Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean is an excellent book which sheds considerable light on how Southerners ended up marooned from the rest of the New World plantation complex in the United States.
In 1776, there were 26, not 13, British colonies in the Americas. Half of the British colonies revolted and won their independence in the American Revolution while the other 13 colonies remained loyal to King George III and the Mother Country and their paths diverged from the United States. The American Revolution altered the course of world history in all kinds of unforeseen ways.
This book is concerned with the American Revolution and its impact on the British West Indies: Jamaica, Barbados, the Leeward Islands (Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat), and the Windward Islands (Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, the Grenadines, and Tobago) in the Lesser Antilles. Prior to the American Revolution, the Deep South and the British West Indies had far more in common with each other than either had with New England which was founded by religious dissenters. South Carolina was founded in 1670 by settlers from Barbados who had spread their culture through the Leeward Islands and Jamaica before arriving as settlers on the North American mainland.
These Barbadians transplanted their domestic institution of African slavery, the plantation system, their slave code, speech patterns as well their architectural styles to South Carolina from the British West Indies. The culture of South Carolina and the Deep South was just as much an extension of the British West Indies as Rhode Island and Connecticut were extensions of Massachusetts in New England.
Compared to the Southern colonies, the British West Indies were blacker, wealthier, more heavily enslaved, more racialist, more conservative, more authoritarian, more aristocratic, and more loyalist – in almost every way, they represented a more extreme example of what we would recognize as Southern culture. The Southern colonies were a hybrid of a “true colony” and “plantation zone” – an intermediate region in a sub-tropical climate between the British Caribbean and the Middle Colonies.
According to O’Shaughnessy, the sundering of the British West Indies from the Southern mainland colonies in the American Revolution stemmed from two fundamental causes:
- First, the British West Indies are in the tropics, whereas South Carolina has a sub-tropical climate. In the Caribbean, malaria and yellow fever decimated the White population and led to demographic failure. In South Carolina, a settler society emerged because the climate was healthier and the infant mortality rate was much lower.
- Second, the British West Indies and South Carolina were both Slave Societies with plantation systems, but the former were sugar colonies whereas the latter was a rice and indigo colony at the outset. Sugar was a more profitable crop. The sugar plantations in the British West Indies were bigger and required more slaves which resulted in a smaller and wealthier oligarchy.
In this way, the same cultural pattern in the British West Indies and the Deep South produced sojourner societies in the British Caribbean – White slaveowners resigned to demographic failure owing to tropical disease, lost and alienated in a sea of blackness and clinging to England as a result – and expansionist settler societies on the North American mainland – White slaveowners who were poorer and more fecund cousins, but who stood to gain a lot more from American independence.
West Indian planters were far more likely to be educated in Britain and to be absentees than their poorer North American counterparts. They were less likely to be religious dissenters. They were more dependent on British military protection due to their greater ratio of slaves to Whites in the islands and their closer proximity to rival French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean.
Economically speaking, over 90 percent of the sugar and rum produced in the British West Indies was consumed in Britain. The sugar planters in the British West Indies were unable to compete with their competitors in the French West Indies and owed their fortunes to mercantilist protection within the British Empire. In contrast, South Carolina and Virginia sold their rice and tobacco in European markets. There was far less of an economic incentive in the British West Indies to join the American rebellion.
In 1776, the British West Indies were a prosperous and contented region within the British Empire. They were happy to quarter British troops because of their understandable anxiety over potential slave rebellions. They were also happy to have the Royal Navy protecting them from conquest by the French or the Spanish. They were willing to submit to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts because protectionism within the imperial system worked out to their advantage.
New England’s Patriots, however, were on a collision course with Britain:
- Yankees resented the Sugar Act and sought to illegally trade with Spanish America and the French West Indies. John Hancock had become a wealthy shipping magnate through smuggling
- Yankees had nothing to fear from the French who had recently ceded Canada to Britain in order to retain Guadeloupe and Martinique. The British conquest of Québec made the Revolution possible
- Yankees saw British troops as a menacing threat to their liberties instead of as a potential savior because they lacked a large slave population like Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands
- Yankees saw British restraint after the Proclamation of 1763 as an obstacle to their commercial and territorial expansion
When the American Revolution broke out in 1775 at Lexington and Concord, the British West Indies remained loyal to the Empire. After France declared war on Britain in 1778 (and Spain in 1779 and the Netherlands in 1780), the epicenter of the conflict shifted from North America to the Caribbean where the British prioritized the defense of their wealthiest colonies.
In 1778, the British abandoned Philadelphia – the capital of the Patriot cause – in order to free five thousand troops to invade the French island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. General Henry Clinton also dispatched Lord Cornwallis with four thousand troops to defend Jamaica while Admiral D’Estaing sailed to Saint-Domingue to collect more troops for the reconquest of Georgia.
King George III prioritized the defense of Jamaica – the jewel of the British Caribbean, and a major source of British wealth and power – above defense of Britain itself and all the other British colonies. In the course of the war, St. Kitts was invaded by the French, and the Windward Islands (Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, and Tobago) were reconquered by France. The escalation of the war between Britain and France in the Caribbean brought about American independence.
American independence severed the British West Indies from the Southern mainland colonies, created the novel concept that Yankees and Southerners shared a common civilization, halved the number of slaves in the British Empire, put the South under the rule of Washington, galvanized the abolitionist movement and set the British West Indies on the road to long term economic decline.
“Finally, the division of British America helped the cause of abolitionists in both Britain and the United States. It more than halved the number of slaves in the British Empire and made slavery appear virtually limited to the southern United States. The “peculiar institution” of slavery was not peculiar before 1776. On the contrary, slavery characterized the wealthiest and most populous colonies of British America. There were almost a million slaves in British America before 1776. It is little wonder that antebellum southern expansionists dreamed of incorporating islands in the Caribbean into the United States in order to enlarge their power and to balance the slave-owning states in the Senate against the North.
Abolitionists were well aware of the significance of the division of the British Empire. “As long as America was ours,” wrote Clarkson in 1788, “there was no chance that a minister would have attended to the groans of the sons and daughters of Africa, however he might feel for their distress.” It prevented the island and southern planters from uniting against the abolitionists. The West India lobby was unable to appeal for support from the colonial lobbies of Virginia and South Carolina after 1776.”
As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Ironically, the West Indians and the Southerners who failed to find common ground were the ones who were later hung separately by the British and the Yankees.
Prior to the war, the British West Indies had depended on the North American colonies as a market for its rum and as a cheap source for lumber, staves, fresh food and other vital supplies that made slavery profitable. After the war, the American colonies were outside the British mercantilist system, and this created a conflict of interest between West Indian slave interest and other interest groups vying for influence over the British Parliament.
As the conflict between the West Indian planters and the abolitionists escalated in Britain in the early 19th century, West Indian threats of secession and joining the United States as slave states became commonplace. Unfortunately, British naval supremacy in the Caribbean, the ever present threat posed by slave rebellions, Revolutionary France and the growing hostility of Yankees to slavery in the United States precluded the possibility of reunion between Southerners and West Indians.
The damage had been done. The Golden Circle had been broken. The result of the American Revolution was the triumph of abolition in the British West Indies in 1834 and the destruction of the Confederacy by the Union in 1865. If we could do it all over again, would we have made a different choice?