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`Terror, Horror and the British Atlantic Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ in ? 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.
the zong

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. It 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 the 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


2020 Updates

I am delighted to announce that in January 2020 I started a new position as Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull. Our mission is to use the lessons the past and the efforts of abolitionists, eaded by William Wilberforce from Hull, to end slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, to eradicate the crime of slavery in the present. I am the thirrd director and follow in the footstpes of two very distinguished scholars of slavery and emancipation – Professor David Richardson and Professor John Oldfield. Our team of scholars includes people expert in historical slavery and in modern slavery. It is a great honour to join this team, and continue the inspirational work of the Wilberforce Institute which has done so much to produce knowledge about slavery historical and contemporary since its founding in 2006.

I am publishing three books in early 2020. In January, I publish The Atlantic in World History, 1490-1830 with Bloomsbury and Britain in the Wider World, 1603-1800 wth Routledge. In March I publish Jamaica in the Age of Revolution with the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Here are a few recent published articles: “Living Costs, Real Incomes and Inequality in Colonial Jamaica,” (with Laura Panza and Jeffrey Williamson), Explorations in Economic History 71 (2019) 55-71; “Sir John Gladstone and the Debate over Amelioration in the British West Indies in the 1820s,” Journal of British Studies (with Kit Candlin) 57 (4) (2018), 760-82; “Towns in Plantation Societies in Eighteenth-Century British America,” Early American Studies 15, 4 (Fall, 2017), 837-57; “A Voice For Slaves: The Office of the Fiscal in Berbice and the Beginnings of Protection in the British Empire,” Pacific Historical Review 87, 1 (February 2018), 30-53;“Husbands and Fathers: The Family Experiences of Enslaved Men in Berbice,” (with Randy Browne), NWIG 91 (2017), 193-222. “Beyond salutary neglect: a reflection on ‘Thinking the Empire Whole,’” History Australia 16.4 (2019)

Here are a few recently published book chapters: “Slavery and the Enlightenment in Jamaica, 1760-1772: The Afterlife of Tackey’s Rebellion,” in Damien Tricoire, ed. Enlightened Colonialism: Imperial Agents, Narratives of Progress and Civilizing Policies in the Eighteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 227-46; “Plantations and the Great Divergence,” in Giorgio Riello and Tirthankur Roy, eds. Economic Change in Global History (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), ch.6; “’Une Véritable Nuisance pour la Communauté’ : La Place ambivalent des libres de couleur dans la société libre de la Jamäique au XVIIIᵉ siècle » in Boris Lesueur and Dominque Rogers, eds., Sortir de l’esclavage normes juridiques, assimilations et recompositions identitaires du xIve au xIxe siècle (Méditerranée, Amériques, Afriques), (Paris: Karthala, 2018), 173-220 ; “Toiling in the Fields: Valuing Female Slaves in Jamaica, 1674-1788” in Daina Berry and Leslie Harris, eds, Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas (Athens: Georgia University Press, 2018), ch.2

The Horrible Lesson White Colonists Learned When Slaves Rebelled in Jamaica and Saint-Domingue During the Seven Years’ War

Jamaica and Haiti are today among the poorest and most troubled countries in the western hemisphere. Yet between 1748 and 1788 these places (with Haiti called by its French colonial name of Saint-Domingue) were fabulously rich and wondrous, at least for the 10 percent of the population that owned land and slaves. Those slaves and the commodities they produced gave the small population of European planters enormous influence within European imperial geopolitics. Abbé Raynal, the Enlightenment author, declared in 1770 that the labors of colonists in these “long-scorned islands” brought such profit to Europe that “they can be regarded as the principal cause of the rapid movement which stirs the universe.”

Read more at:

Review of Planters, Merchants, and Slaves in Journal of Southern History


A perceptive review of Planters, Merchants, and Slaves by Chris Evans in Journal of Southern History 82, 4 (November 2016), 902-03

Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America,

1650–1820. By Trevor Burnard. American Beginnings, 1500–1900.

(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. x, 357.

$45.00, ISBN 978-0-226-28610-5.)

This is a book that exhilarates. It is also one that will vex many readers. The

exhilaration stems from Trevor Burnard’s geographical reach and conceptual

ambition. This is a bold, bravura performance that ranges from the Chesapeake

to Demerara. As the author insists, before the American Revolution sundered

the American South from the Caribbean they formed a single plantation zone.

Burnard’s subject is therefore the British plantation world in the round,

although Jamaica, the richest spot in eighteenth-century Anglophone America,

takes center stage.

