Thursday, February 25, 2010

Profit Margins in Black and White


Bridenbaugh, Carl and Roberta. No Peace Beyond the Line 1624-1690. New York:, Oxford University Press, 1972.

Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies 1624-1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.


Constant battles occurred in the capitalistic waters of the Caribbean during the period covered by two authors of books that detail the wild business world of the seventeenth-century Caribbean. Richard Dunn and the team of Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh wrote of the Atlantic world, buccaneer adventures in the English West Indies and published in the same year of 1972. No Peace Beyond the Line reflects the seventeenth-century English policy that whatever peace may have been established at home, it did not exist “beyond the line,” or west of a sometimes malleable meridian, usually at the Azores. Generally, it included everything in America south of the Tropic of Cancer and not in the familiar Atlantic world of the traditional trade routes of the Mediterranean and Africa. The West Indies was a “no man’s land” where lawlessness was rampant, the rum flowed freely, and business was the rule. This is where America was born and Quakers pounded pulpits likely until their palms bled.

The early days of Barbadian settlement under Robert Marsham on Trinidad and the fall-back on Tobago seem like Wild West forays into Indian territories, with the Carib playing the role of the Apache. The Earl of Warwick sent another expedition from Barbados to continue settlement of Tobago. It failed. Barbadians attempted Surinam in 1645 and were completely destroyed by Caribs on the main. Hackett’s attempt at the island of Hispaniola ended in bleached bones for the party led by Captain William Jackson, with 750 West Indies planters/pirates to find a few years later. They simply sloughed it off and pushed on the conquest. Eventually, these English adventurers almost got over the excitement of leaving dreary old England and settled down for a nice cup of mobbie and profit. Sugar helped to quell their island-hopping and fatten their wallets. Still, they had to make sugar a feasible product and develop the tools necessary for its manufacture. Sugar also required tremendous amounts of labor. Barbadians came up with a unique solution to that problem as well.

What must life have been like for the West Indies planter? We know a great deal about life in the Old West, but very little about the earlier version in Barbados. Dunn’s goal is to tell the social history of the planter class in Barbados, a task which he believes had never been done before. The adventurous, stalwart, and often sad existence of the West Indies frontiersmen is a tale too familiar. Too many came and too few found success. Even though the Bridenbaughs write with a flare, they adhere to a strict factual regimen that tells the story in the end. But, their result is chronologically based. Still, they manage to get across the idea that Barbadians loved to make and drink alcohol most everywhere, most anytime, and most any place but, especially at places like the Indian Bridge.

The questions that need answers all involve something new, something that no Englishman had ever experienced. Barbados, with all its beauty and exotic fauna, was obviously new to the Englishman. Barbadians developed a unique business enterprise of a magnitude never before known. Barbadians also discovered the most coveted trade secret of all, one that would not remain secret for long - that of the advent of capital-driven chattel slavery. Barbados was simply new all around. To borrow a phrase deep within the contemporary adventurous media, going to Barbados was to boldly go where no man has gone before. Moreover, going there was to risk one’s own life, assuming he went willingly. Still, Barbados promised the young adventurer riches beyond the dreams of avarice and this fact was usually sufficient to hide the dangers. Like a talented young guitar player trying to become famous, waiting for an audition in a room filled with hundreds just like him, so too were the Barbadian planter’s chances of success. And in the boom or bust frontier atmosphere, no rest or play would be tolerated. Unfortunately for the historian, there also remained little opportunity to record the events of this period. Richard Ligon probably became the most quoted Barbadian then alive and he was a biased salesman. Apparent from both versions, there was no peace beyond the line, in the Caribbean frontier world of buccaneers, “cannibal” natives, and hurricanes.

Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh tell the story of the same group of people, although more systematically – again, through Richard Ligon and a few others. They begin with a flashy buccaneer raid to take Jamaica but quickly sober and tell a story full of capital intention and accidental beginnings, but a successful enterprise nevertheless. Again, sugar and slavery answered these problems adequately.

