Current Issue Article Abstracts
Fall 2022, Vol. 20.4
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Introduction: Sugar and Slaves after Fifty Years
Trevor Burnard, Alison Games
A brief essay introducing a special issue devoted to exploring the scholarly legacies of Richard S. Dunn's Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English, 1624–1713, first published in 1972, upon the fiftieth anniversary of the work.
Distance and Blame: The Rise of the English Planter Class
Carla Gardina Pestana
Richard S. Dunn's Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English, 1624–1713, remains a key book that shapes our understanding of the seventeenth-century Caribbean. His work depicts the creation of the English West Indies, with a special focus on Barbados's turn to sugar, its commitment to slavery, and the emergence of its planter class. Dunn sees the region as set apart by its socially dysfunctionality, a site of unprecedented brutality. He conveys a strong sense of moral outrage about the cruelties of life there. His depiction inadvertently supports the efforts to distance the slaveholding Caribbean from the English metropole. In this view, the Caribbean attracted the dregs of English society who then of necessity created a brutal social environment, one that included slavery. Dunn does not endorse this view of how slavery developed, acknowledging the role of elites and the middling sort in the rise of both slavery and the planter class that profited from it. We now understand slavery's reach differently, so that the West Indies (and even the lowest of its English migrants) can no longer be blamed for its rise and centrality.
Richard S. Dunn's portrayal of the rise of "king sugar" in the early English West Indies accords the crop a deterministic role in the entire region's development with a sugar revolution used to explain broad patterns of economic and social change: above all the shift from indentured to enslaved labor. The sugar revolution concept, despite rigorous reassessment, retains purchase and the broad historiography follows Dunn's claim that, after a brief period of plunder, Jamaica settled into sugar monoculture by the 1690s to give rise to "the starkest and most exploitive slave system in British America." This article draws on research of the last fifty years and new data to reassess this narrative and finds it wanting. Trade and population figures show that "king sugar" was no victor in early English Jamaica, which was a dual economy with a relatively small-scale, diversified agricultural sector alongside a strong entrepôt trade with the adjacent Spanish empire. Nonetheless, this diverse economy rapidly became a fully fledged slave society, in which the unfree outnumbered the free by 1673, and a harsh regulatory regime was put in place. The experience of the enslaved was far more varied than is commonly understood, and the complexities, contradictions, and collaborations involved in the process of building Jamaica's uniquely exploitive labor regime cannot be explained by a sugar revolution.
In sixteenth-century English colonialism the term "plantation" had carried entirely public connotations, but through the 1630s and 1640s English Caribbean settlers consciously muddied this definition and applied the term to private, profit-driven landholdings while seeking to retain its public connotations. This article traces the transformation of the term "plantation" in the region and highlights its implications for the ways that English colonists were able to organize and rationalize their exploitation of people and the environment. The article first charts the ways that the public definition of the plantation shaped early settlement. The next two sections consider the circumstances that drove definitional innovation. English settlers in the Antilles chain responded to the imposition of a proprietary property regime by claiming the public status of the plantation for individual estates. Conversely the Providence Island Company's rejection of private landownership led settlers to use the idea of the plantation to define their private stake in the venture. Ultimately the article's final section demonstrates that elite settlers embraced a new hybrid public private definition of the plantation because it offered them a way to legitimize their pursuit of private profit, and it helped to structure and justify their control over bound and enslaved people.
This paper challenges Dunn's framing of the early Caribbean and the emergence of slavery as "beyond the line" of English laws or justice or even social norms. It situates his claims within a longer and more elaborate historiography that portrays slavery as emerging within colonies themselves and via the actions of independent colonists. Then it challenges the assumptions of that framing by investigating the extent of English involvement in their empire, via imperial officials and policies including war and treaties and legal strategizing. Exploring the connections between different colonies amid the early legal and political uncertainty during the first decades of English settlement in the Americas illuminates how and why imperial support for slavery was crucial to its development.
In Sugar and Slaves, Richard Dunn used the 1680 census of Barbados to depict the island as a place where stunted population growth and brittle bonds of community plagued the island's white settler society. Dunn attributed Barbados's demographic disruption to low marriage and nuptiality rates. However, by reexamining population reports from Barbados between 1673 and 1715, "Greater Numbers of Fair and Lovely Women" reveals that low nuptiality and birth rates were symptoms of a greater problem: Barbados was hemorrhaging white men. Between 1673 and 1715, the number of white women and children on Barbados remained stable, while more than four thousand men drained from the colony. This new demographic analysis of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Barbados explores how white women came to form the foundation of their communities as white men left the island to seek new opportunities. Despite Barbados's reputation as a masculine and exploitative space largely bereft of the "civilizing" influence of white women and families, by the turn of the eighteenth century, the preservation of Barbados's settler society had fallen almost entirely to white women.
