The Author’s Corner with Trevor Burnard

Jamaica in the Age of RevolutionTrevor 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!

The Author’s Corner with James Delbourgo

619ROeDHlSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames Delbourgo is Associate Professor of History of Science and Atlantic World at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Collecting the World? 

JD: My first book was on electricity in colonial North America and I wanted to see what the pursuit of science looked like from a completely different angle. When I learned that Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum (1753), had been in Jamaica and made natural history collections there, I was fascinated. What was the future founder of the world’s first national public museum doing in the Caribbean and what were the links between slavery and the origins of that museum? I was never taught this in school and thought many readers would be interested in the answer. I was also fascinated by the idea of a universal collection and a museum that aspired to contain every kind of thing in the world. We live in an age where universalism is often critiqued and mistrusted but the early modern era and the origins of museums were powerfully inspired by notions of the universal.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Collecting the World?

JD: One argument is that collecting things always involves collecting people: there is no such thing as “a collector” in the sense of an isolated individual and Sloane relied on worldwide networks to accumulate the thousands of objects which the British Museum was created to house. The second is that Sloane is vital for understanding the complex legacy of the Enlightenment: out of slavery and imperialism emerged the first articulation of an ideal of universal free public access to museums and their collections, an ideal we still cherish and must defend today.

JF: Why do we need to read Collecting the World?

JD: It is the first book to tell the full story of how the world’s first public museum came into being, and shows how that enlightened institution owes its origins to slavery and imperialism, while also championing Sloane’s legacy in calling for universal access to museums and knowledge. Sloane is a compelling contradiction and defies easy categorization: he embodies the relationship between enlightenment and imperialism and his collections embody the great global collision of peoples that took place in the long eighteenth century. It’s also a story about universal knowledge and the dream of total information, and what their pursuit actually entailed. This dream is familiar to us today through digital technology and the internet, but Sloane’s house in eighteenth-century London — where he sought to assemble a universal museum — is an important to precursor to this ongoing ideal of somehow collecting the entire world in a single place. Finally, it’s a book that connects several historical subdisciplines — from the history of science to the history of the African diaspora — and urges us to move beyond academic specialization to tell richer, more complex stories for a broad reading public.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JD: I was completing my first year as an undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia in the UK and wrote a seminar paper about Abraham Lincoln’s theory of the union for Professor Dan Richter who was visiting professor that year. It was a liberating experience to try to understand someone else’s thinking in a completely foreign time and place. As one wit has quipped, all the best stories are true. I once explained my work to a member of my family, who listened carefully and then replied, “But you really live in the past then?” Yes.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I have several current research interests which include the history of collecting; global & Atlantic histories of science especially in the early modern period; and the transport of key objects from around the world into various museum collections.

JF: Thanks, James!

A New Find in Abolitionist History

AdrianOver at Historians Against Slavery, Christopher Momany describes a new find in abolitionist history from the archives of Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan.  An alumnus of the college recently stumbled across the diary of Rev. David Stedman Ingraham, the founder of the Oberlin College mission to Jamaica.  The diary recounts Ingraham’s 1839 response to the slave trade at Port Royal and specifically a newly impounded slave brig that carried 556 slaves.

Here is a taste of Momany’s piece:

The twenty-second page of this journal speaks with pain and power. Before his trip home, on Christmas day 1839, Rev. Ingraham went down to the harbor at Port Royal, Jamaica and inspected a recently impounded “slave brig,” theUlysses. He documented the way 556 people were abused over the course of a fifty day voyage, and he created a diagram of the ship. The journal entry for that day exclaims: “It seems as if the church were asleep.”

