Livestock, Sugar and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica.
Livestock, Sugar and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica, by Verene A. Shepherd. Forgotten Histories of the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, 2009. xl, 279 pp. $44.95 US (cloth), $24.95 US (paper).
Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones, by Gary. Y. Okihiro. California World History Library series. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009. xiv, 255 pp. $24.95 US (cloth).
While both of these books could be categorized as plantation history, each contributes to the field by addressing topics that plantation historians tend to deemphasize. Verene Shepherd makes a strong case for the inclusion of livestock trade alongside the more familiar sugar plantations in the study of colonial Jamaica, while Gary Okihiro widens the scope of plantation study to look at the colonial origins and ideologieal underpinnings of concepts of modernity and exoticism through his exploration of the pineapple industry. Read together, these books are a cogent reminder of the complexity of the global plantation system, and of the importance of placing plantations in their broader contexts.
In a detailed study of livestock production in colonial Jamaica, Shepherd explores the role played by pens (livestock operations) in contesting and supporting the British sugar plantations, and their concomitant impacts on slavery and societal ranking in Jamaica. Central to her project is the question of whether the pens and their owners constituted the beginning of an economy or identity which was "Creole"--that is, focused more strongly on Jamaica than on the British metropole.
Despite the more usual focus on Jamaica's sugar plantations, pens have had a far longer history on the island, the first ones begun by Spanish colonists in the fifteenth century. The development by British colonists of sugar as Jamaica's main export, however, later proved to be both an asset and a liability for the livestock industry. As plantation owners purchased large estates, pen keepers found themselves competing for the fertile land that both industries needed. On the other hand, the plantations also provided the largest market for pens as they expanded livestock production, since plantation managers used cattle-powered mills to process sugar. The demand for working cattle was so great that the local pens were never able to entirely satisfy it, and additional livestock was imported from nearby Spanish colonies.
According to Shepherd, the Spanish trade was just one instance of a range of transactions that took place outside of Jamaica's colonial relationship with the British metropole. She argues that an understanding of these local transactions is important in discussing how and whether a Creole economy, centred on Jamaica itself, might have developed. In addition to the Spanish trade, trade within Jamaica was important particularly to pen keepers, who gained most of their income from the selling of livestock and the hiring out of pen slaves.
Although the pen-keeping economy can thus be viewed as locally focused in some sense, Shepherd questions whether pen keepers can be seen as the beginning of a coherent Creole society, with a distinctly Jamaican identity. Pen keepers were racially and socio-economically diverse, and may have had little in common beyond their occupations. Shepherd also questions whether the pen keeper class would have been interested in the development of a Creole society, or being identified as part of one. The social ranking system in colonial Jamaica prized whiteness, European birth, and sugar plantation ownership. As upwardly mobile individuals, pen keepers were interested in attaining the status of white European sugar barons, not developing a uniquely Jamaican identity. In fact, Shepherd points out that the inability of local pens to fill livestock demands may have been caused by the tendency of pen keepers to invest their capital in plantation ventures. Like other mixed race or European individuals in colonial Jamaica, the goal of the pen keepers was "not to belong to Jamaica" (p. 118). As such, it is not clear that their participation in a Creole economy indicates the development of a Creole class or society.
In addition to her contribution to the understanding of colonial Jamaican economy, Shepherd's book offers a fruitful intervention into the history of Jamaican slavery. She points out that, just as it is now acknowledged that the experiences of enslaved men and women differed from each other, so too did the experiences of slaves on pens differ from those on plantations. Pens had fewer overseers, and the work tended to be easier. Slaves on pens were also more likely to have access to resources such as provision grounds, and thereby were able to participate in the local economy. Although pen slaves were not, therefore, less likely than plantation slaves to rebel, Shepherd's research makes it clear that the two groups were perceived differently by elites, and were also affected differently by the apprenticeship system, which was designed to transition Jamaica from slavery to full emancipation.
Ultimately, Jamaica's historical trajectory does not seem to have differed significantly from those of surrounding plantation colonies, despite the preemancipation development of what might be termed a Creole economy. Shepherd explains this by pointing to the cultural similarities between colonies; all were dominated by elites who gained status by identifying with the metropole. The survival of pens post-emancipation, in contrast with the failure of the sugar plantations, indicates that the study of the livestock industry may still offer some insight into the present-day Jamaican economy. Shepherd's meticulously researched book should therefore be of interest to scholars interested in the past and present economies and cultures of Jamaica.
Although Okihiro, like Shepherd, uses the production of a particular commodity (in his case, pineapples) as a point of entry into plantation history, his focus is less on local economic impacts than on the ideological underpinnings of the tropical plantation system. The book begins by discussing the racial threat posed to white supremacy by the colonial system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The colonial economy circulated Europeans and native peoples, as well as goods, to and from the metropole, and this was the cause of considerable concern for Europeans. Okihiro traces racial theory from the environmental determinism espoused by Aristotle to the later belief that heredity determined racial characteristics. By the nineteenth century, theorists believed that moving to a new environment could not change one's racial characteristics (thus alleviating fears of white degeneration in the tropics, or native "civilization" in Europe), but continued to be anxious about race degeneration due to miscegenation. The policing of racial boundaries thus became essential to white supremacy and the colonial project.
Colonial concerns about the control of non-white races matched concerns about the control and cultivation of colonial ecosystems. The transport of seeds to and from newly claimed colonies, and the cultivation of New World species in gardens of the Old World elite, exhibited metropolitan mastery over exotic, "untamed," nature. Tropical medicine and scientific agriculture, as practiced on plantations, also promised to control and reshape the supposedly wild tropics into something more congenial to colonists. Pineapples were grown in Europe by elites, because of the expense of shipping them from the tropics, and they became symbols of conspicuous consumption and also the elite ability to "civilize" wild nature. As Okihiro shows, the pineapple's prestige was exhibited not only by the display of actual fruit, but also by the use of pineapple motifs on architecture and lace through the late nineteenth century.
As shipping methods became cheaper and more efficient, pineapple cultivation relocated from European hothouses to tropical plantations. Okihiro's account of post-contact Hawai'i and the development of the Dole Pineapple Plantation, which forms the crux of his book, highlights the political economy of nineteenth-century colonialism, and its role in producing and marketing the pineapple. Arriving after the illegal overthrow of Queen Lilioukalani, Hawai'i's last indigenous monarch, by American businessmen, James Dole joined a white elite which was beginning to establish plantations for industrial sugar cultivation. As in many other plantation contexts, the elite's ability to amass large swathes of land in Hawai'i stemmed from land "reform" laws which had already significantly disrupted Native Hawaiian life by the time Dole arrived. His plantations continued to cultivate, can, and market the exotic pineapple to United States consumers. Okihiro's exploration of pineapple advertisements in women's periodicals during the early twentieth century highlights women's role as primary consumers, and the presentation of canned pineapple as healthful, easy to use, and a way to access a luxuriant tropical sensuality. The book's final chapter interweaves the advent of modern advertising and the circulation of goods from the tropics to the metropole with the image of the pineapple as both safely "canned"/domesticated and exotic.
The topical net Okihiro casts in this book is astonishingly wide, taking the reader from Aristotle's theory of race to European architecture to advertising in twentieth-century women's periodicals. Although the diversity of the sources and concepts makes transitioning between them a bit challenging at times, Okihiro's global approach is fascinating, and should be of interest to lay and scholarly readers interested in plantations, colonialism, and modernity.