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Reviews of Empire, Enslavement and Freedom in the Caribbean

“For over thirty years Michael Craton has studied slavery and slave societies in the Caribbean. As the author or co-author of several books he has distinguished himself as one of the leading authorities on the subject. His work is always detailed, intuitive, and speaks to a broad audience. Empire, Enslavement, and Freedom in the Caribbean is, therefore, a welcomed addition to Craton’s long list of credits. The book is particularly interesting because it is comprised of a collection of papers and articles that offer a retrospective on Craton’s career as an intellectual.

Empire, Enslavement, and Freedom works on several levels. For people who are just beginning to take an interest in slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean the book offers a solid introduction to the issues that have shaped discussion on the subject since the 1960s. Readers who are acquainted with the subject but not as familiar as they could be with Craton will be able to develop an appreciation for the scope of his work. Finally, those who know Craton will welcome this opportunity to revisit and re-examine his contributions to the field because it is all too rare to find a collection that so eloquently speaks to the development and refinement of an historian during his writing life.

‘One of the distinguishing features of Craton’s work has always been his perspective on the Caribbean. As someone who was born in England and who did his graduate studies in Canada, the author has endured the criticism that results from his being British and an outsider while writing at a time when identity politics has played a significant role in shaping historical enquiry. While it is true that Craton’s work must necessarily reflect his background, his approach to Caribbean history and contributions to the field are given added value because he is not West Indian. Craton’s work benefits from the distance that exists between himself and societies he analyzes because he sees history in more general and less personal terms.

“The book is divided into three parts that reflect the chronology of events and not the order in which the author wrote the chapters. The first section deals with “Colonisation and Imperialism” and it explores the establishment of a British presence in the Caribbean. The author explores the place of slavery in the origins of the British Empire by looking at subjects like the slave trade, plantations, and slave owners. The second part focuses on the “Slave Trade, Slavery and Slave Society,” which are the core subjects of Craton’s work. Here the author offers the reader a glimpse at the life of slaves and the way slavery and slave society are interpreted by academics. In the final section, the author offers his insights on the “Transformation and Continuities” of post-slavery society. In this last part of the book, Craton examines the difficulties encountered by ex-slaves, planters, and Caribbean societies as a whole in the transition to free society. A chronological approach lends itself to a clearer vision of slavery and the societies that evolved around it.

“The structure of the book also makes Craton’s contributions to the field much more accessible than they were when he first produced them. Had the collection been ordered according to the date the pieces were originally written, it would have revealed the intellectual trail of Craton’s academic career, but would also have appeared somewhat disorganized to non-specialists. Instead, the reader comes to understand the complexity of the issues to which Craton has devoted his intellectual life and to appreciate the consistency with which the author has explore the depths of Caribbean history. For this reason, Empire, Enslavement, and Freedom in the Caribbean is a book that will interest readers with a wide range of backgrounds in the subject area.

“Each article begins with an introduction that establishes the context for the chapter and deals with any issues that may have been raised by academics when the particular piece was first presented. In the introductions to the chapters, Craton is sometimes defensive of the criticism he received in the past and he uses this opportunity to try to respond to his critics. In several instances he has modified chapters to address issues that were raised and to clarify points that might not have been obvious before he had an entire collection of his writings to serve as a backdrop to the discussion. The revisions and refinements to the chapters enhance their presentation and make the collection flow more evenly than it otherwise might have.

“Among the most interesting chapters are three that make extensive use of quantitative methods to explore the composition of slave societies. They reflect Craton’s earliest research and offer a glimpse into the quantification revolution of the 1970s. This is the period in which the author established himself as an historian by using quantifiable data to demonstrate such things as the differences between Jamaican and other slavery, and to explore the formation of slave families through a comparative analysis of demographics, climate, and other factors in two parts of the Caribbean. In each instance Craton pointed to the complexity of Caribbean slavery and the differences that existed between and within the various slave colonies. At the time these pieces first appeared they were considered innovative and now, after a few decades of subsequent research into areas first explored by Craton and others of his generation, they are part of the foundation for contemporary interpretations of Caribbean history and society.

“Although the rest of the book relies much less on quantitative methods, the imprint of Craton’s early work is evident throughout. The result is that the author’s analysis of events is based on this understanding of subtleties of slave society and the variation that existed within the Caribbean. For example, the most recent contribution to the collection by the author distinguishes slavery in the British West Indies from the institution as it existed elsewhere in the New World. The author is careful to reveal the complexity of the entire social and economic enterprise. He informs readers that slavery was not a single institution with one set of conventions and that post-emancipation societies everywhere were conditioned by the nature of slavery in a given locale. The complexity of slave society had a direct bearing on the meaning of, and limits to, freedom in the nineteenth century. The differences between such things as plantation and non-plantation economies, men and women, or the free and unfree, all had an impact on the societies that evolved after the institution was legislated out of existence. The author can be thanked for helping students of slavery appreciate the variations that existed within the slave societies of the Caribbean.

