`Security, Taxation, and the Imperial System in Jamaica, 1721-1782,’ Early American Studies 18, 4 (Fall, 2020)

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
bankruptcy.
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.

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