In Settler Jamaica in the 1750s, Jack P. Greene brings to fruition decades of work with quantitative data to provide an empirically rich portrait of the free population of mid-eighteenth-century Jamaica. His study reveals a society as variegated as were Britain’s mainland North American colonies of the period. Not simply a sugar monoculture, Jamaica was an economically complex society in which the production of coffee, livestock, and food provisions coexisted with sugar production, and which contained two substantial, and competing, urban centers, Kingston and Spanish Town. Greene modestly emphasizes that the book refines and adds detail to the conclusions of recent studies of the same period. It is true that in different ways the work of Kamau Brathwaite, Verene Shepherd, and Trevor Burnard has already established the importance of resident slaveowners, the production of crops other than sugar, and the development of a complex Jamaican institutional and political culture. Nevertheless, Settler Jamaica in the 1750s substantially develops our understanding of an under-studied period in Jamaican history. The value of the book is grounded in its strong evidentiary base of quantitative sources, but the book comes to life in its epilogue, which analyzes the critical context for understanding the production of those sources. Settler Jamaica in the 1750s is based on Greene’s painstaking analysis of a series of data-rich lists, many of them produced as evidence in a dispute in the early 1750s about whether Kingston or Spanish Town should be the colony’s capital. This conflict was more fundamentally about the extent to which the colonists or the metropole should control the island’s future. The sources include lists of the landholders of the entire island, of the residents of Spanish Town, of taxpayers in the parish of Kingston, of the free inhabitants of the northwestern parish of St. James, and of free residents of the precinct of St. Catherine (which included Spanish Town) and the parish of St. Andrew, neighboring Kingston. Although each of these lists includes slightly different information, Greene ably compares and combines them. Following his sources, Greene organizes his book by location. Three chapters deal with the island as a whole, concentrating on landholding and different types of economic activity. Greene then devotes two chapters each to St. Andrew and Spanish Town, then discusses Kingston and St. James in subsequent chapters. His emphasis is on the geographic diversity of Jamaica’s parishes, particularly the difference between the urban centers, the long-settled “core” parishes close to Kingston and Spanish Town, characterized by diversified agricultural production, and the very rapidly expanding newer “periphery” parishes, such as St. James, which was in this period undergoing a boom driven by sugar production. Greene’s focus is on the free population of all racial groups. He is particularly concerned with differences within that population, especially differences in wealth, which he confirms were strongly correlated with race and gender. The wealthy in Jamaica were white men, although not all white men were wealthy. Free men and women of color and unmarried white women on average owned much less. Greene’s reliance on sources relating to property means he pays less attention to the situation of married women of whatever race, whose access to wealth was obscured by the restrictions imposed on them by coverture. Greene’s emphasis on the diversity of productive activity and of wealth and status among the population is welcome, and his conclusion that Jamaica was more than a plantation society is convincing. He points out that the “typical settler” was a provisions or livestock producer owning a single settlement, rather than a wealthy sugar planter owning multiple properties (71, 199). Recognizing that fact matters in understanding Jamaican politics. As Greene makes clear in the epilogue, the large property owners who dominated the political scene depended on alliances with less wealthy free people, and in particular with smaller-scale white property owners. Jamaican settlers in the 1750s were, as Greene shows, as ready as their continental peers to make “ambitious proposals” (5) aimed at consolidating their own control and reproducing a society that worked for men like them. Even so, focusing on the “typical settler” can obscure other aspects of Jamaica’s social world. While the “typical settler” was not running a large sugar plantation, the “typical slave” was living on one. Greene shows that 73 percent of enslaved people in Jamaica worked in sugar (30, table 1.14), while in the parish of St. Andrew, more than 30 percent of enslaved people were owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of property owners (98, table 5.2). Thus the sugar plantation remains a critically important institution for understanding the lives and politics of the majority of Jamaica’s inhabitants in this period. And even taking into account that Jamaican whites were not all large-scale sugar planters, it remains the case that it was their extreme dependence on slavery, and thus on metropolitan military support, that prevented them joining their mainland counterparts in declaring independence. Settler Jamaica in the 1750s will be particularly useful to specialists, who are likely to return to it repeatedly. For the more general reader much of it will be hard going. Most chapters proceed by summarizing the data in tables and charts, alongside commentary that reveals the patterns found. For instance, one of the chapters on St. Andrew describes seven different combinations of patterns of agricultural production, such as sugar and cattle, provisions and cattle, or cattle only. Yet, frustratingly, Greene largely abstains from interpreting the social, economic, or political significance of the patterns he locates, leaving this discussion until the epilogue. As a result, it is easy to overlook the overall argument for the need to see eighteenth-century Jamaica and Jamaicans within the broader context of Britain’s American colonies, with which they had more in common than a historiography that remains framed by later national formations can recognize. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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