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
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.
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),
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 then
enslaved people being charged with offenses.
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 the lives and circumstances. In this allied project 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
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 Protestor’s records allows u
to recuperate a little bit of the perspective of the enslaved in the period of amelioration.
In this volume, arising out of a 2017 conference at All Souls, University of Oxford, I have
contributed a chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade – building on and expanding the
article noted in a previous blog post for the Cambridge World History of Violence. I start by
noting how we have to be careful when talking about violence and slavery as it is easy to slip
into overwrought prose and into an uncomfortable voyeurism. 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 catalogues 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. Violence in the
Atlantic slave trade was not an atavistic throwback to a premodern age. It is closely tied to
Enlightenment values – the dark side of the Enlightenment, as it were – and were highly
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. They
may have been unsuccessful but acts of violence by enslaved people were not
counterproductive. 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 and that they were not happy being enslaved. Second, it showed to
opponents of slavery that slave masters’ propaganda about slaves being happy with their
place in society was just that – propaganda and lies, not the truth. It showed that slavery was
not a benevolent institution but was only 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.
`Special Issue: European Imperialism in the early Eighteenth century’ Journal of Colonialism
and Colonial History forthcoming, 2021
This article is the first article in a special issue on the nature of European imperialism in the
first half of the eighteenth century in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, edited by myself.
It contains essays in addition by Christine Walker on gender in Jamaica, Phil Stern on the
East India Company and Marie Houllemare on law and the first French empire. My article
examines the end of the monopoly held by the Royal African Company with specific regard
to late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Jamaica. The ending of the monopoly of the
Royal African Company is an often discussed topic, usually looked at within the context of
the politics of England and Britain following the Glorious Revolution.
Because the major role of the Royal African Company was to provide Africans to the
colonies, it is a hard institution to defend. But this applies the values of today to a time where
everyone in Britain supported the British state’s advancement of slavery in the empire. What
was contested was who would be in control of the vitally important slave trade – a state
monopoly or free traders. The result of the decade long battle over the future of the Royal
African Company was to allow `separate traders,’ most of whom were large London
merchants to dominate the slave trade.
This decision had considerable effects in Jamaica. It greatly increased the supply of Africans
to work on plantations. In this way the change was successful. But what is just as important is
that it was a political coup enacted by key stakeholders in London. It was intended to benefit
themselves and their Jamaican supporters who from the 1690s had taken control of politics in
Jamaica. It also indirectly benefited another group of merchants, those African merchants
selling captives to Europeans.
I examine how Africans were sold in the 1680s when the Royal African Company was at its
height and compare this to the structure of slave sales in the mid eighteenth century. The
changes were dramatic and very much to their disadvantage of poorer and more ordinary
Jamaican slave owners, who were increasingly excluded from the market in slaves.
The Royal African Company was a much-maligned institution, maligned most by people who
stood to gain most from its demise. Their vision for the British American plantations was one
that emphasized inequality, the rule of the rich over the poor and an especially oppressive and
brutal slave regime where enslaved people lived miserable lives working themselves to death
in the harsh regime of sugar. Their victory foreclosed another option for Jamaica – a society
full of small farms rather than large plantations – and slavery that was perhaps less
traumatizing than what in fact developed by the first decades of the eighteenth century.
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 about prices of
commodities that might be 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 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.
In this largely historiographical essay, Giorgio Riello and me 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
term `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 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.