Dunn’s first chapter reflects the Bridenbaugh’s title with “Beyond the Line.” In his portrayal of the West Indies, a 1631 English buccaneer adventure off Guadeloupe commenced in a chase of twenty Spanish warships, fully intending to repulse intruders from their “private reserve” of the Caribbean. No matter that Dunn demonstrates the raw beauty of the Caribbean. Dangers of the Spanish and “cannibal” Caribs should have frightened any Englishman away. Not Barbadians. Not “beyond the line.” It was a world of extraordinary wonder and deadly peril that both enticed and repulsed. Moreover, England took no responsibility for what happened that far away. Indeed, the King had no hand in this. Royalist coercive independent merchants, traders, dealers in black flesh hoping to make their fortunes braved the wild waters and dirty rum-filled squalor of “Little England.” No wonder that 1,200 Barbadians packed and moved en masse to New England to escape the dangerous environment - Spanish, Caribs, disease and their fellow Englishmen. Raising sugar and tobacco in this environment should have been more than problematic. It should have been absolutely impossible.

Dunn’s portrayal of Barbadian and West Indian life is a scholarly approach, almost ethnographic in context. He examines primary documents in smooth, rich detail. The Bridenbaughs are just as detailed, though a bit broader in approach. Details such as the Royal African Company’s shipping and losses permeate this work. Their focus is more upon the British world trade arena and the West Indies in that context. This nuance is only a subtle distinction. Both works are very similar in style and approach.

Dunn’s book contains so much statistical information that it makes a fantastic reference for any writer about Barbadian history. There are thirty-two tables and graphs besides what figures can be found in the text. For a book titled Sugar and Slaves, Dunn does not get around to the full discussion of either until two-thirds of the book is read. He obviously had a strong desire to talk about buccaneers and probably just could not wait. Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh approach their work from a similar approach, yet are more concerned with the transition of West Indian society as a white presence to the predominantly black presence of today. They endeavor to explain the history behind that transition. They rely certainly upon primary sources and almost as heavily upon quantitative analysis as Dunn. Tables and figures make No Peace Beyond the Line as a valuable source as Sugar and Slaves for any work upon the Caribbean.

To be sure, Englishmen came to Barbados really for one thing. Bridenbaugh says that promoters thought exclusively of profits, to get rich. At first, planters tried the time-proven methods of planting tobacco, like in their Virginia cousin plantations. After 1650, the commercial feasibility of sugar reached the dreams of Barbadians who had come from England to profit from a trade that no Englishman had ever done before. They lived under conditions that no Englishman had ever experienced before. Sugar gave them their dreams. Dunn states that in 1680, nineteen planters held an unprecedented total of more than two hundred slaves each while the next level down, at the one hundred-slave mark, there were eighty-nine planters. Enormous wealth found in such a tiny place, with 392 people per square acre. Figures like these boggle the mind. The Bridenbaughs’ figures in relation to slave shipments and their losses seem somewhat bolder.

Sugar, though was not a boom product right away. It took some transitions to make it feasible above the proven New World benefits of tobacco. Both books refer to the foreknowledge of sugar’s value. Dunn finds it remarkable that Barbadians took so long to employ it on their plantations, perhaps still believing that tobacco or cotton would supply their wants. Dunn agrees with the Bridenbaughs that Barbadians learned the trade from Dutch-managed Brazilian techniques before the Portuguese planter revolt in 1645. Dunn offers a bit more detail in that the process originally began in 1627 when the English took many plants from a Dutch outpost on Surinam and transported them, along with sugarcane to Barbados. Still, understanding how to properly plant and cultivate sugarcane proved difficult even with thirty-two natives of Surinam to show them how. Moreover, when the natives were finally successful on Barbados, while not knowing how to make sugar from the cane, they informed Barbadians about how to make a great drink from the juice. Undoubtedly, the drink was alcoholic (after all, molasses from sugarcane makes rum). This fact held the Barbadians back from making sugarcane a profitable product until official pressures focused their inebriated mind and bloodshot eyes upon the prize at hand. As Dunn says, the process developed extraordinarily quickly from 1640-1643. Fast and furious was the frontier boomtown way.

