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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 12: Slavery •


Plantation driver, Jamaica, 1840s

An engraving of a plantation driver, Jamaica, 1840s

James M. Phillippo, Jamaica: its past and present state (London, 1843), p. 120 (Copy in Library Company of Philadelphia).

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr.

British links and the West Indian proslavery argument

Christer Petley, Leeds Metropolitan University

In his proslavery History of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793), the planter-politician Bryan Edwards noted an important shift in British sensibilities, claiming that 'the age itself is hourly improving in humanity'. He went on to assert that 'this improvement visibly extends beyond the Atlantic' and that it had led slaveholders to ameliorate their treatment of slaves on the plantations in the British West Indies. (1) Edwards was one of these slaveholders and was therefore, by definition, involved in a distinctively exploitative and oppressive system based on violence, and yet he and other West Indian planters consistently claimed that they held beliefs in common with their British contemporaries and invoked the principles of 'humanity' and 'improvement' in defence of slaveholding. This article focuses mainly on slaveholders associated with Jamaica, the largest and most valuable of Britain's plantation colonies in the New World. It discusses the ways that links with Britain were an important element of the cultural identities of Jamaican planters and how these connections shaped their rhetorical strategies during the extended dispute over slavery.

Proslavery arguments deliberately elided the brutal realities of slavery and can therefore do little to explain how the system operated in reality. Studying them can, nevertheless, do much to improve our understanding of the debates that took place between abolitionists and their opponents. Previous scholarship on the British slavery debate has tended to focus on the organisation, ideology and campaigns of those opposing slavery and the slave trade. In contrast to the extensive literature on slaveholders' ideology in the US south, British proslavery ideas and campaigning have remained largely neglected, and have only recently begun to attract sustained scholarly attention. Such attention is important because the slaveholders played a crucial role in determining the timing and nature of abolition and because elements of a racist ideology first developed to underpin and defend slavery have lived on after emancipation.

Recent work has demonstrated that, from the 1770s, an increasingly coherent and successful abolition movement drove slaveholders and their allies to adopt a similarly univocal and organised defence of Atlantic slave systems. (2) They became proactive in their attacks on abolitionist ideology, developing a thoroughgoing defence of slavery that included overtly racist arguments. In addition, the proslavery lobby emphasised the commercial value of the slave colonies to the nation and claimed that they had the right, as free-born subjects of the Crown, to keep their property in human beings and to legislate for their own affairs. Since there was a strong intellectual consensus in Britain against the principle of slavery by the end of the eighteenth century, the fact that the slave trade was not abolished until 1807 and that slave emancipation occurred as late as the 1830s illustrates the effect of the influence, arguments and delaying tactics of slaveholders. Part of their success in this regard was down to their use of what Jeffrey Young has called 'the distracting imagery of benevolent intentions' in a self-interested defence of an exploitative institution. (3)

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, British colonies in the West Indies developed in a world 'beyond the line', where European peace treaties were disregarded. The Caribbean was notorious as a wild frontier: the natural environment for pirates, buccaneers and men on the make. It was the wild west of the early modern period. Having roamed the Caribbean as privateers and raiders, the English conquered or settled a number of islands, most notably Barbados in the 1620s and Jamaica in 1655, and these islands became the centrepiece of the British American Empire. They were important because of the wealth they produced, and that came about to a large extent as a result of sugar. This one crop above all others had the potential to make men rich, and adventurous migrants left the British Isles in order to try their luck in the plantation colonies of the West Indies. (4)

The large sugar plantations of successful colonists covered much of the fertile land. This, and a hostile tropical disease environment, ensured that the West Indian islands never became colonies of extensive white settlement like those on the American mainland. The islands offered the chance of quick riches, but they were demographic disaster areas, and the arduous work of raising sugar cane was performed by forced labour - by enslaved people brought across the Atlantic from West Africa. During the eighteenth century, over five million enslaved people were forced to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean on the notorious Middle Passage. Many died before they arrived, and large numbers did not survive their first few years of unforgiving labour on Caribbean sugar estates. And yet, in spite of that, the black population of the region rose rapidly, because of the arrival of newly imported slaves. Enslaved Africans and their descendants made up the largest demographic group in the region and in Jamaica, as on most of the sugar islands, they outnumbered whites by more than ten to one by the end of the eighteenth century. Life on British Caribbean plantations was characterised by cruelty and exploitation. The mainly male white group experienced all the enjoyments of full freedom and used violence and terror to keep the black majority in a state of subjugation and slavery.

