Published by EH.NET (March 2001)
Jane G. Landers, editor, Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. xi + 220 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8130-1772-6.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Russell R. Menard, Department of History, University of Minnesota.
Since the 1940s, the conventional wisdom has been that British East Florida was a failure, “a small and insignificant colony whose growth was slow and whose return to Spain after twenty years was a confession of failure” (Mowat, 1943, p. 149). Taken together, the essays in this valuable collection make a persuasive argument that Florida’s colonial economic history ought to be read differently, as the story of a colony with plenty of economic potential that was prevented from realizing that potential by political turmoil. While Landers and her colleagues make a persuasive case, they have yet to carry the field, for some prominent early Americanists, David Hancock, and Bernard Bailyn among them, remain advocates of the older interpretation.
The book’s case would be much more persuasive had it provided more systematic evidence on the performance of Florida’s economy. Instead, the book consists of a set of essays on various plantations in colonial Florida. While the essays are finely crafted, and held together by a common theme, at no time is the issue of typicality addressed. The book desperately needs some systematic, comprehensive evidence of the sort provided by census returns, tax lists, probate records, or customs accounts, but none appears — whether because none exists, or because the authors chose not to analyze such materials we are not told. Without such evidence, and without an effort to put the several plantations in context, the essays are reduced to essentially anecdotal reports on the performance of various plantations in colonial Florida. The editor’s introduction, furthermore, does not even bother to tell us why these plantations were selected. In fact it sheds no light at all upon the selection process. The essays, which discuss large plantations run by wealthy Europeans, both English and Spanish, as well as the small operations run by African refugees from the slave systems of the Carolinas and Georgia, in addition to the unique plantation complex developed by the Seminoles, convey the diversity of Florida’s colonial population and also capture the flexibility of plantation agriculture. Despite the book’s inadequacies, the essays it contains deserve careful attention. They raise important questions about the performance of Florida’s colonial economy, and make it clear that the issue of how it performed is far from settled.
Reference: Charles Loch Mowat, East Florida as a British Province, 1763-1784, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943.
Russell R. Menard is the author (with John McCusker) of The Economy of British America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985). His most recent book is Migrants, Servants and Slaves: Unfree Labor in Colonial British America (London: Ashgate, 2001).