This book is billed as a study of planters, merchants, and slaves. Much is

said about planters, rather less about merchants, and very little about the

enslaved—not as historical actors, at least. A decisive role is reserved for

quite another group, one that does not feature in the book’s title: white

managers and overseers. The “large integrated plantation” that first appeared

in Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century presented major organizational

problems (p. 1). The difficulty of restraining “traumatized, hostile, and potentially

violent African slaves” kept workforces small (p. 27). Scaling up

plantation agriculture required supervisors who were thoroughly inured to

violence. The timing of plantation growth is therefore explained not by the

supply of slaves but by the supply of non-elite whites willing and able to

terrorize black captives. Military veterans were ideally suited to the role, for

they had themselves experienced the savage discipline of European armies.

The foundation of the plantation world in Barbados was thus linked to the

civil wars that engulfed the British Isles in the 1640s. The subsequent consolidation

of the plantation system on Jamaica and its extension across South

Carolina and the Chesapeake are explained by the arrival of a new cohort of

thuggish white men, schooled in violence during the cycle of European

warfare that began in 1688. Yet the evidence for this connection is, the author

concedes, “scanty and inconclusive,” and his attempts to link developments

in the plantation world to Europe’s early modern “military revolution” are

strained because there is no agreement on what (and when) the military

revolution was (pp. 27, 78).

The British plantation world was built on unremitting violence, but,

Burnard insists, it worked. It grew by leaps and bounds and made planters

stupendously rich. It was a volatile world, but it was not, Burnard maintains,

threatened by slave rebellion. On the contrary, the plantation system was

secure. There were no internal forces capable of bringing about its overthrow.

Indeed, for all the volatility of the plantation world, Burnard portrays it as

strangely serene. Planters were anything but anxious. Slave resistance was



never likely to succeed, and the slaves knew it. But did they? Eighteenthcentury

Jamaica was dominated by freshly imported Africans. The plantation

system was not for them something adamantine that had stood for generations;

it was a freshly discovered enemy, just as it was for their contemporaries

in Saint Domingue.

As this critique might suggest, Burnard has little time for slave agency.

Historians, he suggests, can take a Hobbesian or a Panglossian view of slave

society. Burnard is, with regret, a Hobbesian, seeing “physical grief” and

“spiritual terror” at every turn (p. 272). But to counterpose Dr. Pangloss to

Hobbes is a false dichotomy. One of the great merits of this book is its

insistence that the plantation world was an artificial thing. It did not arise

unbidden; it was created. To think that a world that was protean in so many

respects offered no contingent possibilities whatsoever to the enslaved is at

odds with this underlying premise. Besides, as the worldview of the slaves is

scarcely broached, it is a little early to settle on either a Hobbesian or a

Panglossian outcome.

Some of Burnard’s most striking observations come in his analysis of

the American Revolution. Jamaican planters did not join the revolt against

the British, not because they were fearful of slave rebellion, but because

Loyalism suited them well. Having an influential voice at Westminster, white

West Indians saw no need to join their continental cousins. In that, Burnard

suggests, they were mistaken. Had they joined the Revolution, they would

have enjoyed the protections that the U.S. Constitution granted to slaveholders

in the South. By staying loyal, West Indian slaveholders became

vulnerable to abolitionist campaigns in Britain. Had they joined the Carolinians

in 1776, Burnard suggests, the Caribbean system of slavery would have survived

the 1830s, and, we must presume, American slavery would have perhaps

survived the 1860s.

A short review cannot do justice to all the themes of this arresting and

provocative work. Readers will find much to applaud and much to take issue

with. No one will feel their time has been wasted by reading Planters,

Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820.

University of South Wales CHRIS EVANS


Paris 2016

A couple of visits to Paris this year. First, I was invited by Bertrand Van Ruymbeke to be a visiting professor at Paris VIII in early October. I presented papers at Paris VII Diderot, twice at Bertrand’s seminar at the Sorbonne and helped in a workshop for graduate students at Paris VIII St Denis. I also gave a paper at a marvellous conference run by Bertrand on the American Revolution after 240 years, alongside my old friend, Andrew O’Shaughnessy. I am back in Paris in early December to have a book launch at the European Early American Studies Association of The Plantation Machine.

Hansen appointments

The five Hansen appointments in History have been achieved! I am greatly looking forward to the arrival of Mark Edele from the University of Western Australia, Jenny Spinks from the University of Manchester, Una McIlvenna from the University of Kent, and Kat Ellinghaus and Reto Hoffman from Monash University in 2017. This promises to be a real invigoration of history at Melbourne.