While I understand the language of seeking some “usable past,” I would suggest that this find addresses us on a different level. Years ago, theologian Nelle Morton spoke of “hearing people to speech.” The hard work of listening (even to those in the graveyard) can be advocacy – love and justice that struggle to hear the voices of those too often silenced. I think not only of Ingraham but especially of the 556 people on that ship. Who were they? What is their story? What are they still trying to say? We do not know – yet, but it is time someone listened to them and countless millions today who are told to keep quiet. For now, silence is their voice, but that should change.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Colleen A. Vasconcellos

Colleen Vasconcellos is Associate Professor of Atlantic History at University of West Georgia. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838 (University of Georgia Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838?
CV: It actually began as my master’s thesis at East Tennessee State, a project that examined the experiences of enslaved children in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I wanted to continue that as part of my doctoral dissertation and I expanded my focus to include the experiences of the children who were bought, sold, and born on Atlantic plantations. Unfortunately enslaved children for the most part have been lost within the traditional treatments of Atlantic World slavery, treatments that categorically depict the enslaved as victims or voiceless statistics. As a result, they largely remain silent players in the annals of history. When you do see them appear in the narrative, you see them largely as statistics or as part of a conversation on infant and child mortality, slave women, or slave families. Their story is lost within another story. However, their story is one that is worth telling, and that’s what I really wanted to do. 
What I have found is that enslaved children were anything but silent, and that becomes increasingly obvious when one enters the archives and begins searching for them. I wanted to find enslaved children’s place and voice within that larger narrative on slavery as a whole in an effort to bring their experiences to the forefront and help them step out of the shadows of the periphery. No matter their location, enslaved children performed a myriad of tasks on the estates in which they lived, ranging from fieldwork to domestic servitude. Whether African-born or creole, these children lived in an environment that constantly reinforced their status as chattel, a status defined by the nature of their work itself. What I wanted to do was focus on them as children, and specifically as children who struggled for survival in a world that refused to acknowledge and protect their childhoods. And I wanted to examine the various ways in which enslaved children as a whole coped with the hardships of slavery and the realization that they were slaves by considering how they developed physically and psychologically within the plantation complex.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: By focusing specifically on the changing nature of slave childhood in Jamaica, I consider how childhood and slavery influenced and changed each other throughout from 1788 to 1838, with the abolitionist movement standing as the main catalyst for change. I argue that while the value of enslaved children shifted from burden to investment and then back to burden during specific periods of the abolitionist movement, their childhoods were always contested and redefined by the children themselves and the slave community as a whole.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: I think the book is important because it tells the story of an overlooked childhood. They were incredibly important to abolitionists, planters, and especially to the slave community. Yet, not so much to historians. This book rectifies that by exploring children’s experiences as slaves through the lenses of family, resistance, race, status, culture, education, and freedom we can see that. Enslaved children symbolized financial stability to planters, but they also symbolized hope and freedom for enslaved and apprenticed adults during this period in Jamaican and Atlantic history. Furthermore, these children were historical agents in their own right. They performed the same tasks as the adults who worked beside them. They suffered the lash just as severely as adults. And they were just as malnourished, if not more, than enslaved adults. They were fighters. They burned crops, broke tools, ran away, and tried to harm their owners. They resisted their status as slaves just as loudly as adults, and they carved out their own place for themselves in that community. This book focuses on their agency and gives them the voice they deserve.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CV: I’m actually not an Americanist. I’m trained as an Atlantic historian and I teach courses on the Atlantic World, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as the African Diaspora. However, as an Atlanticist, I do focus on the connections of the wider Atlantic world, so I see the influences that American history had on Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe and vice versa. 

Fun bit of trivia though…I originally planned on pursuing the American track in my doctoral program at Florida International University. However, I took a Florida and the Caribbean class during my first semester at FIU and absolutely fell in love with Caribbean history. After that, there was no going back. I majored in Latin American and Caribbean History, and minored in African History.
JF: What is your next project?

CV: For my next project, I’m interested in examining the last voyage of the slave ship Wanderer. This ship brought a cargo of about 300-400 boys to Georgia in 1858, and it is the last documented slave ship to do so in American history. Most histories of the Wanderer have focused on the court case that debated the legality of the voyage, but I want to examine the nature of the voyage itself. Where did the boys come from? How does this voyage differ from other voyages that carried mostly boys or African youths, and how does this enhance our knowledge of the illegal trade and the experiences of children in the trade as a whole. It’s not going to be an easy history, and I’m not really sure if I can do what I hope to do, but I’m going to give it a shot.

JF: Can’t wait to hear about it. Thanks Colleen!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner