Far from the romanticised image of the swashbuckling genre of maritime history, the eighteenth-century Caribbean was a ‘marchlands’ in which violence was a way of life and where solidarities were transitory and highly volatile, as Nicholas Rogers explains.
It is often claimed that the questions historians ask are in some measure prompted by contemporary issues and in this particular book it would be true. Blood Waters is a study shaped by the present British conjuncture in which the country has broken with Europe and at the same suffered a world-wide pandemic. Its own race relations have also been influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement of the United States and brought into sharp relief what it means to be part of a multi-cultural Britain at a point in time when Britons are searching for their roots and redefining their political traditions. These three issues, Brexit, Covid and BLM, were very much on my mind when I brought together a series of essays on the eighteenth-century British Caribbean.
In popular cinematic lore, the eighteenth-century Caribbean conjures up images of a buccaneering past, most recently exemplified by the louche characters of Pirates of the Caribbean or Black Sails. I don’t indulge this picaresque history here, save to track the hazards of piracy when states were more vigilant repressing it. But I do assess the lure of that filibustering age after its apogee, when the European competition for colonial territories facilitated legalised piracy or privateering and prompted men to venture into the torrid zones for wealth and fame. Those torrid zones were also death traps, particularly as the slave trade accelerated and brought yellow fever to the Americas, a massive killer of soldiers and sailors in the wars for plantation riches and naval-cum-commercial mastery. When Thomas Arne composed ‘Rule Britannia’ he was catering to a bellicose middle-class public gleeful of British victories in the Caribbean, not with the dire realities of tropical ventures in places like Cartagena, Cuba and later Saint Domingue, nor with the volatile race relations that naval warfare and prize-taking precipitated. As a song that has somehow embedded itself in British heritage, and indeed has been recharged by Brexit, ‘Rule Britannia’ speaks volumes about the aporia between British island consciousness and the real Islands histories in the West Indies.
Blood Waters begins with an assessment of Robinson Crusoe as a story of survival and colonial adventure that was open to different readings. In Crusoe’s encounter with Carib Indians it spoke to fictional frontiers, but several other chaptersspeak to real ones, and two to the British interaction with indigenous groups within or on the margins of the plantation complex. One addresses the fortunes of the Miskito Indians of the Mosquito Shore that stretched for 400 miles along the Atlantic coastline of Central America. It tracks the circumstances of their emergence as ethnic soldiers of the British, both in protecting Britain’s fledgling hardwood industries from Spanish interference and in providing Jamaican planters and shoreline settlers with an auxiliary supply of indigenous slaves. It also explores the tensions among the different Miskito bands and the difficulties of persuading them to adhere to European conventions of warfare. In contrast, the book investigates the struggle of the Black Caribs of St Vincent to secure some autonomy from the British when they embarked on an aggressive expansion of plantation agriculture after the Seven Years’ War. In the end both indigenous minorities suffered under British colonialism. The alliance with the Miskito was abandoned when the British lost interest in the Shore after 1783 and came to terms with Spanish sovereignty of the area in return for Belize and Gibraltar. The Black Caribs were brutally suppressed once they sided with the French and tried to expel the British from the island. Starved into submission, this shrinking cohort of maroons was deported to Central America, a fate that awaited other ethnic minorities than did not conform to European colonial imperatives.
The British quest for tropical staples and the consolidation of the plantation economy involved the suppression of indigenous peoples and maroons. It perennially involved the policing of enslaved Africans who toiled to bring sugar to British tea and cotton to British textiles. Virtually every Caribbean island experienced some form of slave uprising over the course of the long eighteenth century, including Britain’s wealthiest colony, Jamaica. In Blood Waters I zone in on a conspiracy among African and creole slaves to take control of the north-west parish of Hanover in 1776, a year when British military resources were diverted to deal with the American war of independence. What particularly interested me about this episode was whether war and revolution altered the dynamics of insurrection. To what extent were slaves inspired by libertarian rhetoric or the contingencies of struggle in which the British tried to undermine American colonial slavery by offering freedom to runaways? To what extent does the archive of repression allow us to answer this question with any certainty?
One thing is for sure. Violence was integral to the eighteenth-century Caribbean. Violence to the body in the terrible fevers that beset newcomers, especially unseasoned troops and sailors. Violence at sea, in the slave trade and at war when free as well as enslaved captives of colour were liable to be sold as prizes. Violence on land, on the plantations, in the marketplace, in the defiles and redoubts of the bush wars. In what Bernard Bailyn has termed ‘marchlands’, border zones of endemic violence, there were few opportunities for capacious alliances among different subaltern groups for some autonomy or freedom, even as theories of human rights were taking root. Educated Europeans might ponder such concepts in their polite conversations over tea and coffee, but until the French Revolution generated new claims for people of colour, they remained largely disassociated from the realities of the Caribbean vortex, which cast a dark shadow on the Enlightenment.
This guest post was written by Nicholas Rogers, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus in History at York University, Toronto and author of Murder on the Middle Passage. The Trial of Captain Kimber (Boydell, 2020) and (with Steve Poole) of Bristol from Below. Law, Authority and Protest in a Georgian City, (Boydell, 2017).