- The Stories We Tell about Caribbean Slavery
There is little doubt that the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Caribbean was a region of critical importance to European colonial empires and characterized by high levels of agricultural output and extreme brutality. The forced transatlantic migration, enslavement, and commodification of millions of African captives facilitated the emergence of profitable, proto-industrialized European plantation colonies throughout the Caribbean. The vast quantities of sugar and other agricultural products generated as a result of slave labor not only enriched planters and their respective mother countries but also resulted in the Caribbean colonies attaining global economic and geopolitical significance. Historians have long grappled with the challenge of explaining how proto-capitalist Caribbean slave societies fueled an expansive and lucrative eighteenth-century Atlantic trading network while also attending to the everyday lives of the enslaved men, women, and children upon whose backs the entire system rested. The books under review here capture two of the major approaches that have dominated the field since the early 2000s in response to these difficulties: one emphasizes the managerial practices and transatlantic commercial, political, and cultural connections of the planter-capitalists who profited from and sustained Caribbean slave regimes, and the other centers on the experiences and struggles of enslaved people.1 [End Page 316]
In The Plantation Machine, Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus examine the development of the two largest, wealthiest, and most influential European plantation colonies in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world: British Jamaica and French Saint Domingue. To grow and process sugarcane into sugar crystals on a massive scale, both colonies adopted and became reliant upon the model of the large integrated plantation, which demanded significant land, financial investment, gang labor, rigid cultivation schedules, and technological innovations. Concentrating on Jamaica and Saint Domingue during their most profitable years from 1740 to 1788, the authors aim to provide “a twin portrait of societies moving along parallel pathways,” (8) before their fates diverged dramatically at the end of the eighteenth century. During these decades, as imperial wars and revolutionary movements threatened to cut off access to markets, supplies, and labor, Jamaica and Saint Domingue continued to operate “at their absolute peak” (1) as brutally efficient plantation societies. Burnard and Garrigus argue that, notwithstanding the islands’ subsequent economic marginalization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jamaica and Saint Domingue played a central role in the evolution of eighteenth-century Atlantic capitalism and thus merit greater attention from historians.
Like recent work by Paul Cheney and Caitlin Rosenthal, The Plantation Machine shows how planters deployed human and technological resources to create a new form of social and economic organization better suited to accommodating the relentless demands of an emergent capitalist world economy.2 At the same time, the book emphasizes that colonial legislative bodies in both Jamaica and Saint Domingue formulated new racial classificatory systems to justify exploitative labor conditions and restrictions on citizenship. By legally defining and privileging whiteness, legislators in French Saint Domingue and British Jamaica unified the white colonial community and erected racial barriers that prevented free people descended from enslaved ancestors from participating in these respective polities as equal subjects. To assess the distinct yet intertwined histories of Jamaica and Saint Domingue in the mid- to late eighteenth-century Atlantic, Burnard and Garrigus employ a mechanistic metaphor—“the plantation machine” (1)—as an alternative to Philip D. Curtain’s influential “plantation complex” [End Page 317] framework.3 Powered by masses of enslaved workers, they declare, the plantation machine proved “a fundamental step forward in the organization of labor for the enrichment of the fortunate owners of large-scale enterprises” (20). In both colonies, fixation on profit led to...