Was there more continuity than change in British-Jamaican relations between 1760 and 1870?
The following is a list of key events in the history of the British colonial rule over the island of Jamaica. Although drawn from key scholarship and sources of evidence, it is of course only an interpretation of the the period, and one with a particular focus upon the changes and continuities in relation to key themes of race, work, abolitionism and resistance.
Each event has a brief summary that relates specifically to the enquiry at hand and does not claim to offer anything like a complete explanation.
A longer, more comprehensive timeline can be found here.
English landing at St Kitts, established as a colony 1624
The first island to be colonised by the English in the Caribbean
First recorded trafficking of enslaved Africans in St Kitts
The first use of the transatlantic slave trade by the English. For the next century or so the British colonisers would use a mixture of ‘indentured servants’ and kidnapped and enslaved people from West Africa to do the back-breaking work on the plantations. With the introduction of sugar, and extension of racial structures, this work was increasingly done solely by enslaved Africans.
Sugar introduced in Barbados
The introduction of a key crop that was to make colonial slavery in the Caribbean so profitable.
Seizure of Jamaica (ceded formally by Spain 1670)
As Cromwell rules at home, England takes control of their largest and, soon to be, most profitable Caribbean island in a war with the Spanish.
First sitting of Jamaican House of Assembly
A legislature was established in Spanish Town , with twelve districts of Jamaica represented , to rule over Jamaica. A high property qualification meant it was efffectively a club for the super wealthy White Planter Class to rule over Jamaica, with little interference from London and no voice for any others on the island.
An uprising of enslaved people on the Island of Jamaica. Named after one of the supposed leaders of the revolt, an ‘Akan’ man kidnapped from the ‘Gold Coast’, it was the largest uprising by enslaved persons on Jamaica in the 18th century. Over the course of eighteen months the rebels killed as many as sixty whites and destroyed many thousands of pounds worth of property. During the suppression of the revolt over five hundred black men and women were killed in battle, executed, or committed suicide. Another 500 were transported from the island for life. Colonists valued the total cost to the island at nearly a quarter of a million pounds.
Cession to Great Britain of Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent & Tobago
Britain continue to expand their empire in the Caribbean – gaining new slave colonies in the Seven Years War from European Powers.
1733 Molasses Act Renewed
1733 Molasses Act was a Mercantilist law that effectively prohibited the British North American Colonies from buying their sugar from the French West Indies (which was cheaper). It instead ensured they bought from the British islands such as Jamaica, further enriching the ‘West Indians’ off the backs of the enslaved workers. It’s renewal and enforcement in 1764 (it was set to expire in 1763) caused unrest among colonists in North America and was widely flouted.
A British court judgement which held that chattel slavery was unsupported by the common law in England and Wales, although the position elsewhere in the British Empire was left ambiguous. This did not instantly free any enslaved person but left the legal justifications for slavery slightly more vulnerable. Edward Long was among many who published a response highly critical of Mansfield’s decision.
American War of Independence
North American colonists fought a war for Independence from the British, eventually declaring their Independence. Britain’s refusal to trade significantly with countries outside of their empire (Mercantlism) meant Jamaica and other British islands were economically cut off from one of their key trading partners – North America.
The killing of more than 130 African slaves by the crew of the British slave ship on and in the days following 29 November 1781. Enslaved persons were murdered (being thrown overboard) in order to claim insurance payments. Such everyday brutality was typical of the system. However when the insurers refused to pay out to the ship’s owners, the resulting court cases instigated some public horror at the system in Britain.
Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade Established
A British abolitionist group, formed on 22 May 1787, by twelve men who gathered together at a printing shop in East London. They were motivated by a christian belief in the wrongs of trading in human beings.
Olaudah Equiano Publishes an Interesting Narrative
Written by a noted abolitionist and formerly enslaved man, the book gives both a powerful biographical account of his own fight for emancipation, as well as a strong moral argument against the Slavery as an institution. One of the first widely read slave narratives, it’s success reflected a sympathy for abolitionism within Britain at the time.
