`Slaves and Slavery in Kingston, 1770-1815,’ International Journal of Social History 65 (2020), 39-65

If you wander down to the magnificent Kingston waterfront, you will see nothing which
marks the fact that Kingston was the `Ellis Island’ of African American life in British
America. It was the place where nearly 900,000 Africans were landed to begin a usually
miserable and often foreshortened life as slaves working on sugar and other plantations and
occasionally enjoying a slightly better life as an urban enslaved person in Kingston. Slavery
and the slave trade were central to eighteenth-century Kingston and in turn Kingston is vital
as a place to study so that we understand Jamaican and Atlantic slavery in the period of the
Atlantic slave trade. But our knowledge of Kingston and its slaves is very limited. This article
looks at slavery in Kingston from when the slave trade was at its height, between the early
1770s, and through to the immediate aftermath of the ending of the slave trade in Jamaica in
1807.
This article summarizes what we know about slavery in Kingston already and provides some
empirical data which can be helpful in drawing attention to Kingston’s importance in the
history of slavery. The Atlantic slave trade in Kingston was easily the largest business in

eighteenth-century British America and had a very distinctive character. Contrary to popular
legend, African captives were seldom sold directly from ships in what was described as a
`scramble’, when potential buyers pushed and shoved each other in order to acquire valuable
property. Slaves cost too much money for any factor selling slaves to allow such chaos to
occur. Instead, Africans were purchased in large lots by carefully selected merchants and
were moved to merchant houses where they were corralled (`like sheep’, Olaudah Equaino
lamented) and then sold usually in small lots to planters. In short, the slave market in
Kingston harbor was a wholesale market and was followed by retail sales. Everyone took
their cut at all times and the money that flowed was so substantial as to make Kingston and
its slave merchants very wealthy.
The manner of slave sales meant that enslaved Africans experienced the transformation of
themselves into `commodities’ first in Kingston. That was a profound, and profoundly
disturbing, human moment. From Kingston, they were dispersed throughout Jamaica, in ways
that made enslaved populations very polyglot – Africans from various ships from various
places in West Africa were purchased together and sent to very ethnically diverse plantations.
Some enslaved people, of course, stayed in Kingston, and I discuss what they did as
tradespeople, domestics and sailors in the article.
One would think that the end of lucrative slave trade would spell disaster for Kingston and its
wealthy merchant class. Surprisingly, this did not happen. Why not? What seems to have
occurred, although much more work needs to be done on this subject, is that Kingston moved
quickly from being a major slave trading entrepot to being the centre of trade with Spanish
America. It was a depot from which British manufactured goods were dispersed throughout
the Spanish American empire. In an ironic restatement of the famous thesis by Eric Williams
that slavery created capitalism, after 1807 capitalism remade slavery as capitalism in the form
of British manufactured goods stimulating the slave system and slave economy in places like
Cuba.
The slave trade ended in 1807 but slavery remained in Kingston, I finish this article with the
perspective of the enslaved, and their participation in festivals, such as Jonkunnu. A spatial
inversion occurred during these carnivals, during which black entertainers invaded the spaces
of white authority. Slavery was complicated and diverse in Kingston, as in the rest of
Jamaica.
kingston

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