British Planters Abroad: Autumn Reading List Edition

British Planters Abroad: Autumn Reading List Edition

A few months ago I wrote up an introduction to the historiography of British abolition in the form of a summer reading list. With the new term upon us and students of all ages excitedly heading back to school (including my little sister who is starting university!), it seemed like the perfect time to create another such survey of monographs related to slavery and abolition.

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Autumn in Edinburgh

This season I’m focussing on British planters in the West Indies. I’ve chosen them as my subject for several reasons:

  1. I’ve studied British planters and their treatment in historical studies for my PhD, ‘Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2013), and my first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016);
  2. Opinions on the size, makeup, and influence of the planters has been the topic of heated debate for almost a century; and
  3. Thanks to recent studies, we can now learn more about the lives of British planters at home and abroad.

You’ll probably notice that several of these studies discuss the ‘decline’ in influence British West Indians experienced before and during the era of abolition (which I tend to define as between 1783, when the first anti-slavery petition was read in the Houses of the British Parliament, and 1833, when the British Parliament legislated for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire). This focus allows historians to use their research to assess why abolition took place when and how it did, but it can also lead to historical narratives that assume that abolition was inevitable (a point which deserves further exploration in its own blog post). This helps justify one’s interest in people who opposed the popular abolition movement. It is also a reaction to and legacy of the first major twentienth century study that focussed on British planters, Lowell Joseph Ragatz’s The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833. You’ll find more about his work below.

This reading list is meant as an introduction to the historiography of the subject and is by no means exhaustive. It’d be great to hear your suggestions for additions and your thoughts on the works (or even aspects of slavery and abolition around which you’d like to see a reading list developed!) written in the comments below. You can also tweet us @IslesAbroad.

Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. 1928.

In this early study, Ragatz argued that slavery would have come to an end in the islands regardless of abolition because of moral, social, and economic deterioration, the planters’ loss of political influence, and the unwillingness of colonists to adapt to new progressive farming methods. He addressed the events and influences which led to the decline of the planter class’s influence and wealth. Ragatz put forth an openly judgemental, negative image of the planters throughout the work.

Burnard, Trevor. Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire is an exploration of 40 years of European and African cultures in Jamaica through the lens of a planter’s diary. In his work, Burnard uncovers not only details of life on the plantation, but why Jamaica was seen as a ‘land of opportunity’ (p. 66) for white British colonists. Abolition would therefore have been seen as a threat. I also can’t forget to mention Trevor Burnard’s most recent book, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650-1820 (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Lambert, David. White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity During the Age of Abolition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity During the Age of Abolition is concerned with identities and networks. By focussing on Britain’s earliest Caribbean sugar colony, Barbados (colonised in 1627), Lambert looks at how planters worked to define themselves as ‘white’ and ‘British’. Through this study, he shows how these representations were created as a means of defending themselves, their wealth, their system of laws, and their property in slaves in the face of intense opposition from abolitionist efforts back in England.

Petley, Christer. Slaveholders in Jamaica: Colonial Society and Culture During the Era of Abolition. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009.

In Slaveholders in Jamaica, Christer Petley echoed Ragatz’s theory of planter decline as the reason behind the achievement of abolition in 1833. He argued that by being unwilling to defend slavery using moral arguments at a time when the expanding British empire rendered the West Indian colonies less valuable to the mother country, the West Indian interest in Jamaica and abroad brought about their own loss of influence.

I also want to draw your attention to a relevant special volume of Atlantic Studies that really tackled some of the major arguments about the roles and state of the planters in the era of British abolition. Back in 2010, a number of slavery historians (including myself) gathered at Chawton House Library in Hampshire, England for the ‘Rethinking the Fall of the Planter Class’ one-day conference on British planters, their legacies, and their treatment in the historiography of British slavery and abolition. Speakers frequently spoke about their research into West Indian planters in relation to Ragatz’s work mentioned above.

As a follow-up to the conference, Christer Petley edited a special volume of the journal, Atlantic Studies, which contained articles from several of the authors mentioned above. If you have access to Taylor & Francis online journals (such as through an academic library’s online collections), I highly recommend visiting Atlantic Studies vol. 9 (2012), Rethinking the Fall of the Planter Class.

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Proslavery Britain is out now!

Proslavery Britain is out now!

I am very pleased to announce that my first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, comes out today from Palgrave Macmillan!

Dumas, Proslavery Britain

Proslavery Britain tells the story of how slavery was encouraged, defended, and repeatedly justified in the face of growing opposition in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It seeks to provide a fuller understanding of the story of the abolition and emancipation in the British Empire, a story that up until now has been largely one-sided. We know of the great work of the humanitarian abolitionists in Parliament and on the ground across the country. Proslavery Britain provides us with insight into the sometimes formidable force they were up against, right up to 1833.