St Domingue revolution begins
In 1791, the only ever successful Slave Uprising began in Saint Domingue, a French colony which produced 50% of the world’s coffee and 30% of its sugar. 500,000 enslaved Africans liberated themselves by force, led by the formerly enslaved Toussaint L’Ouverture. Fear among Slave Owners in the Caribbean spread as they sought ‘refuge’ in nearby islands like Jamaica. Hope spread as quickly among the enslaved populations of the Caribbean. In 1795, the British saw a chance to seize the island from the French. The navy invaded but failed dismally. 60% of the soldiers died and the British left in 1798. After brutal battles, in 1804 the establishment of an independent Haiti was declared.
Second Maroon War in Jamaica
The agreement between West Indians and the Maroons that had lasted since the First Maroon War (1730s) broke down. The prospects of a general slave revolt (the fear of St. Domingue provided a horrifying warning to the planters), meant troops were sent immediately to Montego Bay. Maroon efforts to incite slaves to revolt were, however, largely unsuccessful, most slaves having little liking for the Maroons. Eventually many Maroons did surrender, and over 500 were transported to Nova Scotia.
Opening of the West India Docks
Created at the behest of the ‘London Society of West India Planters and Merchants’ (a ‘West Indian’ Lobby group made up of figures like George Hibbert and Robert Milligan) for all trade to and from the West Indies. In part it was built to prevent theft and spoilage, however it also symbolised the importance of the ‘West Indian Economy’ for the British Empire.
Abolition of the Slave Trade Act
After years of failed attempts led by Clarkson and ‘the Society‘ in public, and William Wilberforce in Parliament, the Act made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies. This, it was hoped by abolitionists, would force Slave Owners to improve their treatment of Enslaved Persons as ‘replacement’ labour would become illegal. However trafficking between the Caribbean islands continued, regardless, until 1811 and within islands remained legal up until 1833. Slavery in the British Empire, however, was still legal.
Rise of a ‘second wave’ of Abolitionism
Amidst demands for political ‘reform’ in Britain (including ‘amelioration’ of the Canning Resolutions or the ‘gradual abolition’ of slavery) , Abolitionism in Britain is re-energised by a new generation of activists (typified by Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824) who demand the immediate abolition of Slavery in all it’s forms in a widely read pamphlet
A series of measures proposed by the British government for the improvement, or ‘amelioration’, of conditions for the enslaved in the Caribbean. Foreign Secretary George Canning had consulted members of the proslavery lobby – the Society of West India Planters and Merchants – and the measures were limited. However the Jamaica Assembly was particularly resistant to the changes because they argued that these measures undermined the principle that each colony should legislate for its own internal affairs.
Also known as the Christmas Rebellion, it was an eleven-day rebellion that mobilized as many as sixty thousand of Jamaica’s three hundred thousand slaves in 1831–1832. Considered the largest slave rebellion in the British Caribbean and the most notable since Tacky’s in 1760. Led by an enslaved Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe, the uprising is seen by many historians as a catalyst for the Abolition of Slavery Act that came a year later.
Abolition of Slavery Act
In 1833 Parliament passed an act abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope. A period of apprenticeship was forced upon the formerly enslaved people of 5 years (in effect to pay back their owners for the ‘skills’ they’d acquired from them). The British government also paid out £20 million of compensation to the slave-owners- approximately 40 per cent of government’s annual expenditure at the time.
A temporary system for the formerly enslaved- that functioned a lot like the previous Slave Plantation system- was eventually abolished by each of the colonial assemblies in the West Indies, including Jamaica (with interference in the Jamaican constitution needed from Westminster). It required another trade off with the West India lobby – this time in return for maintaining preferable Sugar tariffs that allowed them to compete with sugar produced by full enslaved workers in Cuba and Brazil.
Enforcement of ‘Free Labour’ in Jamaica
In an agriculturally abundant island like Jamaica, plantation owners were fearful that they would be unable to force to emancipated to continue to work on their land- or that they would have to pay them well in order for them to do so. Indeed emancipated workers were keen to develop economic independence and avoid working for white planters. Across Jamaica various measures were put in place after 1833 to ensure planter supremacy – vagrancy laws that made it effectively illegal to not work, or travel beyond your parish, land prices were exaggerated to prevent Black ownership, ‘indentured labourers’ were trafficked fromelsewhere in the empire (India and China) to create competition between workers for jobs.
