Three Books on Jamaica: Anatomy of an Uprising: Back-breaking labor, an oven-hot climate, whip-bearing overseers and a planter class eager to exploit slave labor. Jamaica exploded in rebellion—and the empire struck back by Fergus M. Bordewich. He reviews three books in The WSJ. Excerpts: "Just after Christmas in 1831, the British Empire’s wealthiest island [Jamaica] exploded.""Hundreds of slaves, having been pushed beyond endurance, attacked hated overseers and their masters’ property. “We have worked enough already, and will work no more,” striking laborers told a pair of plantation owners. “The life we live is too bad; it is the life of a dog.” In all, 145 estate houses were destroyed and many others severely damaged.""The uprising was soon over, having been weakened by its poor
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"Just after Christmas in 1831, the British Empire’s wealthiest island [Jamaica] exploded."
"Hundreds of slaves, having been pushed beyond endurance, attacked hated overseers and their masters’ property. “We have worked enough already, and will work no more,” striking laborers told a pair of plantation owners. “The life we live is too bad; it is the life of a dog.” In all, 145 estate houses were destroyed and many others severely damaged."
"The uprising was soon over, having been weakened by its poor organization and thwarted by the failure of the island’s 300,000 slaves to rise en masse. It was also overwhelmed by the firepower of British troops. Few whites were killed, but the colonial elite’s confidence in its ability to defend itself was deeply shaken. Hundreds of enslaved men and women were killed in battle or summarily executed, some simply because they had attended a Baptist meeting."
"The revolt failed to improve conditions for the enslaved in Jamaica, but it crucially wounded the institution of slavery itself."
"it was only one factor in the ending of slavery, along with surging abolitionism in Britain, an increasingly muscular reform movement in Parliament, and the falling price of sugar, the islands only export crop. But the revolt, he says, “sent an unambiguous message to London that slavery was no longer sustainable—not economically, not militarily, and not morally.”"
"colonial Jamaica was characterized by extreme systemic violence against enslaved people. It was also ruled over by a dissolute planter class obsessed with short-term profits that made it cheaper to work slaves to death and buy new ones than to sustain them into their later, less productive years.
Long before India became the jewel in the empire’s crown, Jamaica was seen to be the “colony that was most indispensable to imperial prosperity,”"
"Jamaica’s rulers, many of them absentee plutocrats living in England, were the richest people in the entire British Empire by the 1770s and “probably had more influence within the British imperial state than any other colonial subjects of George III.” They bought seats in Parliament like baubles."
"In the late 18th century, planters could expect rates of return in excess of 17% annually on their investment. Output continued to grow as slavery became more “efficient”: Between 1750 and 1810, the average productivity of enslaved workers doubled as mistreatment became more calculated and systematic. For countless slaves, life was brutish and short. Cane fields were oven-hot and rat-infested. The labor was back-breaking. When cane was boiled during production, liquefied sugar clung to the skin like searing glue. Workers who arrived late in the fields were commonly subjected to a “slight whipping” of 10 to 20 lashes. Many died of sheer fatigue."
"British statesmen “thought that maximizing labor productivity, as with slavery, and producing goods, such as sugar, at the lowest possible cost for the benefit of a growing consumer class was central to any imperial policy,”"
"Slavery’s defenders, meanwhile, claimed that slaves had in fact been “rescued by British benevolence from the Hobbesian world of African cruelty and superstition.”"
"Revolts would recur every few years through the rest of the 18th century and into the 19th. Yet change was stirring. Less in reaction to the bloodletting than as a result of reformist impulses in England, the foundation was being laid for the political attack on slavery that would come to fruition in 1834. Beginning in the 1760s, reformers began to challenge both the immense power of Jamaican planters and the morality of slavery. Their critique gained traction as they made the case that the planters were determined to impose their tyrannical and “un-British” ways of life on free Englishmen, in part because, it was alleged, they would import Black slave labor into Britain itself.
In 1834, faced with rising public hostility and buffeted by fear of further rebellions, slaveowners and their parliamentary allies persuaded the government to buy them out. Commented one: “If the slavery of our colonies is a sin, it is the sin of the nation, and ought to be redeemed at the nation’s expense.” In all, £20 million was handed out to the empire’s slaveowners, about 40% of the national budget at the time. Full emancipation was completed in 1838. As Mr. Zoellner neatly puts it: “Three centuries of bondage were thus terminated with a dull bargain and a cash payout amid the grind of politics.”"