- Empire, Enslavement and Freedom in the Caribbean
Few have contributed so much as Craton to the resurgence and expansion of historical interest in the British West Indies during the last forty years. He has produced six important books, including A Jamaican Plantation, with James Walvin (New York, 1970), a superb study of the sugar estate of Worthy Park from its formation in the late seventeenth century to recent times; Sinews of Empire (Garden City, 1974), an accessible general history of British slavery; Searching for the Invisible Man (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), a detailed and highly quantitative analysis of the slaves of Worthy Park; Testing the Chains (Ithaca, 1982), perhaps the most comprehensive account yet published of West Indian slave resistance; [End Page 366] and Islanders in the Stream with Gail Saunders (Athens, 1992), which, for the period down to 1834, supersedes his youthful and highly general A History of the Bahamas (London, 1962) and is certainly the most thorough and best history of the precolonial and early colonial history of that Atlantic island colony.
Impressive as it is, however, this list does not begin to exhaust the topics on which Craton has commented authoritatively. He has also produced a significant number of articles and essays on many other aspects of early West Indian history, and this volume contains twenty of them. Drawn from a wide variety of sources, some now difficult to access, they include ten articles from refereed journals, three articles from encyclopedias, and seven chapters from volumes of edited essays. Providing a useful historical and critical introduction to each essay, Craton organizes them into three larger thematic sections: colonization and imperialism; the slave trade, slavery, and slave society; and transformations and continuities.
The six pieces in the first section deal with aspects of the historical background of sugar culture, the early-modern colonizing impulse in the West Indies, and the character of the white planters who long dominated West Indian society. Because recent Caribbean historiography has focused so intently upon the previously neglected slave populations, Craton is one of the few scholars to write about the white planters during the past two decades. Three of his essays are particularly useful. Chapter 3 provides a brief overview of the planters and their culture, reopening a subject in need of further examination. Chapter 4, a superb analysis, is the best available short study about the transfer of English property law to the Americas, and its modification to include property in slaves. Chapter 6 constitutes an admirable case study of how a growing metropolitan concern for native and slave rights operated to restrict the latitude of British colonizers in organizing new West Indian colonies after 1760.
The six essays in the second section are concerned with the nature of West Indian slavery. They focus upon the degree to which the institution defined all aspects of West Indian societies, the process of cultural exchange implied by the concept of “creolization,” and the recovery of information about slave fertility, mortality, and health through the use of quantification.
The eight pieces in the third section deal with aspects of the transition from slavery to freedom during the half-century before emancipation. Of particular interest is the emphasis upon the role of slaves in effecting their own emancipation and the role of history in defining West Indian identities.
No short summary can do justice to the richness and scope of this collection. Not all of Craton’s conclusions and assumptions will gain universal assent. For instance, his concept of “a true society” seems to be an artifact from early modern colonialism in dire need of excision (103). Nevertheless, the volume is a welcome addition to the historiography [End Page 367] of the slave societies of the British West Indies. Handsomely produced, it has, unfortunately, far more typographical errors than a work of this distinction deserves.