Category Archives: West Indian history

‘The Colthurst Journal’ by John Bowen Colthurst


John Bowen Colthurst (1779-1848) was appointed to  Barbados as a Special Magistrate in 1835, and this is his diary, annotated by W.K. Marshall, Professor of History at the University of the West Indies.

After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, the British government instituted a period of ‘apprenticeship’ when ex-slaves continued to work on their former masters’ plantations for 45 hours a week, in exchange for food, clothing and housing.  They were no longer owned by their master, and he no longer had the power to punish them.  Instead, Special Magistrates were appointed to hear complaints about the apprentices from their masters and vice versa. Much of the time he mediated between them, but he alone had the power to order punishment.  It was intended originally that field (or praedial) slaves would be bound to work for six years as apprentices, while domestic (or non-praedial) slaves would be bound for four, on account of the longer working hours they undertook in the house.   However, the Apprenticeship system was abandoned in 1838, largely because of the unworkability of having some Apprentices freed and others not, and because public agitation in England was ramping up again against continued involvement in slavery or its other manifestations.

John Bowen Colthurst was of a good Anglo-Irish family, with strong network connections. He had had a military career during the Napoleonic Wars (although he didn’t see active service) and had withdrawn on half-pay after the war to his farm in Ireland.  The farm, however, had accrued many debts and so, like many others, he began petitioning the Colonial Office for a position, drawing on the strings of patronage at his disposal.  He had been a JP in Ireland for many years and it was this combination of legal administrative experience and his military training that led to his appointment as a Special Magistrate in Barbados, and later St Vincent.  In this regard he was unusual: many Special Magistrates had the military background but very few had acted as magistrates before.  His family did not accompany him, and his wife and daughter stayed with her cousin. Despite his attempts to retrieve the financial situation for his family, they lost the farm soon after his return to Ireland.

Colthurst proclaimed himself to be an abolitionist, but he was able to reconcile this philosophy with his role as one of the functionaries of the Apprenticeship system. He seems to have seen the Apprenticeship as a temporary measure that needed to work as a preparation for freedom on both sides- both planter and apprentice-  and believed that it would stand as a good example for other nations contemplating the abolition of slavery.  He was certainly critical of many of the plantation managers and their treatment of Apprentices, although this seemed to stem largely from his dislike of ‘low-bred’ creoles (ie. Europeans born in the West Indies). Nonetheless,  he continued to argue that a period of adjustment was beneficial and indeed necessary to induce plantation-owners to relinquish their slave property.

In 1837, agitation against the Apprenticeship system was ramping up in England, and the radical abolitionist Joseph Sturge released a critique of the Apprenticeship system, which received a great deal of publicity amongst abolitionsts in London. Over in the West Indies,  Colthurst found himself springing to the defence of Special Magistrates and their role, and decrying Sturge’s information-gathering techniques and one-sided report.

Colthurst was probably one of the better Special Magistrates.  He was  well-informed about agriculture and police administration, and took an interest in the religious and educational provision of the apprentices.  He was careful not to become too embroiled socially with the planters, preferring to maintain his contacts with the governors instead.  Of course, this shapes his narrative as well.

On his return to Britain, he realized that there was a market for literature about the West Indies – for example, Mrs Carmichael’s work that I reviewed here and the eyewitness reports submitted home by abolitionists and planters as part of the public discourse about abolition.   Through (and despite?) his involvement in the Apprenticeship system at the time, he became increasingly involved in abolition movements on his return, most particularly those agitating against the continuation of American slavery.  He rewrote his memoirs into the form they are found in this book, in five separate volumes and forwarded them to leading abolitionists in the hope that they might be published.  They were, but not as a stand-alone publication, being extracted for newspaper publication instead.  Only four of these volumes exist today in the Boston Public Library, and the fifth volume has been reconstructed by the editor from columns that were republished in abolition newspapers.

Marshall’s introductory chapters to the journal are informative, and his annotations throughout the book are useful and insightful, providing information that Colthurst could not have known at the time, and challenging some of Colthurst’s observations.  Colthurst’s writing is of its time, but he certainly provides a wealth of information about the role of the special magistrate in a short-lived experiment of policy.

‘Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies’ by W. L. Burn


If you had placed this book into a shiny new coloured cover, I would never have picked it for being written in 1937.  It has all the things that I look for in histories that are being written around me today:   exploration of big themes through grounded, personalized examples; a sense of place;  careful attention to detail through the sources; an attempt to step up out of those same sources into a more literary style; decisiveness in coming to a pithy conclusion,  and a judicious use of the presence of the historian him/herself as researcher and commentator.

It’s also a book that attracts my interest as a politically engaged citizen concerned about what a former Prime Minister described as “the greatest moral challenge” of our time- climate change.  In reading about the abolition of slavery I’ve been again and again reminded of the parallels between the two.  Both climate change and the abolition of slavery involve/d self-inflicted economic pain for a higher long-term purpose; both involve/d  well-organized pressure groups with powerful media access; both provoke/d  fears that international competitiveness would be hampered; both campaigns stretch/ed out  over decades.  It may well be that climate change policy, like abolition, may have to accept a compromised ‘solution’  in the short-term as part of a bigger, long-term picture- although of course, in climate change  the earth and the systems of its climate will follow their own trajectory, whatever the politics.  In the case of the abolition of slavery, the compromise was the Apprenticeship System.  Continue reading

‘The Long Song’ by Andrea Levy


2010, 310 p.

After reading the very dissatisfying, Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question, I mused that if that won the prize, then the rest of the 2010 Shortlist must have been duds.  Not so.  Andrea Levy’s The Long Song is much the better book, and unlike Finkler, which I am sure will sink into literary oblivion, it’s an important book as well.

Levy’s earlier book Small Island, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Orange Prize in 2004-5  is an important book too, in terms of framing and claiming British West Indian identity in modern Britain.  The Long Song follows in this tradition, but takes a step further back to early 19th century Apprentice-Era Jamaica.   For us, in our policy-comprised times, it’s an interesting era:  the Apprenticeship scheme was a political ‘fix’ that ostensibly abolished slavery in British colonies by introducing ‘slavery-lite’.  The Apprenticeship System, as it was known, transformed former slaves into compulsory ‘apprentices’ who would work set hours on their former masters’ plantations for six years (although as it happened, the apprenticeship period ended earlier than that).   It was a highly unpopular measure, strong-armed into legislation by the British government using the stick of executive action if the colonies didn’t create their own enabling legislation locally , and the carrot of ‘compensation’ payments that flowed, not to the slaves, but to the proprietors of the plantations.  But it did very little to change the basic  relations between masters who were able to leverage power through rents and working hours, and their ‘apprentices’ whose ‘freedom’ consisted of merely a quarter of their own time.

Levy uses an interesting structure for this book.  The fly-leaf opens with an explanation:

You do not know me yet but I am the narrator of this work.  My son Thomas, who is printing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages.  As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.

The narrator, July, was born in Jamaica, the daughter of a field slave Kitty as the result of a rape by an overseer.  July was taken from her mother by Caroline Mortimer, a white woman from the ‘big house’ on the plantation and renamed ‘Marguerite’.  The pattern of forced sex and maternal loss continued into the next generation.  July’s son, Thomas, learned his trade in Britain after July left him as an infant on the minister’s doorstep.  That same Thomas,  Jamaican publisher-editor in 1898,  then writes his own foreword:

The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving.  My mama had a story- a story that lay so far within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son.  Her intention was that, once knowing the tales, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters.  And so it would go on….

I explained to my dear mama, once spoken these precious words of hers would be lost to all but my ears.  If, though, committed to a very thin volume, I could peruse her tale at my leisure and no word would be lost when my fickle mind strayed to some other purpose.  And better, for the excess books which would be produced from the press could be given for sale, taken around the island so others, far and wide, might delight in her careful narration…

…So I was able to assure my precious mama that I would be her most conscientious editor.  I would raise life out of her most crabbed script to make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language.  And there was no shame to be felt from this assistance, for at some of the best publishing houses in Britain- let me cite Thomas Nelson and Son, or Hodder and Stoughton, as my example- the gentle aiding and abetting of authors in this manner is quite common place.

And so the book is the gentle, good natured to-and-fro of mother and son, jointly constructing the story: the mother July with her humour and resilience;  the editor son with his careful, somewhat stilted prose.  I loved it when July’s voice took up the story again, as if a nudge to remind me that it is her story after all.  And all the pomposity of Thomas’ voice would drop away, at times, when the sheer humanity of the story became overwhelming.  It’s wonderful, well-sustained writing.

The energy  and inventiveness of  Levy’s  narrative voice obscures the fact that this deceptively-easy book is actually very well researched indeed.  In her acknowledgments she lists the historians and other writers who have assisted her, and a list of 16 sources, both primary and secondary, that she drew upon in writing this book.   I’ve read several of them myself, and when I see their traces  here, and the use she has made of them,  it only increases my admiration for the fictional power of this book.

Take, for example, this description of the manuring process as part of plantation production, from Burn’ s very good  history Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies:

When the holes had been prepared manure was placed in them and on top of the manure a few shovelfuls of light mould. (p. 42).

And here is Levy:

Some of this mess is taken from the pen to be shovelled into baskets and slung either side of a mule.  The mule then, unaware of the load it carries, trots off as happy with this weight as with any other.  But the wicker dung-baskets- overflowing and spilling- that Kitty carried to the cane pieces of Dover, Virgo, or even as far as Scarlett Pondes, were borne in the way of most slave-burdens, upon her head.  The weight was no sufferance, for Kitty could carry much heavier, much further.  Come, it is true, the smell would see our white missus faint clean away with just one sniff.  But the Lord, in making the nose, fashioned a shrewd organ; although so renk that upon Kitty’s first breaths the solid odour did choke her at the throat, after mighty cough and a few strong inhalations, all the air about Kitty, be it sweet or bitter, came to smell like shit, so the offence was lost… And if this dung did find its way into her eyes- for the brown juice from this waste matter did ooze through the weave of the basket to slipslide all down Kitty’s face- then, oh! Its sting did well up such tears as to leave her blind (p. 123).

I think that Levy’s book exemplifies all the good in historical fiction:  lightly worn research;  fidelity to the voice and perspective of primary sources (with all their flaws);  characters and dialogue bounded by and consistent with knowledge at the time;  a plausible plot, and imagination and creativity in its narrative framing.  As for the Booker?  Levy was robbed.

‘Domestic manners and social conditions of the white, coloured and negro population of the West Indies’ by Mrs. A. C. Carmichael (1833)

2 volumes, 1833 available through the Internet Archive

What a silly sausage I am! Here I was, rejoicing at the cessation of slavery in the West Indies in 1834 but I need not have worried.  Why, slaves received a weekly allowance, a home, they were fed, their clothes were washed and mended, they received free medical care and their children need not be a burden to them! They ate well from their own allotments and if they dressed in rags in the fields- well! they had plenty of rich, colourful clothes at home! They looked forward to the sugar harvesting time and the boiling-house, instead of being a satanic hell-hole was instead a scene of great merriment with young and old gathering there, singing songs, telling jokes, sitting down enjoying themselves, roasting and eating yams and plantains.  Who wouldn’t want to be a slave?

Well, that’s the way that Mrs A. C. Carmichael tells it, anyway.  This two-volume book was published in 1833, eight years before her Tales of a Grandmother that I reviewed earlier.  This is in effect the ‘grown-up’ version of her later children’s book: I find myself wondering at a world where there was a perceived need for a children’s pro-slavery tract.

So who was this Mrs Carmichael?  According to a very interesting article by Karina Williamson, published in the International Journal of Scottish Literature in 2008 (see here) she was Alison Charles Stewart who migrated to the West Indies with her two young daughters to live on the plantation owned by her husband John Wilson Carmichael, who had been assigned to St Vincent with the 53rd regiment in the 1790s.  He had married his first wife in St Vincent and became an absentee proprietor when he returned to England.  He was considerably older than Mrs Carmichael, and had two daughters from his first marriage.  Mrs Carmichael was married in Edinburgh, where she lived prior to her shift to the West Indies and on her return ‘home’, she spent the rest of her long life as an expatriate Scot in England or the Channel Islands.

Although the title of the book suggests that it will deal with the white, coloured and negro races of the West Indies, in fact it deals only with St Vincent and Trinidad, with a very heavy preponderance of attention paid to the negro races. However, she says, her observations are “applicable to many, and in a great degree to all the West India colonies” (p. 15) because the “negro character is the same” and

…the circumstances in which the white and black population are relatively placed- their respective occupations; their interests; the climate- are all so similar, that no very marked dissimilarity can exist in the character and conduct of the population of the different islands (p. 15)

Although clearly written for a ‘home’-based readership, apparently the book  came to be viewed with suspicion in the West Indies itself for its inaccuracies and misrepresentations.  Williamson cites an English traveller in the 1840s and 50s who tried to find a copy in the West Indies so that he could read it on the spot, as it were:

Throughout the islands that I have as yet visited, she is denounced continually by some mendacious epithet or other, and even her own relations, both in Trinidad and in St. Vincent, disclaim connection with her, asserting that she was notorious in her own family for habitually not speaking the truth. Whenever I endeavoured to borrow her book, some excuse was made to prevent my seeing it—‘It was mislaid,’ or ‘lost,’ or ‘destroyed,’ and never forthcoming.[…] At last I obtained a loan of it from a nearly white young man, who, however, did not fail to caution me that it was ‘full of lies.’[Charles William Day, Five Years’ Residence in the West Indies, 2 vols. (London: Colburn and Co., 1852), I, p. 129.]

The book was written with the clear intent to rebut the abolitionist rhetoric about slavery circulating in England, and is best regarded in that light.  Hence the heavy emphasis on the ignorance of English commentators, the great progress that had been made in ameliorating the conditions of the slaves, the unreadiness of the slaves for emancipation, and their happiness with conditions as they were.  It is very much a book of its time, written for a particular political purpose, and it comes across to a modern reader as a missive from a discombobulating  parallel universe.

Additional reference: Karina Williamson ‘Mrs Carmichael A Scotswoman in the West Indies’ International Journal of  Scottish Literature Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2008.

‘Tales of a Grandmother’ by Mrs A. C. Carmichael (1841)

It was Christmas Eve, and twelve-year old Maria and her 22 year old brother Frederick Manners were sitting by the blazing fire with their parents and their grandparents who were visiting from Devonshire.

“How I do wish my grandmama would tell me how many Christmases she can recollect- that would be a story worth hearing!”

“Indeed it would,” said Frederick… and instantly there was a joint petition uttered “that grandmama would tell them all she could recollect of herself, from the first Christmas she could remember, up to the present one”

Well, give me the Christmas Day Queen’s Message and the X-box anyday!  Grandmama didn’t need much encouragement to launch into this long, didactic exposition of her childhood Christmases, heavily larded with Good Christian Precepts and Useful Knowledge, prompted by earnest questions about plants, climate and geography raised by these smarmy children.  I had quite an urge to tip Grandmama and her rocking chair into the blazing fire and toss in her snotty grandchildren after her.

In spite of this, however, it was a rather engaging way to read of  nineteenth-century West Indian life, which was of course the reason for me reading the book in the first place.  Young Grandmama spent about nine years in St Vincent in the West Indies on a plantation, before returning to England impoverished as the result of the perfidy of their white plantation-owning West Indian neighbours.  The book is imbued with   a strong pro-slavery flavour: she refers to ‘our negroes’ as a cheerful, singing lot, reserving the s-(lave) word only for the avaricious plantation managers who took advantage of their financial misfortune to break up the happy menage.  Grandmama is severely critical of the irresponsible Harris family on the neighbouring plantation, who allowed their daughters to run wild with the expectation of sending them back to England to polish them off for marriage, and whose double-dealing placed Grandmama and her family at the mercy of merchants and their attorneys back ‘home’.  The book fleshed out for me the social life of the white plantation elite and the financial arrangements between the metropolitan merchants and the colonial plantation owners.  Despite the clunkiness and smarmyness of the children’s questions (“What’s a calibash, Grandmama?”) I learned probably more than I wanted to about West Indian plant life and geography, and in a relatively painless fashion.

This book lurks in the depths of the Internet Archive and is available here should you crave some worthy, educational mid-Victorian story-telling from Grandmama.

‘The West Indies and the Development of Colonial Government 1801-1834’ by D. J. Murray

Colonial government comprises particular institutions; it also comprises the relationships between the parts  (p.xi)

Many books on colonial constitutional history focus on the structures of government- The Colonial Office, the Governor, the Executive and Legislative Councils and Legislative Assemblies (if they existed) but  instead of looking at them from a centralized organizational viewpoint, this book looks at these institutions in terms of the relationships between them.  By addressing   the period around the Napoleonic Wars and ending with the abolition of slavery, the empire he describes was expanded by the incorporation of ‘foreign’ colonies previously owned by French, Spanish and Dutch governments which had their own practices and structures of government.  This put the ‘British’ empire into an interesting position.  Although there was an influx of British plantation-owners into these newly-acquired colonies, it suited the local colonists’ purposes that the locus of control should rest in the colony itself rather than in Whitehall, and the old ‘foreign’ system of government was better placed to provide this.  At the same time, following the loss of the American colonies, the British Government steadfastly asserted its right to impose policy (although not taxation) from the centre while repeatedly demonstrating its unwillingness to actually exercise it.  This book explores the nuances of this delicate dance of colonial diplomacy which made good use of the hiatus in communications forced by distance to ensure that, as far as the government of the sugar colonies was concerned, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.  Hence, the British government would pass legislation that required matching colonial legislation in order to come into operation: the colonies would stonewall: the British government would wait, and give another chance for the colonial power-groups to ‘do the right thing’- and round and round it would go, with both sides benefitting from this mutual squeamishness about really pushing the issue.

However,  the rise of the anti-slavery lobby in Britain in the late 18th- early 19th century disrupted this coy and mutually-beneficial relationship.  There had only been slow progress on the ‘amelioration’ of slavery by actions on the ground in the colonies.  From about 1810-1830 there had been a lapse of attention on the question of slavery prompted by a change of personnel in the anti-slavery ranks and the distracting influence of other events like economic depression,  the Test and Corporation Act and Catholic Emancipation.  But by the 1830s attention turned again to West Indian slavery, and by this time the Colonial Office itself had transformed itself, largely through the influence of James Stephen, into a more professional and methodical organization.  However, by this time there were two conflicting opinions at play: first, the belief that colonies should be governed under a representative system; and second and conversely, that  representative government could not be granted to post-emancipation societies because colonial elites would ensure that power remained in their own hands.

Although the book is focussed on the West Indies, its canvas is actually much broader than this, and extends to the 19th century British Empire more generally.  It examines carefully the structural changes in the Colonial Office in terms of its place within the British government and the roles of parliamentarians and civil servants as individuals with their own skills and political imperatives.  It explores the co-existence of James Stephens’ more liberal emphasis on bureaucracy and methods, with his colleague Sir Henry Taylor’s more authoritarian and interventionist approach that led to the imposition of Crown Colony government into all the West India colonies excluding Barbados over the next fifty years .  It concludes that during the mid 1830s, despite impressions to the contrary, the British government relinquished the initiative in colonial government, becoming merely reactive to the decisions made in the colonies by colonial officials and colonists about how government was to be conducted.

As a result, while the system of executing business in the Colonial Office assumed that one form of government should exist in the colonies, the government which was eventually introduced was founded on the contrary principle and assumed that constructive government would be promoted- if at all- from the Colonial Government.  In colonial government as it related to the West India colonies, the Colonial Office and the institutions in the colonies were each to be organized on the assumption that the initiative in colonial government would stem from the other (p.232)

‘British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834’ by J. R. Ward

1988, 279 p & notes

I have sometimes heard parallels drawn between action on climate change today and the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. There is a limit to how far one can push the analogy because the physical science of climate change has its own inexorable reality, unlike a human-created social and political system like slavery.  But both climate change and abolition policy face/d common challenges: the perceived threat to the whole economic structure of the day, the Parliamentary influence of lobby groups and reference to moral underpinnings that are/were derided by opponents more concerned about the economic impact.  They also have/had in common the argument that accepted that change had to occur up to a point, but that improvement could improve gradually and willingly as long as it is not forced by government or external bodies.

This was the argument mounted by British West Indian plantation owners, both in the West Indies and through their Parliamentary lobby groups in the UK.  The initial prohibition of slave-trading was hoped to improve conditions for slaves because if slave numbers could no longer be replenished by a seemingly never-ending supply from Africa, then slave owners would need to look after the slaves they already had more carefully.  New regulations introduced during the 1820s were intended to increase the  oversight of plantation conditions and to reduce the most egregious examples of cruelty and mistreatment.  Just leave us alone, the planters said, and we will make improvements ourselves.

Slavery might be disagreeable, but its character was steadily improving and would continue to do so if the colonies were spared outside interference.  Eventually the institution would melt away, just as it had done in England (p. 2)

This book examines the planters’ argument that “amelioration”  of slave conditions pre-empted the need for outright abolition.  The author draws on the plantation records of a number of different British slave-owning families, many  of whom were absentee owners whose plantations were managed by overseers who needed to report ‘home’. By drawing on a wide range of records, he is able to trace changes over time from the seventeenth through to nineteenth centuries, and across different slave colonies.  In particular, he distinguishes between the “old” sugar colonies where the soil was often depleted and profits were falling, and the newer colonies like  British Guiana which were able to benefit from technological developments and a different geography.

This is a strongly economic book, replete with statistics and tables, generating a “balance sheet” on the effect of amelioration, and later abolition.  As a more socially- and culturally- attuned historian, I found such an abstract treatment of human beings rather distressing and compromising: as if I was almost complicit in a balance-sheet approach.  I was more attracted to the moments when the human experience broke through- like, for example, the observation that in the 1780s two-and three-year olds were sent out into the fields alone to gather grass, but that increasingly the children were brought to the house for their lunchtime meal so that their health could be observed and to foster feelings of gratitude and respect.  Or, for example, the observation that horsebeans as a source of food gradually reduced during the 18th century, which was a thoroughly good thing. They required a great deal of boiling, and often slaves lacked the time, energy or even sufficient water to do this properly, and so ate them raw.  “Like a negro’s T— that ate horse-beans” was a simile that came naturally to a planter when discussing some poorly made sugar (p.21).  But example and anecdote, for all the richness they provide, can only take you so far.  In the end, just as with climate change debate, you need hard data rather than emotion.

And so, looking at the hard-data, shorn of the babies in the fields and the horse-beans, did amelioration work?  Yes, to a point, Ward argues.  The measured output per head of the population grew as rapidly on the sugar estates as it did among industrial workers in Britain, but not markedly more.  This growth in productive efficiency was accompanied by a marked improvement in the slaves’ material state, which in many ways was no worse than that of industrial labourers in British cities.   However, although death rates among slaves declined, there was not a corresponding rise in the birth rate until the abolition of slavery and the shift away from the plantation sugar economy.

So why did this improvement not come to the notice of the abolitionists in England?

First, it was largely an invisible improvement, gained by degrees and without the shiny, visibly new products of the industrial revolution in Britain.  Second, although there was demographic evidence that pointed to the effectiveness of amelioration, this same evidence could just as easily embarrass the slaveholders because it highlighted that it was sugar production, in and of itself, that prompted the low birth rate.  Third, planters could hardly crow about the improvements in their profitability brought about by amelioration when they were at the same time agitating for a reduction in their tax burden as the price of sugar fell.  Finally, the preponderance of lobbyists for Jamaican plantation owners was not a good look, as Jamaica had a particularly negative death:birth ratio and was a declining sugar industry in any event.

Ward suggests that the abolition of slavery in British colonies was a strong, landmark decision with which to inaugurate the new Parliament, elected under the new conditions of the Reform Bill.

So far as working planters were concerned, amelioration provided a means to reinforce slavery, by making it function more efficiently.  For humanitarians in the mother country, however, amelioration was a step towards a higher social state, undermining basic principles of racial authority and subordination…The nineteenth-century slave, however well maintained and lightly worked by earlier standards, was still a slave, liable to arbitrary punishment, likely to be denied Christian instruction and marriage.  Faced with such abuses, a moral cause could not be satisfied for long merely by further adjustments to the details of plantation life. (p. 276)

‘The Caribbean’ by Gad Heuman

2006, 184 p. & notes

This is the second short history of the West Indies that I have read- so any comments I make about this book will be in reference to a grand total of TWO books!  However, reading two similar books within a short period of time does allow some comparisons to be made, and the very act of comparison highlights the differences in approaches that can be utilized in writing a short history.

This book forms part of a “Brief Histories” series published under the Hodder Education umbrella. Other books in the series cover Modern Greece, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe 1939-2000. I strongly suspect that it has been written as an undergraduate introductory text by its layout, level of generality and in the reference section which is divided at a chapter level into primary and secondary sources.

The Perry, Sherlock and Maingot book that I reviewed earlier focused on  political and economic forces, particularly those emanating from Europe, and their effect on the West Indies.  They highlighted the island nature of the West Indies, and heavily emphasized the maritime nature of the West Indian economy, and the place of the Caribbean within the jostling for naval supremacy between empires.   This book is almost a polar opposite.  It focuses on the topography of land on these islands, rather than the seas that separate them, and is largely a social history of the plantation system and the slave and coloured community that arose in response.

It is, of course, a far more recent book than Perry et al , which came out in first edition in 1956.  Recent scholarship is reflected in Heuman’s book in terms of indigenous people, resistance, agency and women. He devotes a chapter to  the Tainos people, the Amerindian people who moved to the Caribbean c 2000 BC to establish a relatively sophisticated, hierarchical agricultural society- a group largely dismissed in a couple of pages in Parry et al’s book.  Heuman highlights the resistance to plantation conditions and the apprenticeship system conceded grudgingly in the wake of the abolition of slavery, especially among women.  This book explores the nuances of colour, especially among the Free Coloureds who, despite the legal equality with whites  granted just prior to the abolition of slavery, always found the social and economic  line between slave and coloured more permeable than that between coloured and white.

The book does not have a strict chronological order, and it takes the Caribbean as a whole rather than carving out separate French, Spanish and Dutch spheres of influence.  As Heuman notes in the preface:

All these territories have experienced similar histories of slavery, colonialism and exploitation and share a common history, despite their linguistic cultural and geographic differences (p. xii)

He argues that although they developed at different times and under different European powers, slave societies in the Caribbean followed a similar trajectory.  What happened in Barbados was repeated in Jamaica and Saint Domingue (Haiti) in the 18th century, and Cuba and Puerto Rico in the 19th century.  Likewise, the planter class structure was largely replicated across different settings, despite the different nationalities represented.

Slavery, emancipation, resistance and revolution take up the body of the work, and form the narrative skeleton of the book.  I must admit to skim reading the latter parts of the book dealing with the twentieth century,  which  in terms of page numbers alone is less detailed than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The book draws on primary sources and visual representations as a way of providing a far more human perspective than Parry et al’s book.  It does not particularly engage with the historiography of the Caribbean, beyond the fairly recent challenge to Eric Williams’ reappraisal of slavery and abolition through his Capitalism and Slavery published in 1944.

There are only limited footnotes in each chapter, although a ‘further reading’ list is provided at chapter level as well as a more general bibliography.  And it has a beautiful, clear, well-labelled map!

‘The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850’ by P.C.Emmer

2006, 153 p. & notes. Translated by Chris Emery.

One of the things that surprised me when looking at the history of slavery in the West Indies (and the map of Caribbean slavery I showed in a recent blogpost) was the involvement of  countries that I don’t readily associate with slavery or the West Indies for that matter-  Sweden and Denmark for example.  I was aware of the English, French and Spanish involvement, the long classical history of slavery, and the participation of Africans themselves, but I didn’t think of Scandinavian countries  which somehow seem so ‘white’ and Northern European.

In reading this book, it seems however, that the Dutch people themselves do not suffer any widespread moral malaise about slavery. As the author, P.C. Emmer of Leiden University writes:

The Netherlands was clearly guilty. Between 1600 and 1860, almost without exception, the Dutch allowed Africans to be bought and traded, and they would never have treated each other or any other Europeans in such a way.  Admittedly they share that guilt with some of their Europeans neighbours.  But, if we start from the premise that the Dutch, both past and present, see their country not just as any country but as a particularly moral and principled oasis in the middle of a wicked world, then their guilt has surely incurred a debt of honour. (p. 147)

This slim book examines the Dutch slave trade as a historical event, but the book itself is firmly located within the current historiography that deals with memory, commemoration and reparation.  In his foreword, the author mentions:

Incidentally, several scholarly observations about the slave trade have aroused high emotions in the past, as indeed have some conclusions in this book.  Twenty years ago I had to climb onto a table to make myself heard among students, who accused me of falsifying history and of being a reactionary and a racist. (p. ix)

In reading this book, I was reminded of the response to John Hirst’s Convict Society and its Enemies, a similarly punchy book.  Hirst argued that right from the planning stages of the First Fleet there were slippages in the intent and practice of New South Wales as a penal colony, and that the system had freedoms and rights designed into it from the start.  It’s a prickly argument to run: Hirst admitted that there were cases of brutality, but that the extreme had become seen as the norm, and that the historical record of a more prosaic, adaptable system had been obscured.   Likewise in this book, Emmer clearly states that slavery was wrong, but that it was never as large, politically influential, or financially lucrative as in other European countries.  For both historians, the major point is conceded, and rather than spending time reiterating it, the argument moves to the nuances of a more complex treatment.  It’s not so much down-playing, as moving to a different line of argument, but their opponents might see this as dismissal or special pleading.

Emmer points out that the Dutch used few slaves on their own holdings in the Dutch Antilles, which were not suited to large-scale plantation agriculture, or in what was to become New York. They first became involved supplying slaves, purchased in Africa from African slave traders, for the Spanish gold and silver mines, but this expanded over time to a market in supplying slaves sourced from the African slave-traders for the Dutch plantation colonies of Berbice, Essequibo, Demerara and Suriname.  The first three of these were later to become British Guiana in the territorial merry-go-round after the Napoleonic Wars (and hence my interest in them).

The middle part of this small book focuses on the trade itself: the crossing from Africa to the West Indies, then the nature of plantation slavery in the Dutch colonies.   However, unlike the English and French colonies, the West India Company and Dutch plantations were not profit-making enterprises, and formed only a marginal part of Dutch commerce.  When the end of slavery came, it was with a whimper because the trade itself was unsuccessful, and any reparations to slave-owners were easily covered by a system of forced-farming in Java, where villages were forced to pay a tax of coffee and sugar, thereby bolstering the coffers of the treasury in the Netherlands.

The relative economic insignificance of slavery to the Dutch economy (especially compared with the English situation) raises the question of why the Netherlands did not take a strong lead in the abolition of the slave trade, and then slavery itself.  The reality is that slavery did not end in the Dutch colonies until 1863, long after the other slave-trading European countries had done so, and that it was only English pressure that led to half-hearted acquiescence to the abolition of the slave trade in the early 19th century.  Emmer attributes this to a defensiveness on the part of Dutch politicians, who did not share the English openness to change but instead adopted a shield of conservatism and self-preservation.

Emmer locates the slave trade among other ‘debts of honour’ that the Netherlands owe- a phrase that he thinks particularly apposite given the Dutch emphasis on finance. These debts revolve around treatment of Dutch Jews during WWII; about actions in Indonesia; and the Dutch slave colonies.  He raises a number of difficulties to the question of reparations, but suggests instead that 1 July should be commemorated as the date in 1863 when slavery was finally abolished in Dutch colonies.

I have no idea how the politics of this plays out in the Netherlands, and how and if the situation has been complicated by the increase in far-right politics in Europe.  You can find a good review of this book, and Emmer’s response to the review at Reviews in History.     There’s also an article available here online that gives a taste of Emmer’s approach.

‘A Short History of the West Indies’ by J.H.Parry, P.M. Sherlock and A. P. Maingot

1987, 306 p.

