Trevor Burnard is Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull. This interview is based on his new book, Jamaica in the Age of Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?
TB: I have always been interested in how Jamaica might be seen as part of Atlantic history; as part of Britain’s involvement in the wider world; and as one of the most important colonies in eighteenth century British America. Because it did not become the 14th colony to join in the American Revolution, its history has been underdone, especially in matters such as why it did not join in that conflict. My belief is that the history of colonial America and the American revolution looks different if Jamaica is included–it starts earlier, with the great slave rebellion of 1760 and finishes later, with abolitionism in 1787-8. That movement became more vital after the scandal of the murder of slaves on the Zong to gain insurance monies became well known in 1783. This work is a natural extension of previous books on Jamaica in the period of the Seven Years War and the American Revolution and is a contribution to Atlantic, British imperial and American revolutionary scholarship.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?
TB: Jamaica was the jewel in the imperial crown in the second half of the eighteenth century, an amazingly productive and geopolitically important colony in which rich whites received remarkable rewards while presiding over a very efficient but extremely brutal slave regime that traumatised and oppressed the majority of the inhabitants of the island. It had a different historical trajectory during the Age of Revolution, from 1760 through to 1790, than did the British American colonies that declared for independence in 1776 and that historical experience alters considerably our understanding of the revolutionary period,by stressing the extent of loyalty to the British empire that existed in the plantation colonies of British America and by showing how vital the politics of slavery were within the social and political contexts of this revolutionary age.
JF: Why do we need to read Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?
TB: Recent scholarship on the American Revolution emphasises both how central slavery is and has been to the American experience and that an imperial perspective on the American Revolution, which sees that conflict in an Atlantic rather than just a British North American perspective, illuminates underlying trends in American, British, Atlantic and Caribbean history. This book contributes to both of these approaches to the history of the Atlantic world during the Age of Revolution. Jamaica in the Age of Revolution shows how the most powerful and wealthiest planter class in British America faced challenges to its rule from its brutalised enslaved population, from a British population increasingly outraged by planter cruelties to enslaved people, and from the crisis of an imperial conflict–the American Revolution–which this planter class and its merchants allies did not want but which it suffered from a great deal. This book shows what enslaved people in Jamaica during the period of the slave trade were up against and how difficult it was for them to counter such a powerful ruling class and the economic structures, based on the systematic abuse of enslaved people, that sustained planter and merchant power. I hope people reading Jamaica in the Age of Revolution will understand not just what enslaved people were up against and not just how difficult it was for abolitionists to confront a hugely profitable and powerful slaveholder class in Jamaica but will also get a different understanding of the American Revolution in which slavery, capitalism and imperialism were linked together in important and indissoluble ways.
JF: What kind of sources did you use to write Jamaica in the Age of Revolution?
TB: I was fortunate to get my first academic position in Jamaica which introduced me to the riches of the Jamaica archives, providing me with the empirical data that underpins all the findings in this book. I was also lucky to work for many years in universities near the National Archives in London, which has huge holdings relevant to Jamaican history. And I have benefited massively from an efflorescence in scholarship in the last decade on Jamaican history and in Atlantic history, all of which I have used to deepen and enrich my 30 year engagement with Jamaican primary sources.
JF: What is your next project?
TB: This book has been published almost simultaneously with syntheses of Atlantic and British imperial history. It feeds into work I am doing with Andrew O’Shaughnessy for a book called An Imperial History of the American Revolution. I am also completing a book called The Caribbean in World History and am working with Kit Candlin on a book on Sir John Gladstone as a planter in Demerara. I am also working on the lives of the enslaved with a book called Hearing Slave Voices: Enslaved Women in Berbice, 1817-34 and a study of Jamaican slavery in the period of the slave trade. I am working also with Agnes Delahyde on settler colonialism, Giorgio Riello on global commodities and with Sherrylynne Haggerty on women and business in the Atlantic world. I have two special issues coming out, one on colonialism in the first half of the eighteenth century in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History and with Natalie Zacek on slave management in the Journal of Global History. With Sophie White, I am publishing in the summer of 2020 a book with Routledge on slave testimony in British and French America and with Joy Damousi and Alan Lester a volume in 2021 with Manchester University Press on humanitarianism.
JF: Thanks, Trevor!