A detailed examination of a wide range of sources, including parliamentary records, committee minutes, pamphlets, sermons, art, literature, drama, and poetry, placed within the wider context of national and international unrest, provides us with a greater understanding of the fights for and against abolition. It reveals the struggle to defend slave trading, slave holding, the colonists, and the colonies in the face of widespread opposition.

Here’s what early reviewers have said:

“As scholarly focus on Britain’s era of colonial slavery continues to grow, Paula Dumas has provided a valuable and wide-ranging analysis of pro-slavery advocacy in the age of abolition. This book reminds us that while the slave-owners lost the battle over abolition, they won the war over racial subordination.” -Nicholas Draper, Co-director of Structure and Signification of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833 project, University College London, England

“Comprehensive in its range and focus, Proslavery Britain offers a fascinating insight into proslavery arguments and rhetoric during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This painstaking study promises to reshape our understanding of slavery debates in Britain, not least through its attention to things such as proslavery arts and culture. We have long needed a book of this kind and Dumas has risen to the task magnificently.” -John Oldfield, Professor of History, Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, England

Order Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition from Amazon, Palgrave, or tell your local library or booksellers about Proslavery Britain today!

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 2

Earlier I began writing down some of my thoughts on why I think historians haven’t talked much about “proslavery” in British history. If you missed my first post, please click here. I wrote that I believed there were 5 main reasons for British proslavery to be missing from our understanding of British slavery and abolition.

Here’s a quick reminder of my first four points:

  1. The first histories of British abolition were written by abolitionists and tell their story.
  2. There are many more abolitionist primary sources to study.
  3. Abolition took place decades earlier in Britain than in the US.
  4. British colonial planters had less power and influence than their American counterparts by this period.

I had decided to leave the fifth point for another day, because I think its worthy of a discussion all its own. It’s also a bit more complicated than the others to get across.

I believe that British proslavery has been pushed aside, ignored, and downplayed in the traditional story and historiography of British slavery and abolition because people don’t want to remember it.

I think it’s a morality issue. Slavery, and definitely pro-slavery, is an awful thing to remember. The moral and ethical issues surrounding the study of how groups of men could justify, support, and encourage the enslavement of other groups of men are challenging to say the least. People said despicable things about the men, women, and children who were enslaved. They insulted, degraded, and demeaned them using a wide range of means that had long-lasting consequences, not least for colonial life and race relations. And a better understanding or official acknowledgement of the mind-set and historic support of Parliament might very well be used against the British Government to justify the case for reparations.

In the later 18th and early 19th centuries, people used the Bible to explain and justify slavery and the enslavement of people of African descent. They used contemporary beliefs and the latest “scientific” studies about race and “civilization” to justify it. They could draw on past parliamentary decisions and legal rights to explain and support it. These are not things to be proud of to say the least.

If someone wants to look at this era of history from a moral perspective, or with a view of finding something to celebrate or of which to be proud, then it sure isn’t going to be how the West Indian interest and their supporters within Britain continued justifying slavery right up to 1833. It’s going to be the hard work of the abolitionists – the winning side – that gets remembered and celebrated. That’s what the statues will remind us of. That’s what the memorials will be dedicated to. That’s what the ceremonies will commemorate on the anniversaries of beating the proslavery side.

The opinions and efforts of the British West Indian interest have been discussed in some of the major 20th century studies of British abolition, but from the earliest works they were judged and placed on the losing side of a moral, humane battle for liberty and good. Therefore, proslavery people couldn’t be discussed without being placed firmly in the context of the abolitionist fight. Any attention that was paid to them focussed on their decline, their doomed position, and their inability to compete against the moral campaign for abolition.

But we know that Wilberforce and his supporters lost many bills for abolition. They faced growing, substantial opposition and had to fight to earn public support and then fight for that public support to mean something within the halls of Parliament. By downplaying or even casting aside the opposition to abolition in the story of British abolition, then not only can we not fully understand abolition, but we aren’t giving the abolitionists enough credit for what they were able to achieve in spite of a strong, powerful, knowledgeable, legally-supported opposition.

Suggested Reading:

Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Klingberg, Frank J. The Anti-Slavery Movement in England: A Study in English Humanitarianism. 1926. Reprint, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968.

Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. 1928. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books Inc., 1963.

Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 1

Why don’t we know more about British proslavery?

I have contemplated this question for years. Proslavery argument and rhetoric is a legitimate topic for historical study. We only need to look at the American case to see a fully developed historiography on the subject. When it comes to the absence of understanding of proslavery on the far side of the Atlantic, I don’t think there’s a simple answer, but I have five educated guesses that I’m happy to lay out here.

