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.
This season I’m focussing on British planters in the West Indies. I’ve chosen them as my subject for several reasons:
- 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treatment in historical studies for my PhD, ‘Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2013), and my first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016);
- Opinions on the size, makeup, and influence of the planters has been the topic of heated debate for almost a century; and
- 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.