For the Bridenbaughs, another boomtown ideology was involved, the roll of the dice. They argue that gambling instinct played a crucial role in that buying out poor and struggling men’s meager parcels, consolidating them into larger plantations would eventually build the sugar plantation empire in the period 1650-1660. Combined with the proper method of planting cane (digging trenches instead of small holes), the endeavor thrived. Whether the Barbadians learned techniques from the Portuguese, Dutch, Brazilians, or Indians is a matter of who is telling the tale. James Holdip and James Drax are definitely credited with many of these innovations, including the “Dutch Sugar Mill.” Still, whether the mill came from Holland or Pernambuco holds the reader in suspense. The Bridenbaughs certainly seem more certain. Still, in this intrepid environment and the subsequent lack of data mixed with enthusiastic advertisements and their inherent problems with veracity, who could be so certain? Most people would have to fall back on reliable unreliables like Richard Ligon. Ligon, as Dunn says, regarded early English experiments on the island as poor. The sugar produced was poor and full of molasses. Ligon attributed this to English lack of knowledge. They did not know how to plant cane, harvest, grind, boil, or cure it. Dunn also resorts to Brazil as the source of their salvation. Sugar production could never have become as lucrative if it had not been for another capital innovation of a darker nature.

Metaphorically and literally, darker absolutely describes slavery. Of course, it would not be historically appropriate to speak of slavery in anachronistic terms. As deplorable as it sounds, slavery became the next best choice for Barbadian sugar production. Both books reserve their discussion of slavery, an undeniably forceful literary conclusive focus, as the best for last. As with sugar, the Dutch were primary characters in the play. Of course, both books support this with a plethora of figures. Indentured servants came first, but quickly proved their lack of worth. Moreover, with the advent of African chattel use, the Irish and English servants became more uncomfortable with their hierarchical demotion.

If any doubt remained of the status of slaves in the Caribbean, Governor Hawley of St. Christopher dispelled it in 1636 when he declared that Indian and Negro servants were to serve for life unless otherwise stipulated in their contracts. Well, may as well dispense with the useless contract. Indian slaves were popular until about 1650 (note the date), but West Africans after 1640 changed the appearance of the West Indies English plantation, now intent upon keeping slaves as permanent property. The French began slaving earlier than the English, in 1636, because engagés, or servants would not come. Moreover, Dutch traders were all too ready to supply the black labor. According to the Bridenbaughs, slavery came to the tobacco and cotton plantations before sugar production because the island economies suffered from a depression in the 1640s and Negros were simply cheaper than servants. Almost 6,000 blacks were purchased from the Dutch for labor purposes by 1643, according to the Bridenbaughs. By contrast, Richard Dunn shows a quantitative perspective that reveals the number of servants shipping from Bristol radically reduced by the 1670s. Interestingly, Dunn claims that the narrowly ethnocentric English held great aversion to dealing with other cultures, especially something as foreign as Africans. Chattel slavery was an alien concept more attuned to Spanish tastes and the English Barbadians hated the Spanish. Barbados planters increasingly treated servants brutally until by the 1640s and 1650s, so much that servants became rare and rebellious. This fact, Dunn says, prompted Barbadians to use Negroes instead. Carolina or Surinam traders in Indian slaves could not compete in the long run, for Indians made poor slaves. Settling the debate (started by the Bridenbaughs) proves difficult because the two groups of authors never really say anything directly comparable on this point. Still, Dunn’s quantitative and analytical approach seems more reasonable. He is more detailed in his explanation. As to whether the slave came to Barbados before sugar remains a minor consideration in the larger picture. It happened about the same time.

The date of 1650 was extremely important and not because that was when Richard Ligon left Barbados. Partly according to Ligon’s lonely account, that year witnessed the culmination of sugar productive feasibility combined with the use of chattel slavery. Again, Brazil proves to be a bad or good (depending on your point of view) example on Barbadians. Certainly, the facts speak for themselves. West and Central Africans had been agricultural for the centuries that Europeans were aware of them. They were used to the back-breaking labor and they could endure tropical insects, disease, and humidity. According to Dunn, the most important factor was their acquiescence to submit to slavery.

