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Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640–1700 (review)
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In this study, Susan Dwyer Amussen sets out to explore the ways in which English society was transformed by its slaveholding colonies in the Caribbean. Her work gives particular attention to developments in Barbados and Jamaica during the formative years of these slave societies. Although there has been much work looking at England’s impact on its colonies, English and British scholars have been slow to consider the ways in which colonial experiences shaped the metropole. For that reason Amussen grounds her study in a framework which allows her to assess the ways in which the “Empire strikes back” during the early colonial period.1 And strike back it did. By Amussen’s estimation, the people of seventeenth-century English society were not “naturally” inclined to own other human beings. They had to “learn” to become slaveholders, and it was their colonial holdings that made it possible for them to do so (10). Slaveholding in the Caribbean also shaped English notions of “race.” During this period, the link between skin colour and “race” was slowly emerging. It was being formulated and reformulated. However, it was Caribbean slaveholding that acted as the catalyst which pushed the English towards more “systematic racial thinking” (12).

Amussen divides her study into six chapters, with chapters one through five emphasizing the English experience outside of England. It is not until chapter six that she looks at Caribbean influences in the metropole. The first chapter starts with a brief sketch of seventeenth century England and then moves on to outline trade and settlement patterns in the Caribbean. Amussen highlights the push factors that contributed to English migration overseas and discusses aspects of the English worldview including attitudes towards work, social hierarchy, as well as English notions of freedom and slavery. As Amussen sees it, understanding the English in England is crucial if one is to understand them in the colonies. She is careful to emphasize that people travelled with their value systems and expectations in tact and initially attempted to replicate English social, economic, and political institutions in the colonies. In chapter two, she explores this idea more fully in her analysis of the written accounts left by two individuals: Richard Ligon’s publication addressing his 1647 voyage to Barbados and his three year stay on the island; and, John Taylor’s unpublished account of his 1686 visit to Jamaica which lasted under six months. From these two writings it is clear that for the English, much seemed strange in the Caribbean. This included flora, fauna, food, and not least of all social relations (57). Chapters three, four, and five focus on the ways in which English work ethic, the legal system, and social order were transformed in the Caribbean in order to facilitate the economic well-being of English plantation owners. Throughout these chapters she looks at the sugar revolution and its influence on social formations, the transition from the use of indentured servants to enslaved Africans, the court system and the process of formulating laws, and the many social tensions that worked to undermine English control over these slave societies. The enslaved Africans on whose back colonial wealth was generated were, afterall, reluctant labourers and their attempts at resistance, rebellion and revolt were well-known among English colonists. In essence these chapters address themes commonly dealt with by Caribbean historians.

In the final chapter of this study Amussen looks at “The Caribbean in England.” She admits that she can offer no definitive figures for the number of blacks living in the metropole, but estimates that the population may have hovered around 5,000 – with the majority being resident in port cities such as London and Bristol (221). That aside, most of this chapter is dedicated to artistic representations of racialized social relations in plays and portraits. English colonial efforts may have taken place across the Atlantic, but Amussen shows its cultural manifestations were very present on English soil. She discusses the cultural significance of several plays including Mary Pixen’s The Innocent Mistress (1698) and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688). This chapter also includes (and discusses) reproductions of 19 portraits of prominent English persons who chose to include blacks in the background – most of...