The yellow fever epidemic that struck Barbados in 1647 was a hinge point in the development of English slavery. European newcomers to the tropics were more likely than West Africans to succumb to the effects of both yellow fever and malaria, diseases that originated in Africa and became more prevalent in the Americas with the expansion of the slave trade. The "Africanization" of the Caribbean disease environment after 1647 hastened the transition to slave economies. The impact of the first Barbadian yellow fever epidemic and the spread of yellow fever and falciparum malaria through the sugar islands has been underemphasized in the specialist literature on the rise of slavery in English Caribbean. The change in the disease environment shaped many aspects of slave societies. It played a role in the trajectory of the sugar frontier, in the development of gang labor, in the rise of large integrated planation units, and in colonial debates about the classification and inheritance of slave property.
Knowledge of daily winds—gained from prolonged residence in the region—shaped life in the seventeenth-century English Caribbean. As colonists gathered, recorded, and deployed knowledge about breezes, winds, and gales, they learned the peculiar aeolian geographies of the Caribbean. In this maritime space, wind distorted distance. It took longer to sail one direction than the other. This article charts how colonists gradually adapted their economic, social, and material worlds to the rhythms of the winds. They came to realize that winds dictated sailing times, routed travel, scheduled commerce, and informed how and where colonists built structures, especially fortifications. It took even longer, though, for officials in London to grasp winds' power over daily life in—and the geography of—the Caribbean. Lack of lived experience in the Caribbean initially stymied metropolitan efforts to understand the region's climatic realities. Through continued correspondence with island residents throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, metropolitan officials learned the importance of aeolian knowledge to maritime affairs. As it circulated in letters, reports, and maps, this knowledge became crucial to the commercial and military success of the British Empire, especially as that empire expanded in the eighteenth century.
This article analyzes the intersection of racial status and subjecthood following the mid-seventeenth-century English invasion of Spanish Jamaica by focusing on the experiences of a group of Spanish Jamaican captives of African descent from the Porus region. By tracing the violent transformation of the Porus captives from individuals with claims to Spanish subjecthood into "slaves," this article shows that the captives did not disappear or die out as historians have assumed; rather, they were forcibly removed. Bridging historiographic and archival divides reveals the alchemy of their erasure both at the time and in modern historical practice. In the end, the forced transportation of the Porus captives from Jamaica underscores the vulnerability of people of African descent in a Caribbean world shaped, if not yet by sugar and slavery, then certainly by enslavement and warfare.
Starting in the 1620s, Englishmen, enslaved Africans, and Indigenous people from the greater Caribbean lived and labored on the Caribbean island of Barbados. Through free and forced migrations, they carried unique understandings of how to make and consume alcohol with them. Once on Barbados, American, African, and European ideas and technologies coexisted and sometimes intersected. By the 1640s, rum emerged from this maelstrom—it was an invention of the Atlantic world. A close examination of the alcohols that early inhabitants made and consumed complicates assumptions that ideas and innovations from one region could conquer the Atlantic world. It unveils how the colonization of Barbados and attendant enslavement of African and Indigenous people unleashed the creative collisions of skilled practitioners, agricultural products, technologies, and ideas surrounding consumption. Initially designed to satisfy local tastes, tracing the processes of invention surrounding rum and other alcoholic beverages demonstrates how experimentation and the development of taste preceded commodification. Understanding how rum became the "native produce" of Barbados shows us how cross-cultural interactions in the early modern Caribbean—which tied together the broader Atlantic world—created new worlds for all.
The 1710 assassination of Daniel Parke, the royal governor of the English colony of the Leeward Islands, was a sensational event, especially as the killers were not rebellious enslaved people or foreign attackers but instead some of the wealthiest and most respected white men of the Antiguan plantocracy. This murder has been described as one of "the most lurid episodes in English Caribbean history," an occurrence that "summed up many long years of life on the tropical firing line." But although the murder of a colonial governor, a man who had been appointed as the sovereign's personal representative within this colony, was deeply shocking to Englishmen at home and abroad, it was not as unprecedented as it might seem initially. An obscure and anonymous text that circulated in London soon afterward shows that Parke's assassination could be incorporated into the histories of the ancient world and earlier Stuart England alike. The epic poem Forty One in Miniature offers a prism through which readers can better understand the political culture of the eighteenth-century English Caribbean, helping them to appreciate its relationship to metropolitan values and practices.
This essay explores the enslaved people brought to London by planters, merchants, and others from Barbados during the later seventeenth and very early eighteenth centuries. The domestic service that most of these enslaved people undertook was a far cry from the horrors of the Middle Passage or the fast-developing sugar plantation labor system emerging in Barbados, and well-dressed enslaved personal attendants may have helped normalize slavery in the eyes of Londoners who saw these Africans as being similar to the city's tens of thousands of white domestic servants. It was slavery nonetheless, and isolated, sometimes manacled, and always just one step away from a return to the Caribbean, the people featured in this essay all attempted to escape from their enslavers. The essay builds from the scant information contained in the newspaper advertisements published by their enslavers, as well as other sources such as parish records to show the determination of the enslaved to secure a measure of freedom, the ways in which Barbadian enslavers sought to strengthen slavery on both sides of the Atlantic, and the creation of the first "runaway slave" newspaper advertisements.