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.