The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica

The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica

The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica

The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica

Synopsis

Jamaica and Saint-Domingue were especially brutal but conspicuously successful eighteenth-century slave societies and imperial colonies. These plantation regimes were, to adopt a metaphor of the era, complex "machines," finely tuned over time by planters, merchants, and officials to become more efficient at exploiting their enslaved workers and serving their empires. Using a wide range of archival evidence, The Plantation Machine traces a critical half-century in the development of the social, economic, and political frameworks that made these societies possible. Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus find deep and unexpected similarities in these two prize colonies of empires that fought each other throughout the period. Jamaica and Saint-Domingue experienced, at nearly the same moment, a bitter feud between planters and governors, a violent conflict between masters and enslaved workers, a fateful tightening of racial laws, a steady expansion of the slave trade, and metropolitan criticism of planters' cruelty.

The core of The Plantation Machine addresses the Seven Years' War and its aftermath. The events of that period, notably a slave poisoning scare in Saint-Domingue and a near-simultaneous slave revolt in Jamaica, cemented white dominance in both colonies. Burnard and Garrigus argue that local political concerns, not emerging racial ideologies, explain the rise of distinctive forms of racism in these two societies. The American Revolution provided another imperial crisis for the beneficiaries of the plantation machine, but by the 1780s whites in each place were prospering as never before--and blacks were suffering in new and disturbing ways. The result was that Jamaica and Saint-Domingue became vitally important parts of the late eighteenth-century American empires of Britain and France.

Excerpt

This book is about social, political, and economic transformations in eighteenth-century Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, two extremely profitable but socially monstrous slave societies. These islands, we argue, were more than minor colonies in distant parts of the world, far removed from European consciousness and without global importance. Rather, they were Europe’s most successful plantation societies, and we examine them during the years when they were at their absolute peak, between 1740 and 1788. This study therefore chronicles the two most important (and not coincidentally the two most brutal) slave societies within the plantation complex that shaped the Atlantic World from its fourteenth-century origins to the end of slavery in Cuba and Brazil in the 1880s.

That plantation complex depended on a vibrant Atlantic slave trade, supplying large numbers of Africans to the tropical regions of the Americas, where they were coerced into producing luxury commodities originally developed in Asia for a European market. In the years between 1740 and 1788, this plantation complex—which we prefer to call the plantation machine, adopting the mechanistic metaphor common in the age—had reached an apogee of sorts in the Greater Antilles. In other words, Jamaica and SaintDomingue came close to perfecting a form of economic organization that operated on a global scale, using specialized laborers from one continent who did not merely farm but in fact manufactured products in a second continental zone for consumers in a third. This revolutionary form of social and economic organization bears careful study, not only for how it functioned but for the social and political mechanisms that sustained it. This work provides that close-grained, empirically based investigation of the plantation . . .

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