Making a White Atlantic: Whiteness, Masculinity, and Governance in the English West Indies, 1670-1770

Natalie A. Zacek, Ph.D.

Christiansted, St Croix

Rationale and scope for the monograph

In the summer of 1753, fashionable Londoners were intrigued to read, in the August number of the London Magazine, a vivid account of a murder trial which had taken place the previous winter in the English West Indian island of St. Kitts. The periodical explained that it had covered these distant proceedings on the basis that the story has of late been a subject of conversation, and contains some very extraordinary circumstances; specifically that the proof was founded entirely upon presumption, without any one witness of the fact, which is a dangerous sort of proof, but more necessary to be admitted in the West-Indies than here at home, because negroes are not admitted as witnesses…

Under what circumstances might one white man have been convicted of and executed for the murder of another, if the sole evidence of his guilt came from a "Negro", who by English and colonial law was a non-person, and whose testimony had to be presented as hearsay evidence by white men? Careful reading of the lengthy transcript of the trial of John Barbot for the murder of Matthew Mills makes it clear that, although both the victim and his alleged murderer were white, they were very different sorts of men in the eyes of their fellow Kittitians. Mills was a third-generation islander, the owner of a large estate as well as of a sugar-importing firm in London, and was considered unanimously as an individual of unimpeachable character. By contrast, Barbot was a man of Huguenot extraction, a Londoner recently arrived in the islands, a lawyer who owned neither slaves nor land, and who was strongly disliked because, rather than accepting his relatively low social status in comparison with men such as Mills, he was a most provoking character who constantly demanded that the community treat him as a gentleman, despite the fact that neither his character nor his wealth seemed to entitle him to such respect. When Barbot killed Mills, seemingly over a trivial insult the latter had given him, the community was so bent upon ridding themselves of this troublesome man that they consented to undermine a fundamental tenet of racial ideology in order to assure a conviction and execution.

The story of Barbot, an obscure individual who came to brief public notice only through his apparent involvement in Mills’s death, is of historiographic interest on two counts. Firstly, through the trial transcript and its supporting documentation, the reader rapidly becomes aware of the diverse population of the eighteenth-century English Caribbean, of the great variety of economic, social, and racial status positions which local inhabitants could and did fill. Secondly, Barbot’s story serves as evidence that the societies of the English West Indian colonies were not anarchic, entirely lacking in social differentiation, institutional development, or norms and values of behaviour. Yet it is these elements which make Barbot’s trial noteworthy which are absent from the historiography of these colonies.

Historians of colonial America have traditionally depicted Britain’s West Indian colonies as social failures because their social and political life appeared turbulent and contentious in comparison with an idealized paradigm of orderly Anglo-American settlement based upon the village-centred theocracy of the New England colonies. They have also engaged in a process of reading back, assuming that the West Indies' modern attributes of relative political and economic marginality and their current position as holiday destinations for Europeans and North Americans can be taken as indications that these islands never developed social formations parallel to those found elsewhere within the first British empire. In reality, however, these colonies were the "cockpit of empire" in the era between the Restoration and the American Revolution. Not only were they among Britain’s most lucrative eighteenth-century colonies—far more so than Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, or Virginia--but while they generated enormous profits they simultaneously developed political and social institutions and cultural imperatives which self-consciously reflected an English heritage of which they were intensely aware, and their inhabitants neither hoped nor feared that their settlements were more anarchic or licentious than those of the North American mainland.

Making a White Atlantic examines the conflict between individualism and community in the British West Indian islands of Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts at a time during which they achieved pre-eminence as successful sugar-producing colonies. Scholars of colonial America have generally assumed that these small settlements were characterized exclusively by materialistic values and failed to undergo the processes of social, cultural, and institutional development which occurred throughout the English colonies on the North American mainland. This monograph counteracts the prevailing historiographical orthodoxy by showing that the settlers in these sugar islands were interested in issues beyond the maximization of profits. These colonists possessed an intensely strong sense of themselves as Englishmen, and this identity motivated them to develop distinctive laws and institutions, formal and informal, through which they established and upheld English values. These settlers also were careful to delineate societal and cultural boundaries which encouraged inclusion of those who followed English cultural imperatives and behavioural norms and exclusion of those who committed socially or politically transgressive acts, or whose commitment to the values associated with an English Protestant masculinity could be questioned.