First, the first historical accounts of British abolition were written by the abolitionists. Thomas Clarkson’s The History, Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament was first published in 1808 and provided a triumphant narrative of British abolitionists overcoming adversity to achieve abolition in 1807. He wrote a history of the abolitionists and portrayed it as though it were a history of abolition. This is a problem. We see the legacy of his work and this emphasis on the abolitionists last into the later decades of the 20th century.

Second, it is far easier to find primary sources created by abolitionists in their quest to end slave trading and slavery in Britain and her colonies than it is to find clear defences of slavery and slave trading. Abolitionists made mobilizing public opinion a goal and were impressive in their ability to reach groups that had not traditionally been involved in the political process, whereas West Indian organizations focussed much of their efforts on legitimising their position and defending the colonies in Parliament. As such, the amount of abolitionist propaganda dwarfs that of the anti-abolitionists.

Third, Britain abolished slavery in her Caribbean colonies in 1833, whereas it continued in parts of America for another 3 decades. From a historian’s perspective, that means an additional 30 years’ worth of sources to draw upon, a wider range of sources, and more modern, reliable sources. For example, a historian of American slavery could draw upon first-hand accounts, personal records, and interviews created in the first few decades of the twentieth century. American slavery was also far more visible to the American people, whereas by the late 1700s British courts had acted to end slavery at home, confining it to the colonies.

Fourth, for a variety of reasons American slave owners had far more political power and influence by the early 1800s than their British counterparts in the Caribbean and back in Britain. It’s not that the British West Indian interest couldn’t pull together a solid defence or that they were doomed (which is what you might think if you read some of the earlier studies on them). They won debates, defeated bills for abolition and emancipation, and earned several significant concessions in the final debates on emancipation, particularly compensation and continued labour via the apprenticeship scheme. But evidence also shows that their fortunes were waning and their positions in Parliament were increasingly under threat from the growing franchise and outpouring of public abolitionist sentiment.

I mentioned above that I have five main theories as to why we don’t know much about British proslavery. I know I’ve only listed four so far, but this post is getting far too long for my liking and my last point is worthy of its own discussion, so stay tuned for Part Two.

Want to know more? Check out my new book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, coming soon from Palgrave Macmillan.

Suggested Reading:

Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760–1810. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1975.

Draper, Nicholas. The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Ryden, David Beck. West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Britain’s Black Debt: Reflections

In November 2015 the University of Edinburgh hosted a multi-day, interdisciplinary conference on the issue of reparations, entitled Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond…. I attended the final element of that interdisciplinary conference, Sir Hilary Beckles’ lecture on Britain’s history of slavery and its legacy in the former Caribbean colonies, “Britain’s Black Debt.” This was also my first experience live tweeting on Twitter, and I welcome you to go back through my twitter account @HistoryByPaula to find the quotations I recorded live on November 6th.

Sir Hilary is a scholar of British slavery and abolition and supporter of the reparations movement. In his talk, he explored Britain’s former and current relations with several Caribbean nations, explained how Britain had used and exploited African slaves and its Caribbean colonies to develop its own infrastructure (and, crucially, not that of the colonies), and gave a brief history of the growing push for reparations. He spoke of his early discomfort at the fact that it was the enslavers and not the slaves who had received compensation from the British Government and the British taxpayers at the end of slavery in the British Empire. He referred to the British slave trade as “cultural genocide” and explained that “black people in the Caribbean are without a known ancestry.” He argued that the former colonies had been so desperate to achieve independence from the “mother country” that they hadn’t had time to ask or argue for reparations, which was why the issue hadn’t been dealt with decades ago at the time of independence. And he spoke in support of the global reparatory justice movement and concluded that reparations were inevitable; if anything, David Cameron’s casual dismissal of the claims for reparations would only work to bring people together to strengthen and solidify the case for compensation (financial or otherwise).

Sir Hilary is an excellent speaker and his great speaking skills, passion for and knowledge of his subject, and the relevance of the subject led to one of the most heated Q & A sessions that I have ever witnessed. Individuals literally stood up in support for reparations and for what Sir Hilary had said. They concurred, they added their own personal experiences and stories, they shouted, they argued, and they cried. The audience’s passion kept us there for so long that we eventually had to be forced out of the room by the conference’s organisers as we had gone so far over the allotted time.

So often I think that, as historians, we find ourselves detached from our subjects, seeing them as being in a time too different from our own to matter much today. Yet here is a topic with a legacy that directly affects individuals, towns and cities, and entire countries. It continues to adversely affect governments’ abilities to care for their people, and for people to understand themselves.

