The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica & Barbados, 1823-1843

The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica & Barbados, 1823-1843

The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica & Barbados, 1823-1843

The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica & Barbados, 1823-1843


The British Slavery Abolition Act of 1834 provided a grant of 20 million to compensate the owners of West Indian slaves for the loss of their human 'property.' In this first comparative analysis of the impact of the award on the colonies, Mary Butler focuses on Jamaica and Barbados, two of Britain's premier sugar islands.

The Economics of Emancipation examines the effect of compensated emancipation on colonial credit, landownership, plantation land values, and the broader spheres of international trade and finance. Butler also brings the role and status of women as creditors and plantation owners into focus for the first time. Through her analysis of rarely used chancery court records, attorneys' letters, and compensation returns, Butler underscores the fragility of the colonial economies of Jamaica and Barbados, illustrates the changing relationship between planters and merchants, and offers new insights into the social and political history of the West Indies and Britain.


Until the middle of the eighteenth century the sugar islands of the Caribbean ranked foremost among British colonies. Euphorically described as the brightest "jewels" in the British Crown, they provided the economic springboard for a new aristocracy of planters and merchants. For over a century, owners of West India plantations reaped handsome returns from their slave-grown sugar and coffee. Profits derived from sugar built English country estates, financed parliamentary seats, and helped to ensure the continued development of the cities and towns that catered to every aspect of colonial slavery. Assured of a protected British market, overconfident planters saddled their estates with a prolific array of legacies, annuities, and settlements.

Yet from the very beginning the sugar colonies carried the seeds of their own destruction. The entire economic structure operated on credit: credit to meet expenses at home and abroad, credit to buy land and plantation supplies, and credit to replenish the slave labor force. Until the early eighteenth century, planters who faced unexpected operating expenses simply borrowed from friends and family, but as credit patterns changed in the 1740s, planters became heavily dependent on British credit and services. When sugar prices began their long-term decline in the 1790s, they found it increasingly difficult to meet the liabilities secured against their once-profitable plantations. By 1820 few West India planters owned unencumbered estates. The majority struggled in a complicated web of debts and multiple mortgages as they attempted to continue production.

As British merchants became more deeply involved in the colonial credit structure, their economic power and prestige replaced the social power and prestige of the planters. With less possibility of recouping their original investments, British merchants began withdrawing from the West India trade . . .

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