In Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage, and Culture, Trevor Burnard has a fascinating essay that I have been reading called “Not a Place for Whites? Demographic Failure and Settlement in Comparative Context: Jamaica, 1655-1780.”
In previous posts, I have alluded to Barbados as the cultural hearth of South Carolina, which became the cultural hearth of the Lower South. Long before there was a “United States,” the plantation system spread out of Barbados through the West Indies to the American mainland.
Barbados is like the Aztlan of Southern culture:
“At first the British did well in the Caribbean. In the seventeenth century, Barbados was a stunning success, at least by the terms laid down by the most prosperous residents of the colony. By the 1660s “Barbados was probably the most densely populated and intensively cultivated agricultural area in the English-speaking world”. . .
By the 1660s Barbadians had begun to look to other regions where fresh fertile land could be exploited. Barbardos served as prototype for the establishment of other colonies in the West Indies and in the lower South. Historical geographers term such prototypes “cultural hearths,” primary regions of culture creation capable of transfer to new environments. Barbados had a particular culture similar to that of another primary culture hearth, Virginia, but with heavier mortality, a more intense concentration on plantation agriculture, and a greater acceptance of a high ratio of blacks to whites. Barbadians spread their distinctive culture to the Leeward Islands, to Jamaica, and to the continental colony of South Carolina.”
This is a crucial point: we think of Southern culture as something that is autochthonous to the Deep South, when Southern culture is really an extension of the creole culture of Caribbean slave societies, specifically Barbados.
American history textbooks are full of tales about Yankee Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower, Squanto, and Thanksgiving. The founding of Massachusetts and New England had nothing to do the founding of South Carolina and the Deep South.
“The Barbadians who went to Jamaica in the 1660s and to South Carolina in the 1670s wanted to create economically flourishing plantation societies and to create settler societies based on the Barbadian model. In both colonies, the first aim was achieved, but only South Carolina became a settler society.”
Jamaica and South Carolina were built on the Barbadian model, but only South Carolina became a “settler society.” Why did South Carolina and the Lower South diverge from the British West Indies?
“Why were these settlement schemes unsuccessful? The usual answer is that poor whites consciously avoided slave societies. They did not want to go to Jamaica because of constricted opportunity and because they perceived the Jamaican physical and social environment as distasteful. But the opposite was true. The plantation economy, far from restricting opportunity, offered many possibilities for ambitious young men, and the social environment of slave society in Jamaica offered as many attractions as deterrents. Only continuing high mortality and a reduction in British emigration to the New World in the Augustan period prevented a sizeable white population from developing in Jamaica.”
Jamaica diverged from South Carolina primarily because it was a tropical country. The climate in South Carolina was better for British colonists. Similarly, the climate in Louisiana was better for the French colonists than the climate in Saint-Domingue.
“Of all the problems experienced in this period, “the great earthquake, and the constant ill health of the island” were the most significant. The earthquake of 1692 in which most of Port Royal sank into the sea, causing the death directly or indirectly of perhaps two thousand people, was British America’s worst natural disaster. A major outbreak of fever accompanied the earthquake, leading to perhaps as many deaths from disease as from natural disaster. When yellow fever struck in 1692 and, even more devastatingly, after the French raids of 1694 and 1695, white Jamaicans suffered greatly. Moreover, the continual influx of nonimmune immigrants to tropical islands ensured that Jamaica would continue to suffer fresh outbreaks of the disease in the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1737, for example, an epidemic struck Kingston that, according to Lieutenant Governor John Gregory, killed one quarter of the population. In the face of such continued assaults, the white population continued to fall.”
In other words, slavery wasn’t responsible for the failure of White colonization in Jamaica; it had much more to do with tropical disease, natural disasters, and warfare with neighboring powers like France and Spain.
“If my argument about the failure of white settlement in Jamaica is correct, then some reconsiderations might be necessary. The plantation system was much more attractive to white settlers than is commonly assumed. As late as 1773 to 1776, nearly 55 percent of immigrants to British America from Britain went to colonies where the plantation system was firmly established. Moreover, once in a plantation system, Europeans were reluctant to go elsewhere. . .
Dave Galenson has made estimates of net immigration for the thirteen colonies and the British sugar islands from 1650, when slavery was first established in British America, to 1780. Net immigration to the southern and Caribbean colonies was nearly four times as high as to the farm colonies of the north. . . .
Approximately 55.4 percent of British immigrants to the Americas between 1607 and 1780, and the vast majority of immigrants from southern and western England (the metropolitan heart of empire), went to demographic disaster zones.”
The majority of British immigrants settled in the South and the British West Indies. The climate was more congenial in New England which is why the Yankee population expanded faster there.
Note: The course of history would have been radically altered if we had formed the “Confederate States of America” with the six British slave colonies in the Caribbean at the outset of independence – Jamaica, Barbados, the Leeward Islands, Grenada and Tobago, St. Vincent, and Dominica.