Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 136-137
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An Empire Divided:
The American Revolution and the British Caribbean
An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. By Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) 376 pp. $35.00 cloth $22.50 paper
Many historians of the American Revolution do not know even a spoonful of the role played by the British West Indies. Thankfully, O'Shaughnessy serves a nine-course meal. Historians of the Caribbean will be gratified to note the author's command of the literature, while historians of North America, O'Shaughnessy's primary audience, will be delighted at the variety of new evidence (to them, at least) and his strongly argued conclusions. His findings affirm and augment many of the facts that Revolutionary scholars suspected about the conflict with Britain and the role of the West Indies, and offer startling new insights as well.
Contrary to the prevalent, yet inadequately supported, idea that white Caribbean planters sympathized with the rebellious American colonists, the author proves that the colonists of the British West Indies had every reason to profess loyalty to the mother country and many reasons to harbor acrimony against their mainland cousins. O'Shaughnessy does not just demonstrate the phenomenon of West Indian connections to Britain; he makes North American anglicization pale by comparison. The author argues that white fear of slave revolts overwhelmingly superseded planter support for any other strategies of military deployment in the Caribbean. West Indian planters were culturally, militarily, and economically dependent on Great Britain. Hence, they evinced a political loyalty to Great Britain that North Americans ultimately could not match.
White West Indian crowds and assemblies were often assertive of their rights during the eighteenth century, but their claims (unlike those of mainland Americans) did not translate into a desire for independence. Instead, by 1776 they "tried to avert a war that promised them no benefits but serious risks" (137). The war contributed to the end of slavery in the British West Indies, but O'Shaughnessy emphasizes that "the causes were political, not economic" (238). In addition to the harmful trade restrictions that Parliament had imposed, the political separation of southern mainland slaveowners from British West Indian slaveowners strengthened the cause of British abolitionists. An Empire Divided will widen historians' understanding of the Anglophone political world, and the contrasting example of the British Caribbean may give historians of North America grounds for reevaluating their own findings about the American Revolution.
The author musters a variety of evidence, particularly correspondence, assembly minutes, and a staggering number of newspapers from the Caribbean, North America, and Europe. With qualitative as well as anecdotal evidence, he is able to discuss sugar prices, representation at Eton, Stamp Act disputes, troop strength, and naval movements with equal comfort and to good effect. In addition to the vast array of documentary [End Page 136] evidence, O'Shaughnessy has also scoured the Atlantic world to bring his audience a rich body of thirty-eight illustrations, from the author's own photographs to contemporary prints and paintings. Though the illustrations are not always integrated well into the text, the images, even more than the documents, demonstrate how unfamiliar Caribbean history looks to most students of the War for American Independence.
Scholars might be tempted to see the author's straightforward arguments as pedestrian, but O'Shaughnessy has provided historians with the refreshing reminder that significant aspects of great events are sometimes simple. To discuss the role of the British Caribbean does not require tortured intellectual leaps, only an extensive and balanced treatment of a neglected yet vibrant subject.
Benjamin L. Carp
University of Virginia