Dunn’s narrower focus on West Indian cultural development reveals itself in class structure. Number of slaves rather than acreage became the factor for determining class by 1680. Big planters held the biggest tracts of land and had sixty slaves or more, middling planters twenty to fifty-nine slaves and held significantly smaller acreage. Social stratification was high. After the middling planters, small planters had fewer than twenty slaves and still ten or more acres while the freemen were little better than servants in status. Illustrating the class distinction in 1680, seven percent of the property holders controlled fifty-four percent of the property. Where Barbadians once slept in hammocks, they now had four-post beds with luxurious furniture filling three-story homes. Only servants and slaves used hammocks. Slaves often got the floor at night.

Sugar production had produced the most affluent society in the empire. To the average Englishman who could only rarely expect to move up in the world, Barbados, the boom colony of the seventeenth century was like a beacon. Bridgetown in 1680 seemed like San Francisco during the gold rush. A fascinating statistic given by Dunn is that a 1969-1970 Barbados phonebook listed eighteen sugar factories and plantations that were still named for their seventeenth-century founders. Big planters in Barbados were so rich in fact that King Charles II felt it necessary to diffuse their arrogance and insert placemen amongst the power structure. These men never even came to the island, preferring instead to select their representatives from the not so well-landed men already there. Authoritative officials who violate the local power structure and assume undue authority can often cause trouble in affluent, arrogant, and remote places. Second generation Barbadian settlers in the Carolina settlement (“Goose Creek men”) attempted their own colony in the Cape Fear region in the early eighteenth century. Whig English officials, newly in power, had to bring them back to earth. It is frightening to realize that southern aristocracy had its roots in this kind of soil. What Dunn does not mention is that Carolina afforded these wealthy Barbadians what they could never have in England and only slightly gain on Barbados – land grants of tremendous size, thousands of acres, sometimes tens of thousands. This is an important factor in the affluence/arrogance/power equation.

Speaking of arrogance, late seventeenth-century governors Dutton and Stede became unpopular choices on Barbados because of presumed authority amongst the many planters on the islands who felt that they would have made better choices. The later actions of these placemen did not help the royal case. Revolutionary spirit brought on by the Glorious Revolution and the deposition of James II further eroded the power of the big planters. Although they regained their power, it delivered a definite blow to the arrogance, stirring anti-government and anti-tax sentiment that found another expression on the American mainland nearly a century later. Richard Dunn gives the impression that the 1680 Barbados census was a pivotal moment.

Religious friction caused a whole new dimension of trouble with Quakers at the heart of activist dissension. The mere fact that Quakers lived in a boomtown atmosphere like Barbados demonstrates their penchant for trouble. Dunn points out that out of pacifist, antislavery Quakers, six of the Barbadian variety owned more than a hundred slaves each. Moreover, they took their slaves to meetings, another Anglican bone to pick. Perhaps it is a matter of cyclical history that fundamental religious sentiment and affluence go together like a match and a gas can. Just as irritating as Quakers to good Anglicans were Sephardic Jews that they nearly taxed off the island. Another demographic of particular note shows comparisons of Bridgetown with Bristol families in England. Whereas 198 families in Bridgetown had no children, only seven out of sixty-nine families in Bristol were without issue. Obviously, Barbados was not England.
Neither were the Leeward Islands or Jamaica for that matter. Dunn gives three reasons why the Leewards rarely make it into the history books: economic, topographic, and political. Few men of substance apparently came, the terrain did not cooperate even though the climate was perfect, they were too close to the French, and religious factionalism between Protestants and Catholics all combined to hold back progress. Still, tobacco grew a little better than on Barbados. Still, the popularity engendered by the lifestyle on Barbados attracted affluent Englishmen away from the Leeward Islands. The settlers that did come were mostly the stragglers and wash-outs from Barbados. The real story of Caribbean piracy was born in “holes” like the Leewards and Jamaica. Barbados was naturally shielded by an island chain and French and Spanish conflicts kept the remainder of the Caribbean in flux. Nevis, as the only island to escape French invasion, was the only one to flourish. Lack of slave labor still held them back. Moreover, the Leeward Islands, getting started much later than Barbados met the falling end of the sugar boom. Bringing convicts to the islands as servants further eroded the social aspect of the island chain.
Dunn’s discussion of these lesser Caribbean islands had less to do with sugar or slaves and more to do with the exciting times of King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, and the resulting band of Caribbean privateers turned pirates. Dunn nor the Bridenbaughs can be blamed for this minor and immensely enjoyable diversion. Playing off the Leeward Island narrative, Dunn’s best line had to be, “The Jamaicans never murdered their governor, but they earned a reputation as England’s most lawless colonists” (Dunn, 1972, 149). It was slightly more subtle than Ned Ward’s earlier interpretive reference to dung. None of these references, says Dunn, capture the true mercantile significance of Jamaica, whose only real nemesis was English rule. Still, the Maroons’ guerilla style tactics, reminiscent of today’s Central American native style, posed a serious problem in the early years of English fighting for Jamaica. The Bridenbaughs detail Maroon society nicely. Buccaneer Jamaicans like Henry Morgan cut their pirate teeth on Spanish Panama. The recently knighted Morgan’s later appointment as Lt. Governor of Jamaica illustrated, at least to former governor, Thomas Lynch, the lawlessness of Jamaica and perhaps of English government as well. Well-fortified Port Royal was the island’s great buccaneer capital in the Caribbean until an earthquake in 1692 wrecked it. Quakers accounted for this disaster as God’s vengeance and most could believe it. From the misrule of numerous governors and the French attack in 1694, Jamaica barely held on. Still, it did. After repairing their sugar facilities from the French attack, planters tried cacao as well. Problems with blight led them away from cacao and sugar remained supreme on Jamaica.