Through close reading of conflicts connected to issues of confessional and national allegiance, gender roles, sexual behaviour, and political and personal rivalry, I chart the complex negotiations of individual and corporate identity in these colonies and recast the English West Indies as an integral part of colonial British America, rather than as an anomaly within that imperial system. The European population of these islands included contingents of Irish Catholics, Scots servants and political transports, French Huguenots, and Sephardic Jews. These groups frequently came into conflict with one another and with the dominant culture of English Protestantism, but in many instances they put their differences aside and worked together, at both the individual and the corporate level, to uphold ideals of social and political behaviour in the face of threats posed by rebellious slaves and servants, natural disasters, attacks by rival European powers, and the trangressive behaviour of individual islanders. Rather than being sites of anarchy and unfettered personal license, the Leeward colonies developed deeply rooted beliefs about how individuals and groups ought to behave in situations of political dissension and social and sexual misconduct, and these societies were quick to censure those who failed to abide by these codes. By exploring a series of conflicts over transgression of the social order, my intention is to end a long-standing split between mainland and island in colonial British American historiography, and to reintroduce the English West Indian colonies into the place they occupied prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, which was intertwined with, rather than an anomaly within, the history of British North America and the first British empire.

Historiographical significance

Despite the dramatic growth of the field of Atlantic history over the past decade, the West Indian colonies of the first British Empire have yet to receive the same quantity or detail of study awarded to New England, the Chesapeake, or the Lower South. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works such as James Anthony Froude’s The English in the West Indies (1888) and Lowell J. Ragatz’s The Fall of the Planter Class in the English West Indies (1928), which depicted the English islands as culturally inferior to both the English settlements of North America and the Spanish and French Caribbean colonies in the Caribbean, have cast a long shadow over subsequent scholarship. Three decades after its publication, Richard S. Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies (1973) remains the only substantive sociocultural history of the English West Indies. Although Dunn’s book is outstanding in the depth of its research, it is limited by its author’s insistence that the West Indian colonies were social failures because their social and cultural development varied from that of the North American mainland, and by Dunn’s failure—or refusal—to see island whites as anything other than single-minded profit maximisers (vide Richard Sheridan’s many works on West Indian economic history) or as lawless thugs. So influential has Dunn’s book been that it is not only still in print, but it has remained the standard reference in scholarship on the English West Indies. While insightful studies have been produced about the lives of slaves and free people of colour (e.g.: Jean Besson’s Martha Brae’s Two Histories, David Barry Gaspar’s Bondmen and Rebels, Barbara Bush’s Slave Women in Caribbean Society), the intellectual, social, and emotional lives of white colonisers have yet to be explored. Trevor Burnard’s forthcoming monograph from North Carolina, on the Anglo-Jamaican overseer and diarist Thomas Thistlewood, will be a welcome addition to the study of white Creoles in the English West Indies, but on the whole the English Caribbean settlements remain the missing piece of the puzzle that is colonial British America.

Virginian Luxuries

Making a White Atlantic will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of white society in the Leeward Islands, but will also speak to a wider audience. The monograph connects these particular societies with larger discourses, to their mutual enrichment. The field of whiteness studies has flourished in the past decade, due to a variety of works (including: David Roediger, 1991; Toni Morrison, 1992; Theodore W. Allen, 1994; Noel Ignatiev, 1995; Gary Taylor, 2003) by historians, sociologists, and literary scholars. The subject of Englishness, the nature(s) and meaning(s) of English identity at home and overseas, has been enlivened not only by Linda Colley’s seminal Britons: Forging the Nation (1992), but by Paul Langford’s Englishness Identified (2000) and Simon Gikandi’s Maps of Englishness (1996). I see Making a White Atlantic as contributing to these conversations, and also to those relating to the subject of European ethnicity in North America (cf. Matthew Frye Jacobson, 1998; Ronald Hoffman and Sally Mason, 2000; Kerby Miller, 2003) and to gender, sexuality, and social control in the Americas (Ann Twinam, 1999; Richard E. Boyer, 2001). As scholars such as James C. Scott (1990, 1998), Benedict Anderson (1991), and Catherine Hall (2002) have shown, colonial societies undergo similar social, political, and cultural processes, but their nature and outcomes vary widely in relation to geography and temporality. Whether one assigns the English West Indies to the sphere of colonial British America, the Caribbean, or a newly theorised white Atlantic, this monograph affirms the historical significance of these settlements on their own terms and also within a broader context.

