Volume LVIV, Number 2 William and Mary Quarterly Reviews of Books
An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. By ANDREW JACKSON O'SHAUGHNESSY. Early American Studies. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Pp. xviii, 357. $55.00 cloth; $22.50 paper.)
"The thirteen colonies in North America," begins Andrew O'Shaughnessy's An Empire Divided, "represented only half the colonies of British America in 1776" (p. xi). The other half, extending from Canada to Bermuda and the island colonies of the Caribbean, seldom receive much notice from historians of the American Revolution, even though the British West Indies, with their lucrative sugar plantations, were the crown jewels of the first British empire. Focusing on the major possessions in Britain's Caribbean domain-Jamaica, Barbados, the Leeward and Windward Islands-O'Shaughnessy, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, asks why the white planters of those islands stayed loyal to Britain while their neighbors to the north rebelled. Commercial ties bound the Caribbean closely to the North American mainland, as did a common political tradition. The West Indies claimed the same heritage of English liberties as did the mainland American colonists and shared their grievances against parliamentary taxation and imperial interference with local governance. It was Barbados, not Boston, that as early as 1651 announced the principle of "no taxation without representation."1 Yet, such affinities dissolved in the crisis of 1776, for reasons no historian has fully plumbed.
To O'Shaughnessy, the die was cast long before the Declaration of Independence. As he sees it, the island plantocracies had followed a separate path from the mainland colonies, and the consequence was marked in the two groups' contrasting relations with the imperial center. A culture of absenteeism was pervasive among the West Indian elites. Planters and merchants sent their sons and daughters "home" to England for school, while future leaders of the North American colonies were educated locally. Few Caribbean youth ventured north to attend a colonial college, and only a handful married into North American families. After making their fortunes in sugar, leading West Indian "nabobs" returned to England to establish themselves on country estates and enter into politics. Thanks to such absentees, the island colonies were plugged far more deeply into Britain's landed and mercantile establishments than comparable North American groups. The West India interest ran a daunting political machine.
If the two groups of colonists started well apart, they diverged still more in their reactions to the Stamp Act and the ensuing political crises of the 1760s and 1770s. O'Shaughnessy stresses the force of self-interest in muting West Indian opposition to imperial measures. High production costs in most of the islands left their sugar and rum uncompetitive without the tariff protection offered by the Navigation Acts, which enabled West Indian exports to dominate the British market. Even more crucial was the vulnerability of the sugar colonies to attack, both from without and within. The West Indian settlements needed military protection, not just from their French and Spanish n eighbors a day or so's sail away, but even more from the vast numbers of slaves on the plantations. Periodic slave plots and uprisings reminded island elites of their precarious state: as the Assembly of Tobago acknowledged in 1774, "the idea of regaining freedom seems to be universally spread amongst our slaves in all parts of the colony" (p. 146). While the North Americans wailed about quartering the king's troops, the island assemblies continued to pay subsistence money to royal garrisons and erect new barracks. They wanted a gendarmerie.
These realities helped shape the responses to British demands by the islands' leading planters and merchants. Here O'Shaughnessy's careful readings of various island assemblies' reactions first to imperial taxation schemes and then to North American resistance reveal a fundamental ambivalence about the central political issues: sympathy with whig constitutional positions, on one hand; identification with "home" authority, on the other. In this divided stance, the West Indian leaders, O'Shaughnessy observes, resembled the North American loyalists, "who privately disliked the tax but believed in submission to authority until the offending taxes were repealed" (p. 104). But they had even "more in common with contemporary political leaders in Ireland" who "sought to direct the internal affairs of their colonies and obtain local autonomy while deriving the economic and military benefits of membership of the British Empire" (p. 130). In pursuit of these goals, the sugar colonies opted for accommodation. O'Shaughnessy stresses the passivity of newspaper printers and the "conciliatory" (p. 104) conduct of the assemblies, whose official statements were marked by "timid" (p. 102) phrasing. "None of the island legislatures passed resolutions against the Townshend Acts nor did they petition Britain" (p. 105). Still, there were organized anti-Stamp Act riots in several of the Leeward Islands, particularly St. Kitts and Nevis, and despite a British garrison and major naval dockyard, sustained protests in Antigua too. Individual pro-American petitions and pamphlets continued to originate in the West Indian assemblies, but by O'Shaughnessy's reckoning, on far more occasions, there was only silence. Rather than finding any larger constitutional icebergs looming under these pro-American flurries, he downgrades many assembly disputes to so much political foam.
Were the West Indian assemblies representative of the white populations on the islands? O'Shaughnessy evidently thinks so, and this section of his argument will probably strike the most sparks. Yet access to the vote was very different in the North American colonies from the West Indies. Island franchises were tightly restricted, and the bulk of even the small free populations were not electors. In St. Mary Cayon Parish on St. Kitts, no one was chosen for the colony's assembly in a 1770 election because there were simply no resident voters. To be sure, white overseers and "bookkeepers" lived and worked on the plantations, but although they were obliged to serve in the militia, they were not freeholders and had no vote. The resulting island assemblies were far narrower representative institutions than their North American peers. We still need to seek out those disenfranchised "petit blancs" voices. Even so, O'Shaughnessy deserves recognition for his substantial achievement in tracing what assemblies across the West Indies did choose to say during the crisis. What they did not say is all the more striking in light of their passionate defenses of their own constitutional rights.
The political trajectories O'Shaughnessy sketches mean that we can no longer ignore such episodes as Jamaica's and Barbados's conformity to the Stamp Acts. It was the crown, not Parliament, that worried individual West Indian assemblies during the 1760s and 1770s. Defending their independence and privileges against royal governors, West Indians were caught up in local issues and failed to link their causes to the general principles asserted by the mainland colonies. "There was no republican shift in the political ideology of the West Indies" (p. 137). Meanwhile pamphlets and addresses composed by West Indian politicians drew deliberate contrasts with North American protests in order to strike a more moderate tone. No wonder the North American rebels did not expect the West Indians to line up beside them.
Once the American War of Independence broke out, the Caribbean provided a key military theater. The Royal navy plays a prominent part in O'Shaughnessy's account of this wider war. Anyone accustomed to appraising the war's progress through the ebb-and-flow of the military campaigning on the mainland will find his re-insertion of the operations in the West Indies invaluable. He argues convincingly that defending the islands ranked very high among British war aims. In 1778, when the French entered the war, the British government saw a choice between holding Philadelphia or taking St. Lucia (which offered a jumping-off point for attacking Martinique's Fort du France, the principal French naval base in the Leeward Islands). The British chose to transfer 5,000 troops south for the capture of St. Lucia. When London made its strategic choices it looked toward the West Indies. French campaigns also aimed to seize British islands, in the hope that King George would not be left with enough West Indian sugar to sweeten his morning tea. Such threats proved very effective in getting further British troops pulled out of North America. Then, in the aftermath of Yorktown, the French very nearly swept the British out of the West Indies. Only an unexpected British victory at the hard-fought Battle of the Saints in 1782 allowed the Peace of Paris to restore the status quo ante.
The book's final sections sketch how the war proved a major blow for the individual West Indian colonies. The North Americans' nonexportation campaigns demonstrated the vulnerability of the islands' food supplies. These policies were effective. The slaves' miserable death rates shot far higher during the war years as large numbers starved. The immediate costs of the war in deaths and massive public debts were bad enough. The political situation deteriorated still more, as British governors became more prickly in responding to any potential challenges to royal authority.
In 1776, white West Indian settlers' ties with Britain proved far tighter than did those of the North American colonists. Ironically, by the 1780s, as a result of the War of Independence, the "creole" societies in the sugar islands grew increasingly distant from "home." In politics and culture, prewar assumptions could not be restored. The change was particularly clear at the war's end, when Britain reaffirmed its mercantilist policies in trade. While inhabitants of Britain could trade directly with the new United States, King George's West Indian subjects could not. West Indians complained that Canadian supplies could not fill the American gap, while British imports were less suitable and more expensive. British shipping and farming interests outweighed these objections. The local consequences were disastrous. Famines followed a string of hurricanes in the 1780s. The West Indian lobby lost its clout. The clearest indication of this shift was that British abolitionists could begin to mobilize against slavery: after 1776 "the West India lobby was unable to appeal for support from the colonial lobbies of Virginia and South Carolina" (p. 245). The islands did remain under the Union Jack, but West Indian planters and merchants now found King George's empire far less hospitable. Slaveholders had fewer defenses against what Edward Kamau Brathwaite has described as "the Humanitarian Revolution" over the next fifty years.2 Cut off from their onetime trading partners and colonial cousins to the north, they were more isolated than ever. As this rich, thought-provoking study makes plain, the property holders whose votes elected the islands' assemblies paid a heavy price for loyalty to the first British empire.
University of the West Indies, Mona JAMES ROBERTSON
1 Selwyn H. H. Carrington, "The American Revolution and the Sugar Colonies, 1775-1783," in Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Oxford, 1991), 513.
2 Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (Oxford, 1971), 243-65.Back