Sugar was the driving mechanism. It created the wealth, affluence, the arrogance, and a need for Negroes. Harvest the cane, crush it with cattle, horse, oxen, or wind-powered mills and boil the dark juice that is produced. All of this must be done quickly. Then, the planter could make muscovado (raw, brown sugar) or clayed, refined white sugar which fetched a better price and, consequently a higher freight charge. This was Barbados. So, of course the planters packed the white, refined variety in hogsheads labeled “muscovado.” The waste product, the molasses that seeped from the buckets was taken to a distillery, probably the second most popular location on the island. There, it was made into a colonial favorite, rum.

As with any business, the most reliable data comes from profit and loss statistics. Insurance claims filed by St. Christopher planters after a French raid in 1706 detailed 450 slaves by occupation. Dunn calls it “ruthlessly exploitive,” a device to “maximize… production,” and “nakedly racial” (Dunn, 1972, 224). Those are methods of capitalization, indeed, it is what the word means. Fly the joli rouge and declare no quarter. Maximize profit and reduce cost as low as possible. There is no variable for humanity in the equation and no controls except the meager whining of a few Quakers who owned slaves themselves. These books were both written in 1972. Richard Dunn thought it necessary to declare his stance on the issue that chattel slavery was fundamentally different from anything that had ever been seen before. In 2010, it may be appropriate (at least allowed) to continue the analogy to Barbados’ godchild, America and the continuing racial problems still plaguing that country today.

Dunn stated that the island colonists plunged while the mainland colonist inched into slavery. He does not support his statement with facts and appears to say it only because he wrote in 1972. Chattel slavery was born of a profitable business. The sugar trade was not so feasible in Carolina when Barbadians settled it and slavery stalled a few decades until rice became a profitable and proven crop in the late seventeenth century. Like sugar, rice required heavy slave labor and Barbadian immigrants took to the deed as quickly as they took to their rum. Negroes and Indians were savagely and routinely abused in Carolina as they were in Barbados. West Africans came so fast that by 1712, Gov. Glen remarked that blacks outnumbered whites in Carolina.
Taken in whole, both Richard Dunn and the Bridenbaughs express how well they understand the English West Indies. Both books are enjoyable. Both rely on strong primary evidence and both rely heavily on statistics. For a place with few remaining records, these two books explain Barbados in fascinating detail. They both offer great narratives on the buccaneer side of the story as well, a point that all pirate fans can appreciate. For 1972, slavery was a timely, if difficult subject to analyze. Some authors are bolder than others. Still, both of these works thankfully attempt to understand and relate those difficult times to us all.

2 comments:

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