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Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700.

Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700, by Susan Dwyer Amussen. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xiv, 302 pp. $59.95 US (cloth), $22.50 (paper).

Although the historiography of the Atlantic world continues to grow apace, Susan Amussen offers a much needed dimension to the field. Rather than focusing on England's impact on its Caribbean or American colonies, she provides a nuanced study of how English experiences in the Caribbean significantly changed England, its approaches to colonialism and British concepts of race, gender, and labour. The work draws on previously well-used resources, particularly the Helyar family papers, Richard Ligon's history of Barbados, and John Taylor's accounts of the West Indies, but utilizes them in fresh and insightful ways. Her approach to Ligon is a testament to this, as she charts the impact of his cultural encounters stretching from the Cape Verde islands to the West Indies. His attempts to explain the bewilderment, awe, and occasional distaste for what he encountered are skilfully unpacked by Amussen to demonstrate how an English gentleman might engage with the unfamiliar and, initially, incomprehensible aspects of plantation life.

While Amussen provides a solid introduction to the impetus for English colonial endeavours in the Caribbean, perhaps the most important aspect of her work is her in-depth analysis of the colonies' ideological efforts to present themselves as English while implementing forms of social order and legal frameworks that significantly departed from English precedents. In Barbados in particular, the planters emphasized their predominant identity as "English freemen" while at the same time struggling to maintain their autonomy and self-rule in a plantation society which required different laws and social structures. This demonstrated the dichotomous efforts of plantation colonies to maintain English sensibilities and English identities, while at the same time adopting what was essentially a foreign custom: slaveholding. The standard practice of referring to chattel slaves as "negroes," a term taken from the Spanish, and overt avoidance of referring to them as "slaves," either in personal correspondence or in official legislation indicate the subtle adoption of an ostensibly foreign practice.

This process led to the formulation of previously nonexistent racial distinctions, first in the Caribbean and subsequently in England. Slaves were not enslaved because they were black. English colonies adopted the Spanish and Portuguese model of slavery because immense amounts of labour were necessitated by a rapid change in agricultural practice in Barbados, which established the foundation upon which society in Jamaica and other sugar islands would be based as well. Attempts at fulfilling labour needs with British and Irish indentured servants, a practice in the colonies which itself represented a significant departure from British custom, proved impossible. Slavery represented a proven solution to labour demands, particularly when interests rested in rapid returns rather than sustainable systems. Through a process of increasing numbers of slaves, their mortality, and the endless need to replace them, the persistent requirement of white servants to keep slaves in check (and their self-perceived need to be socially superior to the slaves) and the methods of brutality utilized to keep order; black slaves, and ultimately all blacks, came to be ranked little better than animals. This was in no small part the result of inherent fear and paranoia felt by a minority who brutally subjected a much larger population for their own financial gain, and to some extent represented a necessity in a process that departed so significantly from English norms.

The plantation colonies formed crucibles in which significant changes took place, the ramifications of which, according to Amussen, had implications reverberating back to England. While England wallowed in the affluence and luxuries afforded by tropical plantations, it did so with a degree of disdain and denial. Contemporary England viewed the Caribbean as inherently a seedbed of vice, and the issue of slavery was largely avoided in intellectual discourse, drama, and literature. The practice continued to be viewed as foreign or at least marginal. Where an interface between slaveholding and English society did take place in late seventeenth-century England it was in the maintenance of household slaves. This represented a distinct face of slavery, from what was witnessed by those visiting the Atlantic colonies where black slaves performed intense manual labour and endured brutal conditions. Black slaves brought to England tended to be exhibited as emblematic of their master's wealth, as seventeenth-century portraits demonstrate, rather than utilized to generate wealth. In other words, in England slaves were signs of wealth rather than the means to wealth. Like the nabobs of the eighteenth century who made their fortunes in the East Indies, the English returning from the Atlantic colonies tended not to publicly pronounce the Caribbean origins of their wealth. A second result of the crucible of plantation economies was that, according to Amussen, they laid the foundation for the industrial revolution in England, particularly in shifting the owners of industry away from traditional paternalistic relationships with their servants turning them into taskmasters driven by the maxim of maximum profits.

By her own admission Amussen's intention is to identify the impact of "Caribbean exchanges" on England, particularly in relation to gender and race. On both individual and macro levels she does this rather successfully by demonstrating that the English who participated in Caribbean plantation life were not the same upon their return to England and showing how slavery set the precedent for racial expectations, although the actual experience of blacks in seventeenth-century England largely remains a mystery. Where the author overemphasizes the impact of slave owning is in relation to its impact on perceptions of women. While she argues for a direct correlation between the holding of African slaves and a belief that working women were more sexually available, the exploitation of female servants and a wide-scale belief that working class women were more sexually active prevailed well before the latter part of the seventeenth century. Overall, however, Amussen offers a compelling account of how English involvement in colonial plantations had deep-seated and far-reaching implications for England itself.

R. Scott Spurlock

University of Edinburgh
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Author:Spurlock, R. Scott
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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