Table of contents

The introduction presents the scope of and rationale for the monograph and describes the order and argument of the various chapters and their individual contributions to the work, emphasising that each chapter is devoted to a particular group or issue which seemed to challenge the security and hegemony of the English imperial project. It goes on to describe the ways in which the book connects with several historiographies: those relating to the themes of English identity; race and the formation of whiteness; the relationship between metropole and colony in the context of empire, and the nature of public and familial order in Europe’s overseas colonies.

Chapter 1
: For the better security of the island: The Leewards in 1670
This chapter begins in 1670, when the Leeward Islands broke away from the jurisdiction of Barbados and became an autonomous federated colony. After situating the islands physically and historically, it then moves on to present a detailed analysis of the 1678 census, a foundational document in the history of the Leeward Islands. Through graphical and textual exploration of this long and unique document, this chapter makes clear the great concern that the Leewards’ governing elite had with security from internal and external attack, and the anxiety it felt about the diverse nature of its settlers, which necessitated careful regulation and intimate understanding of the islands’ populations and the extent to which groups or individuals appeared to support or to undercut the foundations of white society and the norms and values of Englishness. This census, compiled by Governor William, not only lists the names and numbers of white residents, but classifies them according to categories relating to age, gender, wealth, ethnicity, and physical ability. In so doing, it creates norms of behaviour and identity and identifies the sorts of people deemed desirable for promotion of the islands’ safety and prosperity.

Chapter 2: To be allowed their liberty as Englishmen: Political Honor and the Rights of Englishmen
This chapter analyses the Leeward settlers’ ideas of what it meant to be Englishmen transplanted, and their belief that only a Distance and a Space, rather than any social or cultural barrier, separated them from the metropole. It looks at several instances in which a powerful figure, such as Daniel Parke, governor of the Leewards from 1706 to 1710, appeared intent upon denying his subjects what they considered to be their natural rights as Englishmen, and contends that the public response, although it might appear violent in rhetoric or even in action, was based on upholding ideals of Englishness.

PART TWO: whereas the initial two chapters depict the nature and importance of specific ideals of Englishness in terms of identity and behaviour, the following three chapters deal with individuals and groups which represent divergences from these ideals. Of central interest is the extent to and methods by which elements within these groups allied or opposed themselves to the hegemonic nature of English colonialism.

Chapter 3: Every good Britton among us: Irish and Scots Settlers
This chapter explores the experiences of non-English Britons in the Leewards, and attempts to discern the extent to which ethnic minorities were assimilated into a dominant political culture based on whiteness or whether identification with a subaltern group within the contested political, religious, and cultural terrain of Stuart and Hanoverian Britain limited the ability of Irish or Scots to succeed in terms of land ownership, office-holding, or social prestige. It explores the varying backgrounds and self-conceptions of particular individuals of Irish or Scots origin, and in so doing shows that an individual’s education, wealth, or family connections could erase the negative associations of Irish and Scots with disloyalty to and divergence from English norms, in many instances encouraging members of these ethnic minorities to identify with their English fellow colonists and to view the less successful members of these groups as undesirable and even threatening.

Chapter 4: Dangerous Tenants: Jews, Huguenots, and Quakers
As with the preceding chapter, this section focuses on the experiences—social and cultural, political and economic—of groups which diverged from the normative identities of Englishness and Protestantism, specifically the substantial number of Jews, French Huguenots, and Quakers resident in the Leewards. The latter included a significant number of the earliest European settlers, and Jews comprised a quarter of the white population of the island of Nevis in the mid-eighteenth century. The eventual assimilation of the initially persecuted Friends and Huguenots contrasts sharply with the maintenance, both voluntary and involuntary, by the Jews of a closed community. Despite the Quakers’ origins in the insurrectionary politics of seventeenth-century Britain and the French heritage of the Huguenots, both of these groups chose to adopt styles of life and thought which brought them into conformity with the dominant English culture, whereas the Jews developed a diasporic identity which connected them more tightly to Jewish communities elsewhere in the Caribbean and North America than to local white elites. Like Chapter 2, this section emphasises the tension between conceptions of identity as innate and as contingent, and illuminates the manners and methods by which groups and individuals fashioned themselves and were fashioned by their communities.

