Insula Jamaica in Suas Parochias Divisa by the German geographer and cartographer Homann Heirs (1740)


As many of you know, I am less than one year away from starting to research and write my dissertation on eighteenth-century Jamaica. With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to create a bibliography of primary- and secondary- source materials. That way I have all of the materials I use frequently in one convenient location, and I can also share those resources with interested TZR readers. Below I have started to make a bibliography of materials on Jamaica in the long-eighteenth century, about 1650s to 1830s. These dates represent the beginning of English colonization on the island in 1655 and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. The second date corresponds well with the end of what historians often label as the “early-modern era” or “early-modern period.” It should not be forgotten, however, that British colonization continued in Jamaica until 1962.

As an introduction to this bibliography, I would like to offer some thoughts on Jamaican history during this period. As historians know, during this time Jamaica was the largest, most populace, and most profitable West Indian colony in the British Empire. Its profits were based mostly on the production and the export of sugar, which, in turn, was built upon black slave labor from Africa. Jamaica was an exemplar of what historians like Ira Berlin have called “slave societies.” Essentially, this means that Jamaica’s whole identity–its cultural, social, economic, and political institutions–were shaped by the institution of slavery. Jamaica was also a society where African cultures both survived and adapted to a greater degree than elsewhere in the Atlantic World. The island had an extremely high mortality rate due to such causes as violence, exploitative labor, disease, and hurricanes. This means that enslaved peoples did not sustain their numbers by reproduction as they did in the thirteen colonies that became the United States. Instead, enslaved communities were regularly augmented by newly arrived peoples from West Africa, and this situation meant that African cultures and beliefs were continually reinvigorated. Finally, Jamaica was what the historian Peter Wood once defined as a “black-majority” society. In 1760, its population had a 9-1 ratio of blacks to whites (about 142,000 to 15,000).

Next, in the eighteenth century the greater Caribbean was a site of intense international rivalry between the European colonial powers. For this reason, it has been named “the cockpit of war.” To cite just one example between two of these powers, England (Great Britain after 1707) and France fought no fewer than six different wars against each other in the long-eighteenth century. All of these wars were fought, partly, in the Caribbean. In fact, European empires fought in the West Indies so often that they largely exempted the region from the rules that governed international warfare in Europe. As Richard Dunn argued so long ago, Europeans in the Caribbean were considered “beyond the line.” Their protection was not guaranteed by formal treaties, and they were vulnerable to warships of rival powers, pirates of various nations, and even impressment from their own navies.

Moreover, this concept of living “beyond the line” also applied to social behaviors. Many Europeans saw the Caribbean similar to way that people sometimes see the Wild West in American history. It was a place defined by greed, opportunism, casual violence, and a loose and inconsistent application of the law. Historians have said that British colonists wanted to re-create their home culture on Jamaica but that, unlike the thirteen colonies that became the US, this never really occurred and Jamaica became, instead, an example of a “failed settler society.” Also, similar to Western or Atlantic Africa during this era, the Caribbean was generally considered to be a  “white man’s grave” because so many Euro-American colonists died early from disease. Next, although the island’s white colonists held a monopoly on the formal  institutions of colonial power–be them political, military, or religious–people of African descent boldly and frequently contested their oppression. As Michael Craton as demonstrated, enslaved peoples waged more rebellions in Jamaica than in any other British Caribbean colony during the eighteenth century.

As a final note, Jamaica was changing radically during the last half of this era, especially from the 1780s to the 1830s. The white plantocracy was coming under increasing attack by reformers back in Europe. These reformers included those who wanted to lessen the violence of slavery (called ameliorationists) as well as those who wanted to terminate the slave-trade and/or slavery altogether (abolitionists). Meanwhile, the slave societies of the West Indies were being tested by a series of new revolutions that threatened the ideals at their very foundations. The American Revolution threatened the economic order and the unity of the overseas colonies. Joined by the French Revolution and, some time later, the revolutions in Latin America, these movements put forth new and radical ideas of liberty that threatened the racial inequalities upon which slave societies were based. And lastly, an ever-increasing amount of resistance, violent and nonviolent, by enslaved people sent a message that the old order of the West Indian colonies was coming to an end. No single event did more in this regard than the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804.

That concludes my introduction on eighteenth-century Jamaica. To browse my ongoing bibliography of materials, check out the drop-down menus for this section. Thanks!