- Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference by Jenny Shaw
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013
Try to imagine what life was like on a sugar plantation in the seventeenth-century English Caribbean, where African slaves and Irish servants lived and worked together under the watchful eye of English planters. How did they view each other? What were their interactions like? How did they negotiate status and hierarchy? These are important questions because they speak to broader debates about the origins of racism and slavery: the “origins debate” in the English colonies. The long-standing assumption is that difference was based solely on race. With the rise of the sugar plantation economy in the mid-seventeenth century, the need for [End Page 825] labor increased and greater numbers of Africans were brought to English colonies. As this process unfolded, society became racially bifurcated, and labor was used to separate individuals into distinct categories consisting of those who were free (whites) and those who were unfree (blacks). Jenny Shaw challenges this view in her well-written and convincing book Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean. She notes that Africans were not the only (or the first) unfree laborers in the early modern English Atlantic world. Europeans, more specifically Irish Catholic indentured servants, were sometimes used like slaves. In addition, she explores how race was not the only factor that shaped prejudice; religion also played a prominent albeit overlooked role in the construction of difference. Shaw is part of a growing number of scholars who argue that the racial bifurcation model needs to be revised, and she provides a much-needed, more nuanced account of how difference was constructed in the early English Caribbean.
The everyday experiences and interactions among Irish servants, African slaves, and English planters contributed to the construction of difference. However, the lack of surviving source material from this period has complicated our understanding of this process. To recover the everyday life of ordinary colonial subjects, Shaw (re)reads traditional sources (plantation records and inventories, wills, deeds, and travelers’ accounts) as much for what they omit as for what they include. Her methodology of focusing on the “presence of absence” allows readers to learn more about marginalized populations who left little (if any) paper trail and who are largely invisible in the historical record.
English ideas about difference were initially worked out in Ireland, the site of England’s first imperial project. Through the lens of their own ideas about what constituted civilized behavior, the English perceived Irish cultural practices related to land use, sexual mores, clothing, and religion as barbaric. This became the basis of the perceived inferiority of the Irish. The English would later draw attention to similar cultural practices among Native Americans and Africans as markers of uncivilized peoples. They believed that cultural differences among inferior peoples, such as the Irish, could be overcome if they adopted Protestantism. However, the 1641 Ulster uprising, which devolved into an ethnic conflict between Irish Catholics on one side and English and Scottish Protestants on the other, hardened attitudes toward the Irish. Following the Cromwellian war in England [End Page 826] (1649–53), the English deported about fifty thousand Irish Catholics as indentured laborers, many to the West Indies, and their persecution of Irish Catholics intensified both at home and abroad. By then the English no longer believed the Irish capable of redemption, and religion became the most important cultural marker of difference.
This influx of Irish in Barbados and the Leeward Islands coincided with the rise of the sugar plantation economy across the English Caribbean. To meet the increased need for labor, English plantation owners imported large numbers of African slaves. Before long Irish servants and African slaves outnumbered English colonists, prompting concerns about the destabilizing potential of subjugated populations. Colonial authorities found it necessary to identify and count disruptive populations, as the English had done in Ireland with the Down Survey in 1652. English authorities attempted to minimize—in their minds, at least—the threat holding people...