World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London
The World Anti-Slavery Convention met for the first time at Exeter Hall in London, on 12–23 June 1840. It was organised by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society – a descendant of the #1787Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade – and coordinated campaigning against Slavery outside of the British Empire
Jamaican Assembly passes Towns and Communities Act
One of several laws passed by the Jamaican Assembly to regulate the congregation / assembling of people in Jamaica – it helped enforce the criminalisation of vagrancy and a system that benefited the remaining plantation owners who were anxious to ensure they could exploit the required labourers for their land.
Equalization of Sugar Duties begins
Westminster passed the Sugar Duties Act, eliminating Jamaica’s (and other sugar producers in the British West Indies) traditionally favoured status as its primary supplier of sugar. This infuriated the West India lobby who had agreed to end the apprenticeship system early in return for the maintenance of protection. Jamaica’s sugar economy was adversely affected and many of the formerly enslaved struggled to find sufficient work.
Carlyle’s essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” is first published
Famous philosopher & historian Thomas Carlyle publishes a satirical essay arguing the case for re-enslaving Black people and the continued use of indentured labour. Initially he publishes it anonymously – either fearing a backlash or to maintain a satirical tone – however 4 years later in 1853 he republishes it under his own name and replaces ‘Negro’ in the title with the word N*gger. The essay sparks a public debate on the issue in which Carlyle and his followers develop lines of racist thought and his opponents emphasise British abolitionist ideas.
In the election of 1863 only 1,457 people on the entire island met the property qualifications required to vote, and the Jamaican Assembly was controlled by a white elite made up of the same old families and plantation owners who had run the island before emancipation
Morant Bay Rebellion
Conditions for the formerly enslaved population of Jamaica had failed to improve – many were forced to work on the same plantations they had worked on before the 1830s. Discontent grew and a small protest march in south-east Jamaica to a courthouse led by preacher Paul Bogle ended violently and left dozens dead on both sides. In response, Governor Eyre of Jamaica instituted ‘martial law’, sending in troops to indiscriminately execute up to a thousand. Such a response revealed the limits of freedom for the formerly enslaved and their descendants in Jamaica.
Royal Commission on Morant Bay
In response to the controversy the previous year, a ‘Royal Commission’ examined 730 witnesses in the course of fifty-one days. Despite hearing and confirming the brutality of Eyre’s response, the commission concluded that Jamaica had been saved by Eyre’s “skill, promptitude and vigor”. Public figures such as Thomas Carlyle, Dickens and John Ruskin vigorously defended Eyre. Others explicitly drew on emerging ‘scientific’ arguments of the ‘inferiority’ of Africans and their descendants. Abolition was, for many, to be regretted – and had been according to them carried out at the expense of the ‘White Poor’. The ‘Eyre controversy’ was the focus of great debate in England on race and the empire.
Jamaican House of Assembly replaced by Legislative Council and Crown Colony status
The Morant Bay rising so alarmed the white planters that governor Edward John Eyre and the Colonial Office succeeded in persuading the two-centuries-old assembly to vote to abolish itself and ask for the establishment of direct British rule (something West Indian Planters had previously declared an imposition on their liberty). The practice of barring non-whites from public office was reinstated and an unstated alliance – based on shared color, attitudes, and interest – between the British officials and the Jamaican upper class was reinforced in London, where the West India Committee (a renamed version of the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants) lobbied for Jamaican interests.
Universal Suffrage granted
Full adult franchise granted, after major strikes & disturbances of 1938, led at first by sugar workers on Tate and Lyle’s Frome Estate, the adult franchise was finally granted (in 1944) and government reform initiated. Prior to that, the right to vote was determined by the amount of wealth or property a man held (excluding many Black Jamaicans), and women were not allowed to vote at all. The new system extended voting rights to adults irrespective of their race, sex, or social class.
Jamaica became an Independent Nation and a member of the British Commonwealth, with The Queen as Head of State. On that day, the Union Jack was ceremonially lowered and replaced by the Jamaican flag throughout the country.