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
autonomy.

book

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *