‘Devoted Islands’ and ‘That Madman Wilberforce’

The debate about the reform and dismantling of the British-Atlantic slave system, which began in earnest during the 1780s, threatened more than the economic interests of the British-Caribbean planter class. The rise of humanitarianism was one aspect of a new mode of British imperialism that also challenged slaveholders’ self-image as loyal and free members of an extended British world. Questions of national identity, patriotism and the British constitution were central to the trans-imperial controversy over slavery. Private letters and contributions to public debates demonstrate that proslavery reactions to abolitionism were deeply rooted in a set of assumptions about the symbiotic relationship between colony and metropole, in which white slaveholders in the West Indies helped to prop up prosperity and order throughout the transatlantic British world. Slaveholders claimed that reforms to the slave system were dangerous acts of betrayal and affronts to their status as freeborn Britons. Focusing on these issues sheds fresh light not only on the abolition debate and late-eighteenth century tensions about the future of the empire, but also on the broader theme of imperial conflicts over settler rights and white colonists’ claims to British liberties. Click here

‘Home’ and ‘This Country’

This article uses a case study of the transatlantic correspondence of Simon Taylor, a wealthy Jamaican planter, to examine the cultural identity of slaveholders in the British Caribbean at the end of the long eighteenth century. White settlers in the Americas faced metropolitan criticisms from as early as the seventeenth century. These became more pronounced in the period after the American Revolution with the development of an organised British anti-slavery campaign. Opponents of the planters claimed white West Indians lacked self-control and that they exhibited characteristics of excessive ostentation, cruelty and sensuality. In his letters, Taylor tried to avoid discussion of those aspects of his life that might attract censure, such as his long-term sexual relations with women of colour and his daily involvement with slavery. He wished others to consider him as a transplanted Briton and downplayed the distinctively local, or Creole, features of his life, presenting himself in his letters as an industrious, self-restrained and loyal colonist. Taylor’s letters highlight the anxieties of white slaveholders in the Caribbean, who worried about how their Creole lives in a distant slave society would affect their status as Britons. This evidence illustrates the importance of national belonging to such colonists. They fashioned a distinctively colonial British identity, seeking metropolitan acceptance as useful subjects of an extended British world, and these features of their worldview fed into the unsuccessful pro-slavery campaigns of the period. Click here

‘Legitimacy’ and Social Boundaries

This article explores relations between free people of colour and white men in early nineteenth-century Jamaica. Using evidence from wills and other contemporary sources, it considers the types of bequests that white slaveholders made to free people of colour and to white people. In a slave society divided by racialized boundaries of rule, slaveholders’ liaisons with non-white concubines and the existence of mixed-race children had the potential to undermine the local social order. However, slaveholders sought to limit the wealth of nonwhites and did not recognize mixed-race children as their legitimate heirs. Therefore, free people of colour gained only limited benefits from their relations with white men. While free non-whites frequently received bequests of land, personal property and slaves from white testators, the main beneficiaries of slaveholders’ wills were almost always white men. These practices kept wealth mainly in the hands of whites and perpetuated racialized boundaries of rule in Jamaica. However, they also led to the emergence of a relatively privileged coloured section of local society that became an important element in social and political life. Click here.