Suggested reading:

Beckles, Hilary McD. Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. Kingston, Jamaica: The University of the West Indies Press, 2012.

British slavery reparations Q & A.The Guardian, September 30, 2015.

Planters and PhDs: Uncovering Britain’s Pro-Slavery Past

When I first started asking about the opposition within Britain to abolition and emancipation, there was next to no information available on the subject. The American case has a long-established historiography on the topic of proslavery; where was the research into the British case?

For so long we viewed the history of British abolition as though it was one-sided and inevitable, and as such our attention was focussed on the abolitionists who won the day. While I won’t get into the historiography of British proslavery history here (that’s a topic deserving of at least a post or two of its own), what’s exciting is that there is all sorts of research coming out of British universities now on British planters, merchants, slave holders and traders, and the legacy of slavery in Britain.

Some of the newest research into the topic is coming out of British universities in the form of PhD theses. These often-ignored sources of information contain years of study and research backing their conclusions. Here are some that have been released over the past few years:

  • Baker, Sonia. “Scots in Eighteenth Century Grenada: A Study of the Life and Times of Ninian Home (1732-1795).” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2015).
  • Barrett, Ian John. “Cultures of Pro-Slavery: The Political Defence of the Slave Trade in Britain c. 1787-1807.” Unpublished PhD thesis (King’s College London, 2009).
  • Donington, Kate. “’The Benevolent Merchant? George Hibbert and the Representation of West Indian Mercantile Identity.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University College London, 2013).
  • Dumas, Paula E. “Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2013).
  • Mullen, Stephen Scott. “The Glasgow West India Interest: Integration, Collaboration and Exploitation in the British Atlantic World, 1776-1846.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Glasgow, 2015).
  • Taylor, Michael. “Conservative Political Economy and the Problem of Colonial Slavery, 1823-33.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2015).

Of course, I’m very excited that Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, a book that evolved from my PhD research, is launching next month. We are creating a far more accurate, multi-faceted story of the struggle for abolition and emancipation.

If you’re a postgrad writing on the topic of British proslavery or know of someone who is, let us know in the comments!

Glasgow’s West India Committee

When we think of planters, absentee slave owners, and West Indian merchants living in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s, I think we’re most likely to think of those living on vast country estates and in the major ports of London and Liverpool. While absentee planters and London’s West India Committee have received a great deal of attention from historians, Glasgow’s West India Association remains under-discussed. Historian Iain Whyte, however, has argued that contemporaries viewed Glasgow’s Association as the most powerful West Indian society outside London. With fairly detailed minutes and records of the Association available on microfilm from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, one can catch a glimpse of the activities and interests of West Indian planters and merchants in Britain yet outside of London.

Glasgow West Indian merchants were wealthy, politically active, and influential, particularly prior to the Burgh Reform Act of 1833 which significantly widened the franchise. The first meeting of the Glasgow West India Association took place on 22 October 1807 at the Tontine Tavern in Glasgow. In attendance were approximately 20 planters and merchants with interests in the West Indies. At this first meeting they unanimously resolved: “That much inconvenience having been felt, and much injury sustained by the want of mutual co-operation in matters affecting the general interests of the Trade, it was an object of great importance that the different Planters and Merchants connected therewith in this Place should form themselves into a Public Association for the protection of their various rights, privileges and interests”. By 1808 the association had 28 company members and 43 individual members who all paid an annual subscription (25 guineas for company members and five for individuals).

Family and business ties connected many of the Association’s members over the years. The association also received support from the Glasgow Courier under the editorship of James MacQueen. West Indian planters and merchants in Glasgow were united in their opposition to emancipation and worked together to fight for compensation for absentees in Britain and slaveholding colonists.

Between 1807 and 1833 the Association addressed a number of issues of concern to its members. These included infrastructure, agricultural produce, slavery, legal issues, trade and taxation, committee work, and other general concerns of the West Indian interest. Their discussions specifically relating to colonial slavery revolved around the foreign slave trade, educating slaves, the African Institution, emancipation, potential problems following emancipation, private property, free labour (including ensuring the continuance of production and using other potential labourers), the slave population, the origins of colonial slavery, and compensation. When it came to organising and campaigning against emancipation and for support and compensation, the Association sent representatives and petitions to Parliament (records indicate that petitions were sent in 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1833), pleaded on behalf of the colonists, and paid £50 to have an agent in London’s West Indian Society.

Suggested Reading:

Cooke, Anthony. ‘An Elite Revisited: Glasgow West India Merchants, 1783-1877’. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 32 (2012): 127-65.

Lambert, David. ‘The “Glasgow King of Billingsgate”: James MacQueen and an Atlantic Proslavery Network’. Slavery & Abolition, 29 (2008): 389-414.

Whyte, Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.