British attitudes towards the planter class were characterised by a mixture of envy and ridicule. In the common metropolitan view, the nature of slave society in the West Indies made whites associated with the region spendthrift and lacking in self-control. For instance, in The West Indian, a popular British play of the 1770s about a planter visiting the metropole, the main character arrives in London with 'rum and sugar enough... to make all the water in the Thames into punch', admits that 'my passions are my masters', and is described as having 'strong animal spirits' and as a 'hair-brain'd spark who does nothing like other people'. (5) These sorts of representations of white West Indians came about in a context where, as Kathleen Wilson argues, 'Empire was, in a very real sense, the frontier of the nation' – a place where Englishness was often seen as being both 'tentative and contingent'. (6) From a metropolitan perspective, those exposed to the luxuries, climate and institutions of the colonial periphery were likely to drift from English – or British – cultural norms, becoming something recognisable and yet distinct, something nearly, but not quite, British.

Abolitionist renditions of life in the West Indies drew upon this. As David Brion Davis has pointed out, British abolitionist thought relied heavily on the idea that slaveholders were a degenerate and different group of people. He notes that a 'conceptual differentiation' emerged in the minds of the abolitionists, drawing a distinction between a '"slave world" aberration and a "free world" norm'. (7) David Lambert has developed this point, observing that abolitionist thinking entailed 'the representation of West Indian slave societies as "un-English", aberrant spaces that required metropolitan humanitarian intervention'. He also notes that, while the abolition debate was one about slaves, the 'figure of the white West Indian master was also a locus of competing pro- and antislavery discourses'. (8)

In spite of all of the ways in which their lifestyles and institutions 'beyond the line' were different to those of Britain, the white colonists of the West Indies liked to think of themselves as loyal British subjects overseas. They and the West Indian absentees living in Britain did not wish to be seen as un-British tyrants who had degenerated from proper metropolitan standards of deportment and behaviour. The aim of the British proslavery lobby was therefore to downplay the idea that there were fundamental differences between life in the West Indies and life in Europe. They did this partly because it was a way to defend slavery before a British audience and partly because they were aware that life in a place of contact between Britishness and otherness raised uncomfortable questions about the purported dangers of cultural slippage and change. These were anxieties that could be brought into sharp relief by metropolitan criticisms of supposedly aberrant white creole values and behaviour.

For most white colonists in the West Indies, life was centred on making money by exploiting the labour of enslaved people. At the same time, many of them attempted to replicate British cultural milieux, partly to try to allay their own fears about the transformative effects of the distance and difference from Britain of the societies in which they lived. For example, the Jamaica Magazine, a periodical first published in 1812 in Kingston, aimed to emulate the learned journals of the metropole, which the founders of the Magazine claimed 'contributed to inspire a correct and elegant literary taste'. This, they exclaimed, was 'one of the most infallible signs of the progress of civilization and polished manners among a people'. The Jamaica Magazine contained excerpts from European periodicals; essays on politics, education and agriculture; poetry; and letters from local correspondents. There were over 400 subscribers, representing a cross section of the local elite. A correspondent to the journal hoped that reading it would 'relieve us from those fits of languor and idleness, to which the inhabitants of a tropical climate are too often exposed'. Some colonists in Jamaica therefore worried that they risked lapsing into thoughtless inactivity and sought to cultivate the type of interest in literature that, to them, epitomised the 'progress of civilization'. (9)

Promoting a reading culture was one of the ways in which sections of the slaveholding elite tried to order their world along British lines, presenting themselves as enlightened and progressive men of culture. (10) Simon Taylor, a wealthy slaveholder and speaker of the Jamaican legislative assembly, wrote to his nephew in Britain, telling him to avoid idleness and find time in his day for reading, suggesting that he would 'do right to read Hume's History of England' as well as promoting William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, which he felt 'every gentleman ought to read'. (11) In 1788 books in the Kingston lending library included Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the works of Henry Fielding, Buffon's Histoire Naturelle, the plays of John Dryden and David Hume's History of England. (12) As Trevor Burnard has argued, even though it was 'not a propitious environment for cultivating the life of the mind', a reading culture 'did exist in Jamaica'. (13) Local planters did not want to be seen as un-British and clung tenaciously to practices and ideas that were, in their minds, associated with cultured life in Britain.

