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
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902 THE JOURNAL OF SOUTHERN HISTORY
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
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