“Craton has always been passionate about his subjects and his writing. His latest book makes a solid contribution to the historiography. The collection is a pleasure to read because it brings together in one place the author’s thoughts throughout the course of his academic life. Specialists and generalists alike will appreciate the accessibility of this book and will enjoy reflecting on the career of a man who has done much to advance our understanding of the development, of the modern Caribbean.”
Canadian Journal of History

“Few have contributed so much as Craton to the resurgence and expansion of historical interest in the British West Indies during the last forty years. He has produced six important books, including A Jamaican Plantation, with James Walvin (New York, 1970), a superb study of the sugar estate of Worthy Park from its formation in the late seventeenth century to recent times; Sinews of Empire (Garden City, 1974), an accessible general history of British slavery; Searching for the Invisible Man (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), a detailed and highly quantitative analysis of the slaves of Worthy Park; Testing the Chains (Ithaca, 1982), perhaps the most comprehensive account yet published of West Indian slave resistance; and Islanders in the Stream with Gail Saunders (Athens, 1992), which, for the period down to 1834, supersedes his youthful and highly general A History of the Bahamas (London, 1962) and is certainly the most thorough and best history of the precolonial and early colonial history of that Atlantic island colony.

“Impressive as it is, however, this list does not begin to exhaust the topics on which Craton has commented authoritatively. He has also produced a significant number of articles and essays on many other aspects of early West Indian history, and this volume contains twenty of them. Drawn from a wide variety of sources, some now difficult to access, they include ten articles from refereed journals, three articles from encyclopedias, and seven chapters from volumes of edited essays. Providing a useful historical and critical introduction to each essay, Craton organizes them into three larger thematic sections: colonization and imperialism; the slave trade, slavery, and slave society; and transformations and continuities.

“The six pieces in the first section deal with aspects of the historical background of sugar culture, the early-modern colonizing impulse in the West Indies, and the character of the white planters who long dominated West Indian society. Because recent Caribbean historiography has focused so intently upon the previously neglected slave populations, Craton is one of the few scholars to write about the white planters during the past two decades. Three of his essays are particularly useful. Chapter 3 provides a brief overview of the planters and their culture, reopening a subject in need of further examination. Chapter 4, a superb analysis, is the best available short study about the transfer of English property law to the Americas, and its modification to include property in slaves. Chapter 6 constitutes an admirable case study of how a growing metropolitan concern for native and slave rights operated to restrict the latitude of British colonizers in organizing new West Indian colonies after 1760.

“The six essays in the second section are concerned with the nature of West Indian slavery. They focus upon the degree to which the institution defined all aspects of West Indian societies, the process of cultural exchange implied by the concept of ‘creolization,’ and the recovery of information about slave fertility, mortality, and health through the use of quantification.

“The eight pieces in the third section deal with aspects of the transition from slavery to freedom during the half-century before emancipation. Of particular interest is the emphasis upon the role of slaves in effecting their own emancipation and the role of history in defining West Indian identities.

“No short summary can do justice to the richness and scope of this collection. Not all of Craton’s conclusions and assumptions will gain universal assent. For instance, his concept of ‘a true society’ seems to be an artifact from early modern colonialism in dire need of excision (103). Nevertheless, the volume is a welcome addition to the historiography of the slave societies of the British West Indies. Handsomely produced, it has, unfortunately, far more typographical errors than a work of this distinction deserves.”
Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“As if lovingly selecting the ingredients for his own ‘Calalu’ (to borrow an a propos metaphor suggested by the author), Michael Craton has concocted a flavourful stew of wide-ranging and methodologically varied essays drawn from his prodigious work of the last quarter of a century. Within the pot one discovers not simply the vagaries of one man’s career, but something of the contours of the entire field of British West Indian historiography as it shifted from an Imperial focus to a Caribbean-centred one. While presenting some of his earlier writings with a pinch of self-critical salt, Craton seasons his more recent work with only the slightest hint of heated opposing views, letting retrospective modesty and professional collegiality cloak the many bold claims made within….

“Craton’s work compellingly describes the unachieved (perhaps unachievable?) struggle for freedom in the Caribbean; his thesis remains a challenge to those who would see a more radical ideological critique smouldering within what Hilary Beckles called the ‘self-liberation ethos’ of enslaved Africans and their Caribbean descendants. His work has opened the way for others to elaborate more nuanced analyses of multiple peasant/proletarian identities, ideologies, and political strategies; more case-sensitive models of variations in elite and state responses in different contexts; and more processual accounts of the timing and dynamics of contested hegemony. As Craton points out in his concluding reflections on West Indian identity, there are many recipes for Calalu.”
Slavery & Abolition

“Topics of this important collection range broadly over the origins of sugar plantations and the planter’s world, the relations between the British West Indies and the North American colonies, the character of slave societies, slave family life, and slave resistance, the process of emancipation and the transition to other forms of labor in the 19th century, and the nature of island and regional identity.

“Craton writes well, and he makes major contributions to historiographic debates and methodology. He combines the traditional historian’s care over sources with the cross-disciplinary approaches of the new social history. This is a convenient and valuable collection. Highly recommended…”