Chapter 5: People of Turbulent Spirits and Loose Principles: Sexuality and Social Control
This chapter explores a series of instances in which white islanders engaged in sexual behaviour which transgressed local and metropolitan norms of polite conduct. It contends that, despite their reputation as places of sexual licence, the Leeward colonies upheld ideals of sexual behaviour which, like European beliefs and practices, emphasised the importance of upholding the honour and mastery of white men. Although certain acts, such as sexual relations between two unmarried whites, or between white men and free or enslaved black women, were tolerated, if not welcomed, other transgressions, particularly those which threatened the ability of a white man to maintain public and private control over his household and dependents, were not socially acceptable and were harshly punished, whether by social disgrace or legal censure. By examining situations in which transgressive sexual conduct threatened the authority and prestige of one or more elite white males, this section illuminates the confluence of private life and public order in small and intensely hierarchical societies.

Chapter 6
: I demand you treat me as a gentleman: The Trial of John Barbot, 1753
This chapter describes and analyses the trial of one white resident of the Leewards, the attorney John Barbot, for the murder of another, the plantation owner Matthew Mills, a man of far greater wealth and social prestige. The hundred pages of the trial transcript and supporting documentation relating to this case (which has never been examined by previous scholars) comprise a slice of eighteenth-century West Indian colonial life, a slice which shows the rich and layered nature of these societies. The story of Barbot and Mills boasts a cast of characters from all levels of the social, economic, and racial order, including white tavern maids, mulatto laundresses, English-trained doctors and lawyers, slave boatmen, society hostesses, and convicted felons. It delineates the nature of the relationships which developed between these individuals, and in doing so makes evident the dynamics of social relations in these colonies at the height of their prosperity. Barbot’s trial renders visible the distinctions and differences between whites of different status, as well as the imperatives and values which ruled the lives of men and women, whites and blacks, the free and the enslaved, thus concluding the monograph with a discussion of the nature of the social, cultural, and political world created by and for these participants in the colonial British American world.

Sugar Processing

Intended readership

The primary readership for Making a White Atlantic will be scholars of colonial British America and of the Atlantic world, and those working in Caribbean studies and in the history of colonial Latin America. The book would be suitable for adoption as a text for courses on the history of the West Indies and of the Atlantic world, and would serve as an effective comparison with such widely used texts as those by Kathleen M. Brown (1996), James Horn (1994), and Joyce Goodfriend (1992). The study will also be of interest to scholars interested in issues of whiteness, colonialism and imperialism, and masculinity. Although this is an historical monograph, it utilises anthropological methodologies centring upon the concepts of "thick description" and of "culture as an ensemble of texts", written and performed alike (cf. Geertz, 1973) as employed by historical anthropologists and anthropologically inclined historians including Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price (1976), Rhys Isaac (1982), John and Jean Comaroff (1992), and Robert Blair St. George (1998), and thus is aimed at readers across the social sciences and humanities.

Length (approximate): 100,000 words

Completion date: December 2003

Author’s credentials

Natalie A. Zacek obtained a B.A. in history at Cornell University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, where she worked under the supervision of Jack P. Greene and Sidney W. Mintz. Since 2000 she has been employed as a lecturer in history and American studies at the University of Manchester. Her work has appeared in Slavery and Abolition and in edited collections of essays from Johns Hopkins University Press, New York University Press, and the University of South Carolina Press, and she has contributed to the Dictionary of National Biography and American National Biography. She has received fellowships from the Huntington Library, the John Carter Brown Library, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and the Virginia Historical Society, and was selected in 2002 for participation in a summer research institute in Atlantic history sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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