- Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650−1820 by Trevor Burnard
Trevor Burnard’s new book is a response to Russell R. Menard’s challenge to scholars to historicize three things: the development of largescale British colonial sugar, rice, and tobacco plantations; the gang labor system of slavery they generally employed; and the dominance of the planter class in the colonies with such systems. That is, rather than assume an almost natural evolution of small farms into ever-larger colonial staple plantations, historians need to investigate when, how, and why large plantations were brought into existence. Burnard, like Menard, brings to this exploration of the causes and consequences of the plantation system a broad background of research in the archival sources of both the colonial Caribbean and southern mainland colonies. The result is a provocative book that is about both more and less than its title suggests. It has little to say about merchants and the enslaved, and a good deal to say about ordinary whites and their commitment to regimes dominated by great planters. Planters, Merchants, and Slaves provides a synthesis of the social-economic history of the plantation colonies from the 1970s to the present. Work by Menard, Lorena S. Walsh, David Eltis, and B. W. Higman looms large in this project, but to name such key scholars is to underplay the breadth of Burnard’s reading and his skill in bringing so many historians into the conversation.
The “plantation complex” was defined, Burnard writes, by “large-scale landholding and slave-based labor forces, hierarchical and race-based management systems; export orientation; high-value per capita output; and the application of scientific techniques of management to improve productivity” (4). It was a system born of violence and “more modern than backward” (5), “with plantations that were highly productive and profitable enterprises” (4). He explicitly rejects scholarship that has argued that by the late eighteenth century, the Caribbean plantation economies were collapsing, and he links his work with recent writings on slavery and capitalism.
Chapter 1, framed by Daniel Defoe’s 1721 Colonel Jack, provides an over- view of Burnard’s argument about the rise of large plantations worked by [End Page 212] the labor of enslaved blacks. He distinguishes the process in Barbados, where the system took root, from that in Jamaica, Virginia, and northern South America, where the plantation complex evolved later and apparently more slowly. In chapter 2, Burnard argues that white violence toward enslaved blacks was central to the creation of the plantation complex, especially in Jamaica. Chapter 3, although bogged down a bit with numbers, makes the case that the plantation complex was “at least as profitable and probably a good deal more efficient … than any other form of money making … in the early modern world” (103). In chapter 4, Burnard turns to Jamaica as a case study, working with a literature to which he has already contributed significant scholarship and introducing new research on land prices and the consolidation of farms into plantations. The fifth chapter explores the fundamental importance of the American Revolution to the history of the British Atlantic plantation complex. In an epilogue, Burnard speculates on some of the key historiographic questions in scholarly debates about British colonial slavery and racism. These chapters do not always hang together as much as one would like, and certainly are far less than a full look at British “plantation societies,” but they provide the reader entry points to and a synthesis of the richness of the social-economic history of the last half century on the British plantation system on the southern mainland and in the Caribbean. This study is worth careful attention for its synthetic quality alone, but here I will focus on three themes advanced by the author.
Burnard argues that large plantations were more efficient agricultural wealth producers than small farms. Why then did they take so long to come to dominate the economies of Jamaica and Virginia? The answer, he suggests, is labor discipline. Planters needed to find...