Academic journal article Journal of Social History

A Failed Settler Society: Marriage and Demographic Failure in Early Jamaica

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

A Failed Settler Society: Marriage and Demographic Failure in Early Jamaica

Article excerpt

Jamaica in the eighteenth century was the jewel in Britain's imperial crown. According to any number of criteria, Jamaica was the most important colony held by Britain in British North America. Jamaica contributed the most of any colony to the imperial coffers. Its leading inhabitants were the wealthiest citizens i the British Empire and among the wealthiest of the subjects of the British monarchy. Moreover, the only colonials to play any significant role within the British establishment were Jamaicans, William Beckford, Lord Mayor of London in the 1760s, being the most notable example. Jamaica was important not only in economic terms. Even though the population of Jamaica remained substantially below mainland colonies such as Virginia and Massachusetts throughout the eighteenth century, Jamaica attracted sizeably more migrants, the majority bein unwillingly coerced slaves from Africa, than any other colony in the century before the American Revolution.

Yet what was so clear to contemporaries has not been so evident to later historians. To consider Jamaica the most important colony in eighteenth century British America is almost wilfully provocative. In any colonial survey, Virgini and Massachusetts, even New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, attract mor attention than Jamaica. In part, the answer for the relative neglect of Jamaica is understandable: Jamaica's subsequent history and decided marginality in the world after the early nineteenth century reduce the significance of its earlier importance. Yet there are other reasons why Jamaica does not receive the attention it deserves even for the colonial period. In the seventeenth century, Jamaica can be easily accommodated within existing historical syntheses. Struggling settlers in Jamaica just as on the mainland sought to cement an enduring presence in an alternately inviting and hostile environment. They attempted to create a genuine settler society with a distinctive cultural identity that was a mixture of inherited metropolitan assumptions and new colonial experiences.

Nevertheless, during the course of the eighteenth century, Jamaica's experience increasingly diverged from mainland patterns of development. While on the continent increasingly successful European settlement "produced a slow but powerful cultural and social convergence,"(1) white colonists in Jamaica faced considerable problems in transforming their society into a tropical replica of British society. Jamaica was a fully fledged and remarkably successful plantation society by the eighteenth century but the seventeenth century attemp to establish a lasting white settler presence in the island had not been successful. There were a few settlers of long standing in the island and there was, as Edward Brathwaite has argued, a discernible creole identity among nativ born white Jamaicans,(2) but creole settlers were overwhelmed by other presence in the island ensuring that social patterns continued to exhibit marked transitory and impermanent characteristics. Creole settlers were unable to create a consensus about what Jamaican identity should be. Instead, the dominan tone of the place was largely set by expatriate English and Scottish immigrants who had no intention of making Jamaica their home and by the large majority of brutalized African slaves who gave clear evidence in several largescale slave rebellions that they had an entirely different idea from white creoles about what life in Jamaica should be like.(3)

Scholars have not given much attention to what can be seen as the failure of a settler society to develop in Jamaica, alone of the major colonies established in British North America in the seventeenth century.(4) The success of the plantation complex in eighteenth century Jamaica and the social structure that it engendered gives a degree of inevitability to its establishment and characte in Jamaica. Yet alternatives to plantation agriculture were always possible and in the seventeenth century had been actively pursued. …

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