‘They can now digest strong meats:’ two decades of expansion, adaptation, innovation, and maturation on Barbados, 1680-1700
McGuinness, Ryan Dennis
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Historians have long been drawn to the story of Barbados and the tales of sugar, slavery, empire, and wealth that defined the colonial history of this small West Indian island lying on the southeastern margins of the Caribbean Sea. First settled by the English in 1627, it quickly developed into ‘one of the richest Spotes of ground in the wordell’ after the introduction of sugar cane agriculture in the early 1640s and, by 1660, had become one of the most valuable and influential colonial possessions in the western hemisphere. Barbados was famous in its own time, especially after Richard Ligon, a three year resident on the island from 1647 to 1650, wrote his popular A True and Exact History of the Iland of Barbados in 1657. In this work, he vividly described a range of topics that included the island’s exotic flora and fauna, the methods used to convert cane into sugar, the trials many experienced in adjusting to life in the tropics, and the arrival of enslaved Africans for a public eager to receive such information on the distant domains of a growing empire. Contemporary scholars followed Ligon with other works in which Barbados figured prominently, such as John Oldmixon’s The British Empire in America (1708) and two important natural histories by Hans Sloane (1708) and Griffith Hughes (1750). It also served as the setting for many popular works, including a brief poem by the well-known English bard Richard Flecknoe and Richard Steele’s famous newspaper serial ‘Inkle and Yariko. Academic interest in the island’s past has also remained high since the eighteenth-century, with historians consistently drawn to Barbados’ integral role in the development of sugarcane agriculture based on enslaved African labour and the influence this had on England’s imperial mission. As B.W. Higman explains: the colonial history of the Caribbean is commonly characterized by the intimate relationship of sugar and slavery…and the defining moment of that relationship is located in the sugar revolution, beginning in Barbados in the middle of the seventeenth century. It is the sugar revolution above all which has come to represent the vital watershed, starkly separating the history of the islands from that of the mainland, not merely in terms of agricultural economy, but in almost every area of life, from demography, to social structure, wealth, settlement patterns, culture, and politics. Higman’s quotation highlights the important work on the island’s past that has already been completed by modern historians, especially in regard to sugar, slavery, and their combined effects upon the economic and political relationships that dominated the planters’ lives. Richard Dunn, for example, notes that ‘we have detailed political and institutional histories of the several Caribbean colonies in the seventeenth centuries and excellent studies of Stuart colonial policy in the West Indies.’ Books such as those written by Dunn, Vincent Harlow, Gary Puckrein, Larry Gragg, Noel Deerr, Richard Pares, Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh, Richard Sheridan, Russell Menard, and Hilary Beckles have successfully highlighted the importance of Barbados’ place within the sugar-producing Caribbean and have helped to contribute to the further understanding of the relationship between the development of the plantation complex, the growing power of the West Indian planter, and the forced enslavement of a large African population. Combined, these authors adequately cover most of the important events in Barbadian history, ranging from the early settlement period and the emergence of sugar to the emancipation of the enslaved in 1834. Nevertheless, gaps in the historiography still exist, leaving several significant periods of the island’s history under-analyzed and misunderstood. One such lacuna exists for the twenty-year period between 1680 and 1700, a vital two decades that represented great tragedy, violence, and change throughout the English empire from an ugly combination of rebellion, revolution, and war. These events profoundly influenced and altered the lives of the 66,000 people living on Barbados. Yet, many historians gloss over this period in favor of either the island’s early settlement period or later emancipation era. They often avoid the 1680s and 1690s by hastily contending that the two decades were a period of relative decline defined by a combination of low prices, limited supply, infertile soil, war, and disease. Historians often attempt to justify these assertions by pointing to two contemporary documents that, when read in tandem, appear to paint a dismal picture of island conditions during this era. The first of these is the 1680 census, a compilation of demographic statistics collected by each parish vestry at the request of Governor Sir Jonathon Atkins in 1679. Under intense suspicion from the Lords of Trade and Plantations for not following the proper protocol concerning colonial laws and for refusing to send requested information back to England, Atkins demanded the name, location, acreage, and labor force of every landowner living on the island. He also collected specific accounts of the militia, island fortifications, and emigration, while receiving tallies of the Anglican baptisms, deaths, and marriages that occurred in each parish. Many historians use these demographic statistics to draw important conclusions about Barbados, including the continuing consolidation of the island’s limited acreage by the elite, the wealthy’s dominance of politics and the military, the lopsided burial to baptism rate, the high number of white emigrants, and the near-complete replacement of indentured servants by enslaved Africans.
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