- Sugar, Slavery and Wealth:Jamaica Planter Nathaniel Phillips and the Williams Hypothesis (1761–1813)
In early 1771, Nathaniel Phillips Esq., a young Jamaican planter, received a letter from a Jamaican friend who had just returned to London. The ecstatic John Gray, although he "… wished for the warmth of Jamaica …," described the delights of England, especially the various kinds of berries, and also did not lack for words of praise of the women; they were "… the finest women in general and the best complexions. …"1 Phillips' laconic reply was telling: "Every convenience now in England I make no doubt offered itself to plenty moneys without this blessing poor Jamaica has the preference."2
Phillips' "preference" for Jamaica, despite his eventual succumbing to the established societal custom of planters returning "home" to England to live as country gentlemen, nevertheless shines throughout his sojourn on the island.3 He only made two trips back to England between 1759 and 1789 when he returned for good. Like others, Phillips, after the death [End Page 59] of his wife, lived comfortably in a house in Kingston with his mulatto mistress, Charlotte Wynter, with whom he apparently fathered four children.4 He took a keen interest in their education, even training his two boys as planters. His attorney, Thomas Barrett, regularly sent news of the boys' progress, as they learned to manage Phillipsfield, as well as the education of the two girls at a school in Kingston.5 On his final return to England, Phillips gave the house to Charlotte but with the proviso that he be allowed to visit and stay there when he wanted.
Despite his ambiguous social proclivities, Phillips was never in any doubt about the value that the islands and the slave trade held for the Mother Country. Referring to the benefits England and the British Isles obtained from the lucrative West Indian slave trade, which had been underway since the mid-seventeenth century, one of his London merchants was succinct in his assessment when hearing of petitions by Dissenters and Quakers for abolition, "… unless they can substitute some better plan for carrying on the cultivation of the sugar colonies which produce such an immense revenue to this country their request cannot be seriously thought on by the ministry. …"6 As his letters, as well as his membership in the London Society of West Indian Planters and Merchants, attest Phillips himself was never in any doubt on the matter.
Writing to his merchant friends in England, he questioned whether "… it is possible in this enlightened age that the Frenzy of a few fanatics should be suffered to poison the minds of the people? What can they mean by the Abolition of Slavery, surely not to rob those of their Property who have embarked on the Sugar Trade? Now can they mean to stir up the slaves to rebellion?"7
His sentiments were in line with that of an intellectual luminary of [End Page 60] the day, Abbé Raynal, who, in describing the economic importance of the West Indian colonies to the colonizing powers, argued that the production of sugar and other tropical goods in the Caribbean (together with the accompanying trade) "… may be considered as the principal cause of the rapid motion which now agitates the universe."8
Phillips' and Raynal's estimation of the value of West Indian sugar production, along with the complementary trade in slaves and goods, and its influence on the industrialization of Great Britain, usually referred to as "the Williams thesis," has sparked numerous studies wishing to prove one side of the argument or the other.9 This paper, while not attempting to draw such dramatic conclusions, nevertheless, offers a contribution to the debate through a case study that assesses and analyses the plantation business of Nathaniel Phillips. By detailing the return on investment from his estate holdings over a specific period, we intend to demonstrate, in more detailed fashion than has been the general practice in the literature, the wealth-creation potential of these West Indian properties and, by so doing, illuminate at least one aspect of that rather broad thesis—the rate of wealth accumulation from...