One of the things that I love about doing my thesis on the colonial career of a 19th century judge- and yes, I did just (still?) use the word ‘love’- is that it has taken me to three and a half very different colonial settings in my research.  [Three and a half because Port Phillip was officially part of New South Wales, but I see it as a qualitatively different type of society to Sydney.]  The self-imposed need to knuckle down to start to write thematically has prodded me to turn to the West Indian aspect of my judge’s career- and so, where to start other than a Short History of the West Indies?

In 1968 the New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair wrote a cheekily-titled article called “On Writing Shist”.  No, it’s not a typo- ‘Shist’ is an abbreviation for “Short History”: all countries have them (often with “Short History” in the title), and many eminent historians tackle them.  Even though, as Keith Sinclair points out, a short history is written for an “educated non-specialist”, the reality is that often they’re read by people wanting an overview of their own history, and especially by other historians coolly interested to see how their colleagues, already known by their other work, tackle the task.  It’s a quite different readership when the reader is a complete outsider who knows very little about the topic beyond a vague idea of the country being “over there somewhere”.

For this reason, it’s a good thing for a Short History to have a map or two. In this regard A Short History of the West Indies  fails dismally with not one single, solitary clear map beyond a picture of an antique map as artefact that was illegible.  I found myself craving a good series of historical maps showing which European nation owned what, which port towns were important when, and how and when locations changed their names.  Thank heavens for Lord Wikipedia, which provided this fascinating animated map here.  I am embarrassed to confess how long I spent, playing this over and over, watching islands swapping from one nationality to another, and moving in and out of significance. (How clever- it seems to run by itself!)


Keith Sinclair described  Shist as a “summary interpretation of a topic, intended to make it understandable… an extended kind of explanation”.  In such a book, facts form a “very thin hard skeleton…[ selected]… in relation to the pattern of the whole book”.  The tag cloud in the Google books description is quite pertinent here because it emphasizes that the book is largely concerned with places (Jamaica, Cuba etc) rather than people or events.  The book is arranged chronologically, as you might expect, and as the first edition was published in 1956, it would appear to have had extra chapters added as it spawned its second edition in 1963, third in 1971 and this final one in 1987.   Given that the book has been reprinted so many times with 16 reprints and 4 editions, it has been disconcerting and rather confidence-sapping to find so many typographical and date errors in the text.

In a Shist, Sinclair said, the problem is not so much what to include, but what to leave out.  Themes are established, dropped, and picked up again.  Authors have to deal with the twin narrative problems of shape “the over-all pattern of ideas, facts and prose, woven into a unity” and span- “how one chapter, one hill, will roll gently into the next.  How to present, now and again, an unexpected or dramatic vista”.

In this regard, what I gleaned from this book- which may or not be what the authors intended, and may or may not be what someone more familiar with the topic might detect- is first, that West Indian history didn’t really begin until the fifteenth century. The indigenous Arawak people are dispensed with in a couple of pages. Second, that this is very much a sea-based history, both in terms of the geographic sprinkling of islands across the West Indian basin, as well as in the maritime prowess of the European powers that plied their influence there. Third, that the history of the West Indies is completely wound up in the machinations of these European powers- the Dutch, the Spanish, the French and the English- and their wars, treaties and truces.  Fourth, that the monoculture crop of sugar profoundly affected the history of the region as a whole in terms of slavery, social structure and power relationships and the economy.  Fifth, that a history of the West Indies needs to be seen within the context of U.S. history of power. Sixth, that even though the islands tended to see themselves in a closed loop tied to their metropolitan power, it is important to look across these different historical metropolitan affiliations to see the rhythm and pace of change across the region as a whole.

I don’t know enough to detect what is new or different in this short history compared with others that have been written before and since. Nonetheless, it had me thoroughly engrossed, with many ‘aha!’s as the pieces fell into place, especially in regard to the Dutch influence in European history.  I note that the authors describe the slave rebellions in Haiti, Jamaica and St Vincent as “The Second war of American Independence”.  I liked their use of the cassia tree as an emblem for West Indian history following emancipation- the leaves and bark are lost, then suddenly it bursts into golden flower.

I suspect that the maritime emphasis reflected the enthusiasms of the historian J.H. Parry in particular, and that there is a political thread running through the commentary on seeing the region as a whole, and on the relationship with the United States.  It is probably a history of its time in terms of the sidelining of indigenous history and women. This is a history of big powers and big forces, rather than individuals. I’m full of enthusiasm to wade further into the mud flats of British Guiana history!


J. H. Parry, Philip Sherlock and Anthony Maingot  A Short History of the West Indies London, Macmillan, 1987 (4th edition)

Keith Sinclair ‘On writing Shist’ Historical Studies, Vol 13 No. 51, 1968 pp.426-432