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  • "An Engine of Immense Power":The Jamaica Watchman and Crossings in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Print Culture
  • Candace Ward (bio)

In the decades leading to the passage of Great Britain's Act to Abolish Slavery in 1833, print culture in Jamaica appeared to be the exclusive domain of pro-planter interests. The colonial press—represented by well-connected family networks like the Lunans, Aikmans, and De Cordovas—worked in obvious ways to shore up plantocratic interests.1 From anti-abolitionist screeds to prognostications about the economic ruin sure to attend emancipation, the resident white community articulated and circulated its opposition to abolition, forwarding its cause via a well-established print industry. However, its discursive hold did not go unchallenged. In July 1829, a new voice in Jamaican print emerged, the Watchman, and Jamaica Free Press.2 Founded by two young men of color, Edward Jordon and Robert Osborn, the Watchman (as it came to be called) was borne of the campaign for civil rights led by Jamaica's free people of color.3 As was made clear in the paper's earliest issues, however, the push for "brown privileges" was bound inextricably to the fight against slavery. "So long as slavery exists," a May 1830 editorial asserted, the slave master will continue to treat "every man whose complexion is not white" with "contempt and contumely."4 Indeed, the white master, "accustomed as he is to lord it with a high hand over his black and coloured slaves, … considers himself equally entitled to domineer over the black and coloured freemen."5

The characterization of the "greater portion of the Jamaica aristocracy"—that is, the resident white planter class—in such terms was not novel.6 The arrogance of that class was familiar to British readers, whose attitudes about colonial slavery and slave holders had been shaped by nearly half a century of activism on the part of metropolitan abolitionists. [End Page 483] For both British and Jamaican readers, however, the Watchman crossed traditional boundaries of colonial print culture to operate on "novel ground."7 Produced "in a slave colony" by people of color and thus outside the hegemonic order of the island's white ruling elite, the Watchman systematically undermined Jamaica's longstanding hierarchies of race and class, opening up island politics to a "free discussion" of enfranchisement and emancipation.8 This essay explores the context and shape of that discussion, placing the Watchman's reporting and editorial content against the backdrop of the pro-planter press it challenged. I demonstrate how Jordon and Osborn's bi-weekly publication transgressed internal boundaries of island slave society to create an "oppositional public sphere" of the kind traditionally associated with post-emancipation newspapers of the later nineteenth century.9 Refuting, co-opting, and refining the rhetorical strategies used by the pro-planter press as it defended an increasingly untenable anti-emancipationist stance, the Watchman changed the print landscape of the Anglo-Caribbean colonial world, lending revolutionary significance to Jordon and Osborn's claim that "ours is a free press."10

The Cultural Work of the Pro-Planter Press

As I argue elsewhere, Anglo-Caribbean print culture of the early nineteenth century was marked by white creoles' desire to legitimize their right to govern colonial affairs—and the region's black and brown subjects—without interference from London.11 Although part of this legitimization project took the form of bald assertions of planters' rights to property (specifically, human property) as they appeared in the pages of Jamaican dailies like Andrew Lunan's Kingston Chronicle, subtler articulations of the pro-slavery position were couched in the language of civilization and cultural improvement. "Literary" content (with a capital "L") was offered up by the Jamaica Magazine as evidence of white creoles' "elegant taste," and their production, appreciation, and dissemination of reading matter was interpreted as an "infallible" sign of the "progress of civilization and polished manners among a people."12

The Jamaica Magazine, one of several short-lived literary magazines produced by the planter press in the pre-emancipation period, ran from 1812 to 1813. It was printed for the proprietors of the Kingston Chronicle, then under the auspices of Andrew Lunan. Lunan's miscellany was less...


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pp. 483-503
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