ordinary whites than would otherwise have been possible.

I enjoyed the challenge of learning about all these areas of history that were new to me immensely. The only thing I have enjoyed more has been getting to know the characters that appeared to me from the pages of these letters: Captain William Clutsam, aptly named given the various travails he encountered; Edward Magnar who deserted a slave ship to go privateering; Sarah Folkes who could not bear to think that her child in England was dead; carpenter Ewbank Ogle, grateful that his brother had survived a fever; Rachel and Manoel Mendes ordering kosher beef brisket for a taste of home; and Amelia, who had to wait fourteen years for her promised manumission to be realised. I like to think that in some small way, not only have I told their stories, but that their letters have finally been delivered.

My book on this project, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times: Living the British Empire in Jamaica 1756 is under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press and will hopefully be published in 2022.

“Untitled Image (Thatched Houses)”, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed March 1, 2021, http://www.slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/2402

Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


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.

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.