The influence of Jack P. Greene’s work on the study of colonial American history has been profound. For the past five decades, [End Page 98] Greene has presented sharp analyses of the nature of the constitutional relationship between Britain and its American colonies, concepts of political identity, as well as the place of British America in the broader Atlantic world. Creating the British Atlantic is the latest collection of Greene’s essays that have appeared in various journals and edited volumes during the past fifteen years. Divided into four parts that cover broad themes, the collection is impressive and expansive, while offering insightful interpretations of the multiple ways that Britain’s Atlantic empire transformed during the eighteenth century.
Greene’s arguments and interpretations are well known, including many in this volume. The idea that Britain’s settler colonies during the decades before the American Revolution developed constitutions that embraced representative governance by “negotiating authority” with the metropole, for example, is emphasized in a number of essays in the collection. Greene’s most recent contributions, which draw from theoretical scholarship on state formation and how an “American” identity emerged in a variety of different colonies with different political cultures and societies, are particularly impressive. His cogent analyses of how British colonists not only conceived of their own colonial governments, but their place in the British empire, contributes significantly to our understanding of the nature of early modern European empires in the New World.
The two chapters devoted to analyzing political crises in eighteenth-century Jamaica are the most insightful and original. In part, this has to do with the fact that these essays rely on a wide variety of sources beyond the printed political pamphlets and speeches that Greene tends to emphasize in many of his essays on the North American colonies. The regular clashes that British settlers in Jamaica had with metropolitan authorities over attempts by the Crown to limit local autonomy resulted in some unexpected rhetoric emerging from both colony and metropole, particularly over the issue of slavery. The essay “Liberty, Slavery, and the Transformation of British Identity in the Eighteenth-Century West Indies,” which originally appeared as an article in the journal Slavery and Abolition, explores how metropolitan [End Page 99] imposition into Jamaican governance resulted in a vigorous debate about the place of colonies in the British empire and the origins of slavery in the colony. In asserting their Englishness based on their belief that colonies were integral parts of Britain’s economy and polity, Jamaican colonists went further and emphasized that metropolitan impositions turned them into slaves to the tyranny of the Crown. In response, British observers portrayed Jamaican planters as un-English because of the cruel nature of slavery in the colonies. However, Jamaican colonists in turn noted the hypocrisy of this position, by reminding metropolitans of their own complicity in maintaining the plantation slave system that provided so much profit to the empire. This essay’s real contribution is in emphasizing the vigorous transatlantic debates over the purpose of empire, how it should be governed, and that concepts of freedom in places like Jamaica depended heavily on the presence of thousands of enslaved people.
Because the volume is so large (it is made up of nineteen essays), a certain amount of overlap and repetition in terms of themes and interpretations is inevitable. The volume is difficult to read as a collection, however, and eliminating a handful of essays might have given the collection more coherence. This is especially true of the section on “Governance,” in which almost every essay begins with Greene’s premise that Britain’s settler empire in the Americas had developed a “negotiated constitution” by the eighteenth century. Trimming the volume to a more manageable eleven or twelve chapters might have been a more practical decision. However, in presenting a corpus of extremely important work, this collection provides an opportunity for scholars to engage with Greene’s contributions more broadly. The difficulty here is not in terms...