As Burnard has argued, white Jamaican colonists were 'genuinely trans-Atlantic people, connected to both Britain and Jamaica'. (14) Many, especially the wealthiest, lived their lives moving between metropole and colony, and proslavery authors had a greater exposure to British culture and ideology than most white settlers in the West Indies. Furthermore, proslavery writing tended to be published in Britain, usually in London, and was aimed at a British audience. Proslavery writers were deeply committed to the defence of white West Indian interests and often had a strong material stake in the perpetuation of slavery. At the same time, the circumstances of their lives and the cultural climate in which they wrote led them to attempt to demonstrate the legitimacy of their local institutions by using British cultural benchmarks.

Edward Long, for instance, was born in England in 1734 and lived in Jamaica for 12 years. He returned to Britain, and in 1774 he published his History of Jamaica, a three-volume account of the island that also contained a virulent defence of slavery. As Elizabeth Bohls remarks, in his work Long sought to 'project the identity of a highly civilized British gentleman, only to conscript that persona in the defense of Jamaica's most glaring and contentious difference from its mother country: the institution of colonial slavery'. (15) Long defended the planters as 'humane and indulgent masters' and argued that slavery was a beneficial institution for those enslaved, claiming that the authority of the planters over enslaved people was 'like that of an antient (sic) patriarch'. (16)

Long's work played an important part in the codification of proslavery and racist thought, and the History of Jamaica inspired subsequent polemics by slaveholders. Nevertheless, the rhetoric used by proslavery writers changed in the years after its publication. These shifts were evident by 1793, when Bryan Edwards published his History of the British West Indies. Like Long, Edwards was born in England but lived a substantial part of his life in Jamaica. He used his writing to defend slavery and the planters, and yet claimed to be opposed in principle to both the slave trade and slavery. Indeed, Edwards stated that he was 'no friend to slavery, in any shape, or under any modification'. (17) He was bitterly opposed to abolition and tried to counter abolitionist arguments by claiming that the reform of slavery and the slave trade had begun in practice. Edwards also suggested some ideas about the ways in which slavery might gradually be phased out, positing that enslaved people could 'be attached to the land, and sold with it', likening this to the reforms that had once been made to the system of villeinage in Europe. (18)

Villeinage, as subsequent proslavery writers were to point out, was phased out over several centuries, and from the late eighteenth century, they began to promote this type of slow transition as part of a rearguard action against abolitionism. This approach allowed proslavery authors to claim that they opposed slavery in principle while presenting it as a practical necessity. It also allowed such writers to claim that they had humane considerations for enslaved people, since they argued that they were reforming the slave system with a view to phasing it out over generations. Furthermore, by comparing their ideas about amelioration and gradual reform with the ending of villeinage, West Indian writers sought to draw parallels between the situation in the colonies and processes that had occurred in Britain.

Arguments about gradual transformation became an accepted orthodoxy of proslavery thought in the period after the abolition of the slave trade. For example, replying to a pamphlet by William Wilberforce, the Jamaican clergyman George Wilson Bridges claimed that, while he was 'equally anxious... to hasten the period when emancipation may safely be made subservient to the moral happiness of our fellow creatures here', he would nevertheless 'not see that object pursued by unworthy means, nor gained in a field of blood'. The 'abolition of slavery itself', he wrote, 'must be left for the accomplishment of another generation'. (19)

Bridges expressed these views in 1823 and expanded on his ideas in The Annals of Jamaica, published five years later. Here he reprised and expanded on Edwards's comments on villeinage, describing how the emancipation of European peasants from serfdom had 'required that melioration of their circumstances, that progress of civilization... which time alone could produce'. (20) Another proslavery author professed that he hoped 'slavery would, in due time, become extinct in the colonies, as it did in England', but that the West Indies should be 'allowed to slide insensibly into freedom' without interference from humanitarians and the British government. (21) Authors like these made overtly racist arguments that denied that those enslaved in the Caribbean were qualified for immediate freedom. However, because of the contexts in which they wrote, they couched these arguments in terms that drew comparisons between the situation in the West Indies and the history of England, promoting an incrementally slow process of gradual reform enacted by slaveholders without outside involvement.

Joyce Chaplin and other scholars of North American slavery have demonstrated how the master class of the US south were part of a broader cultural marketplace and that this led them to use the language of progress, humanity and benevolence to justify slavery to themselves and to the outside world. In these ways white southerners 'domesticated' their representations of slavery. (22) The British West Indian plantocracy refurbished their presentation of slavery in similar ways, while the specific context of the British debate induced them to try to anglicise their peculiar institution.

