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West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783-1807

Author(s):Ryden, David Beck
Reviewer(s):Walvin, James

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

David Beck Ryden, West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783-1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xvii + 332 pp. $80 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-485659-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James Walvin, Department of History, University of York.

The relationship between the British Caribbean slave colonies and Britain continues to tax historians with a string of complex and intriguing questions. Perhaps the most striking feature of scholarship over the last, say, twenty-five years has been the sheer volume of important work. What had once seemed (to British historians at least) a marginal corner of the British imperial experience, has shifted to a position of centrality. This is, in large, part, because the more we know, the clearer it becomes that the Atlantic slave system brought together the peoples and economies of three continents into an interdependence which transformed the histories of all three regions. But it also means that a historian of one region needs to remain alert to the scholarship of the others, in order to make sense of the whole. Add to this the complicating fact that the study has become more interdisciplinary (think for example of B.W. Higman?s work on demography, or David Watts work on geography, and a school of scholars on creole languages and linguistics) and the intellectual and scholarly challenges mount. At the same time, it becomes clearer that the need to integrate such studies ? to impose a coherent shape and sense on the history of the Atlantic world ? is more pressing than ever. How is it possible to explain the slave colonies without a grasp of African history, or an understanding of European experience in the same period?

Not surprisingly then, a new generation of scholars have a difficult and taxing job simply to pick their way through the profusion of recent scholarship. David Ryden does so with a sure-footedness, and a clarity of expression, which brings a freshness to well-worn topics. He has written a very important book which scholars will need to grapple with, and although not without its problems, it will command the attention for scholars working on all corners of the enslaved Atlantic.

Ryden?s task seems straightforward enough, even though the core question has troubled historians since the 1930?s. What prompted the British to turn against their Caribbean slave empire? And why did they do that in the very period when it appeared to be yielding material bounty on an even more lavish scale than before? Of course this seems at first to be a return to ? a descant on ? the Eric Williams debate. And it is true that Ryden lines himself more closely to Williams than he does to more recent scholars (or rather, finds themes within Williams?s argument more persuasive than others). But this book is much more than a mere revision of older scholarly debates. Indeed its great quality is that it breathes fresh life into older argument. And he does that by grounding his work in the Caribbean: it is a return to viewing slavery and abolition from the islands, and not from the metropolis. This still leaves us with problems, but, in principle, it is a welcome and important change of intellectual direction.

The starting point for Ryden?s study is the old question of `decline.? Were the sugar-producing colonies in decline at the point at which the British abolition campaign was initiated and, quickly, became so pervasive a popular political force in Britain. He seeks an answer in the economic and political experience of Jamaican planters, but does so by weaving through his primary work challenges to secondary scholarship. Ryden sets his stall out early: he wants to integrate the Jamaican data ? and the efforts of the Jamaican planters both in their island home and, more especially in London ? into the wider debate about British imperial policy after the costly American wars. The planters ? notably the major Jamaican planters ? were a sophisticated, educated bunch who carried great power and persuasion in London, promoting their economic interests in and around Parliament and government ? and later, trying to head off the abolitionist onslaughts. They defended the protection which safeguarded their sugar markets, yet also wanted an opening of trade to allow them more open access to the newly-independent North American colonies/states. Thus, post-1783, the planters wanted the best of both worlds and, not surprisingly, found the task of promoting both sides of economic police difficult and unpersuasive. It also left the planters convinced that there was a growing animosity against them and their interests in London. The trouble was, the more political and public opinion learned of their treatment of slaves in the islands, the less sympathetic the British felt towards the planters (and the slave traders).

These same years , post 1783, were years of mass publications of cheap and free literature, pro- and con- the slave trade and slavery. Planters? efforts to portray slavery in the islands as a benign institution which was best for the slaves, for their masters and for British consumers of slave-grown produce, flew in the teeth of other firsthand accounts. Men from the slave ships and from the plantations, told another story: one dominated by brutality and suffering on a scale which often beggared belief. And to a British society in a state of rapid change, where a new sensibility was emerging about cruelty in its broader sense, here was cruelty which seems unacceptable. The rise of the abolition movement took such worries to a totally new ? and quite unpredictable ? level. Within months of the founding of the Abolition Society in 1787, abolition had established itself as a widespread and popular movement which had outflanked the planters. Thereafter the abolitionists dominated the moral high ground.

I think Ryden?s explanation of the abolitionists? goals needs some reservation. True, they wanted to form colonial slavery initially. But their ultimate aim was the ending of the slave trade. Then they would take stock, consider its effects on the islands, and consider how best and when to move onto freeing the slaves. Clearly, they were not openly emancipationists in the early days ? they were focused on the slave ships ? but abolitionists were also united in viewing slavery itself as an abomination.

The planters for their part repeated time and again ? and especially after the volcanic eruptions in Haiti after 1791 ? that meddling with the slave trade was a recipe for disaster. By their lights, they were correct. Indeed the story of slave unrest ? of slaves taking matters in their own hands ? has been a theme which was often ignored by earlier generations of historians of abolition. But who today would argue that slave society, slave resistance, slave revolts and unrest, were mere noises off-stage in a production taking place simply in London? And it is here that we need to grasp the problem facing Ryden. We can appreciate his fine scholarly analysis of the economics of the slave empire, of the progression of the sugar industry , of its decline under changed imperial and global conditions in the last yards of the century. The real challenge is one of integration and (back to my original point.) how do we integrate what we now know about events in the Caribbean with the minutiae of political change inside and, more importantly, outside Parliament in the these years?

This is a fine book which scholars will need to study carefully. At times it reads more like a collection of essays which pivot around a central theme: it often lacks a strong narrative flow which might actually strengthen the author?s argument. Nonetheless, Ryden has written one of the most important books in the field for many years. Subsequently scholars may want to take issue with the particularities of his chapters. But the overall thesis is persuasive: let us try to integrate events in the Caribbean more directly into the political narrative of slavery and abolition as discussed in Britain in these years.

James Walvin, Professor Emeritus at the University of York, is the author of The Trader, The Owner, The Slave (Cape, London, 2007) and A Short History of Slavery (Penguin, London, 2007). He is currently finishing book for Yale University Press on the slave ship Zong.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century