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Reviewed by:
  • An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean
  • Natalie Zacek
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy., An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. (University of Pennsylvania, 2000.)

Andrew O’Shaughnessy opens this exhaustively researched monograph by reminding the reader that “the thirteen colonies in North America represented only half the colonies of British America in 1776” (xi). His aim is to explain why Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and the rest of Britain’s colonies in the West Indies did not follow their North American neighbors into rebellion against and eventual separation from Britain.

According to O’Shaughnessy, the British Caribbean colonies were barred from joining in the revolutionary struggle by a number of interlocking factors which resulted from the islands’ social and economic structure. Unlike North American settlers, West Indians saw themselves more as sojourners in America than as permanent residents; they educated their children in England, visited the mother country regularly for business and pleasure alike, and in many instances became permanent absentee landowners, entrusting their estates to overseers and attorneys. This predilection for absenteeism was at once the cause and the result of the paucity of the white population in the islands in the face of ever-increasing numbers of black slaves, a situation in which white islanders came to view themselves as “a group besieged” (34) and longed for the time at which they would become sufficiently wealthy to afford to retire to Britain. As the percentage of slaves rose within the islands’ populations, the remaining planters felt themselves to be increasingly endangered by potential rebellions, and became more and more dependent upon the presence of British troops to preserve order; whereas “redcoats” were a resented presence to Bostonians and New Yorkers, they were a welcome sight to the planters of the English Caribbean. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the West Indian colonists, rather than chafing against the restrictions of British mercantilist policies, were highly aware that their almost exclusive concentration on sugar as a staple crop made them dependent upon strict enforcement of the Navigation Acts, which gave them a monopoly on the home market for sugar and its by-products, molasses and rum, and blocked competition from the cheaper sugar of St. Domingue and the other French West Indian colonies. Thus, both “natural inclination” (97) and economic and military self-interest militated against the West Indian colonies—desire to join the North Americans in the struggle against Britain.

An Empire Divided is in several respects a useful work. Not only is it smoothly written and lavishly illustrated, but it draws from a vast amount of previously underutilized sources which O’Shaughnessy has painstakingly gathered from archives throughout the United States, Europe, and the West Indies. It makes a serious attempt not only to increase understanding of the Revolution, but it also works to add depth and nuance to the study of the British colonies of the West Indies, which have received far less attention than those of the American mainland. However, O’Shaughnessy shows an unfortunate tendency to rely upon outmoded ideas about the nature of society in the West Indies, accepting without much question the claims of scholars such as Richard Dunn and Orlando Patterson that these colonies were social failures because they did not develop all of the same institutions as did those of North America. Many of the sources from which he draws negative views of the West Indian colonies and their residents were produced by travellers who made only the briefest visits to the islands, and he fails to interrogate these sources by attempting to understand why and for whom they were written. At the same time, he overlooks commonalities between the Caribbean and the American South, particularly the much-noted resemblance between the West Indies and the South Carolina low country, which shared the high ratio of blacks to whites in the local population and the tendency toward absenteeism. O’Shaughnessy’s depiction of slaves as conspirators and rebels is unconvincing; although he claims that West Indian whites were discouraged from rebelling against Britain because they feared that overt political disharmony might bring about a revolt, he fails to explain the ways by which slaves developed...

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