In 1833, Richard Barrett, speaker of the Jamaican House of Assembly, wrote that the planters of the island 'are Englishmen; their literature is English'. He sought to impress on his British readers that this had an effect on the slaveholders' outlook. He exclaimed that those 'in Jamaica sympathise with their friends in England' in their concerns for the welfare of slaves. (23) In spite of this, when Edward Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, introduced the Emancipation Bill to Parliament in the same year, he stated quite clearly that, regardless of the claims of the planters and the hopes of the government, 'nothing' had been done by West Indian slaveholders 'which may fairly be characterised as a step towards the ultimate extinction of the system'. (24) For decades, men like Barrett had been making empty promises.

Like Bryan Edwards's writing 40 years previously, Barrett reflected a conservative and racist worldview, arguing that it was necessary for white men to control black people and compel them to labour. Both men advanced these arguments while conceding some rhetorical ground to the abolitionists. They did this partly because they wished to refute abolitionist claims that they had degenerated from acceptably British standards of behaviour, wanting outsiders to see them as they saw themselves, not as supine despots, but as industrious and loyal Britons. They also did it to try to maintain an economic and social system that relied on a thoroughgoing denial of human equality. The slaveholders of the Caribbean therefore borrowed the language of their progressive and liberal opponents to try to justify and shore up practices based on violence and dispossession. As Stanley made clear, by 1833 the British government had seen through the planters' rhetoric and was not prepared further to indulge slaveholder claims about 'benevolence' and 'improvement'. By this time, however, the British had been debating slavery for over half a century, and the self-interested opposition of the proslavery lobby had played a significant part in holding up the moment of freedom for the half a million enslaved men, women and children of the British Empire.

  1. Bryan Edwards, The History Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies (2 vols., Dublin, 1793), vol. 2, 130. Back to (1)
  2. See Srividhya Swaminathan, 'Developing the West Indian proslavery position after the Somerset decision', Slavery and Abolition, 24.3 (2003). Back to (2)
  3. Jeffrey R. Young, Domesticating Slavery: the Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670–1837 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999), 131. Back to (3)
  4. See Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: the Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1972); and Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: from the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (London, 1997). Back to (4)
  5. Richard Cumberland, The West Indian: a Comedy. As it is Performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (London, 1771), 5, 8, 53, 62. Back to (5)
  6. Kathleen Wilson, The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (London, 2003), 14, 17. Back to (6)
  7. David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (Oxford, 1984), 81. Back to (7)
  8. David Lambert, White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity during the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, 2005), 1, 12. Back to (8)
  9. The Jamaica Magazine, 1 (Feb.–June 1812), 1, 18. Back to (9)
  10. See Jack P. Greene, 'Liberty, slavery, and the transformation of British identity in the eighteenth-century West Indies', Slavery and Abolition, 21.1 (2000). Back to (10)
  11. University of London, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, I D 15, Simon Taylor to Simon Richard Brissett Taylor, Kingston, 14 May 1800. Back to (11)
  12. The Royal Gazette, 5 July 1788. Back to (12)
  13. Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004), 116. Back to (13)
  14. Trevor Burnard, 'Passengers only: the extent and significance of absenteeism in eighteenth-century Jamaica', Atlantic Studies, 1.2 (2004), 189. Back to (14)
  15. Elizabeth A. Bohls, 'The gentleman planter and the metropole: Long's History of Jamaica (1774)', in The Country and the City Revisited: England and the Politics of Culture, 1550–1850, ed. Gerald Maclean, Donna Landry and Joseph P. Ward (Cambridge, 1999), 180-1. Back to (15)
  16. Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, or a General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of the Island (3 vols., London, 1774), vol. 2, 262, 270-1. Back to (16)
  17. Edwards, History, vol. 2, 138. Back to (17)
  18. Edwards, History, vol. 2, 142. Back to (18)
  19. George Wilson Bridges, A Voice from Jamaica in Reply to William Wilberforce (London, 1823), 4. Back to (19)
  20. George Wilson Bridges, The Annals of Jamaica (2 vols., London, 1828), vol. 1, 475. Back to (20)
  21. Alexander Barclay, A Practical View of the Present State of Slavery in the West Indies (London, 1826), xxi. Back to (21)
  22. Young, Domesticating Slavery; Joyce E. Chaplin, 'Slavery and the principle of humanity: a modern idea in the early lower south', Journal of Social History, 24 (1990–1). Back to (22)
  23. Richard Barrett, 'Mr Barrett's speech', in The Speeches of Mr Barrett and Mr Burge, At a General Meeting of Planters, Merchants, and Others, Interested in the West-India Colonies (London, 1833), 38. Back to (23)
  24. Hansard, 14 May 1833, 1198. Back to (24)

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