Trevor Burnard is Professor and Head of School at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. This interview is based on his newest book, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650-1820 (University Of Chicago Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Planters, Merchants, and Slaves?
TB: This book was written in a very short period but is the fruit of many years of reflection. I wanted to understand and then explain how what I call the large integrated plantation system first developed in Barbados in the middle of the seventeenth century was eventually taken up in other British American slave societies (from Maryland to Demerara) and why it was so economically successful and socially monstrous. The book is more about planters and merchants than slaves but the experience of enslaved people is at the heart of the book nevertheless. I wanted, as in previous works, to show what exactly enslaved people were up against, especially during the African period of slavery before abolitionism placed some constraints on planters’ behaviour. I also wanted to show just how rich and powerful plantation societies were, especially before the American Revolution divided British America in two. I encourage readers to think of early America as not just the thirteen colonies but also as including many Caribbean (and Canadian) colonies and to consider how American history looks like if viewed from somewhere like Jamaica (where I have done most of my empirical work). I thought about just doing a book on Jamaica but I wanted a wider audience – one that included scholars interested in Atlantic, Caribbean, and British history as well as historians of early America.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Planters, Merchants, and Slaves?
TB: The large integrated plantation system, containing hundreds of enslaved persons and a small white managerial class, was difficult to establish, mainly because it was hard to persuade sufficient white men to do the hard work of disciplining slaves, but once established proved remarkably successful, becoming the most important economic and social institution in early America. The American Revolution, which divided the plantation world between America and the British Empire, has masked just how important this institution was but if we are to understand the making of the modern world, we have to understand the peculiar world of the plantation.
JF: Why do we need to read Planters, Merchants, and Slaves?
TB: Three reasons. First, by looking at the history of colonial British America in an Atlantic rather than an American perspective and recognising that British America is spatially different from the later USA gives us a quite different perspective on what is America. Second, a wide ranging and empirically grounded examination of plantation societies shows us not only that the system of slavery that sustained plantation agriculture was essential to the prosperity of British America but also that the plantation was not regressive but progressive and surprisingly modern, especially in techniques of slave management. Third, we need to recognise that this system brought enormous economic and political benefits to planters, merchants and many ordinary white people and that these benefits were explain why most whites supported slavery for economic reasons even besides racial dislike of Africans and a shared belief in white superiority.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TB: I like to be called an American historian rather than, say, a Caribbean or even an Atlantic historian but I look at America obliquely, as one does as a foreigner. I study American history before the USA developed and am especially interested in those parts of America that did not become part of the USA. I am a New Zealander by birth who was from undergraduate days interested in understanding provincial identities in the settler colonies, including colonial British America. I did graduate studies in America before teaching in Jamaica, New Zealand, England and now Australia. I still find the processes which helped develop made the colonies of British America fascinating but I come to my area of study as someone who has little interest in modern America (though I like to visit) and who sees colonial British America always through the perspective of an interested outsider. I see the establishment of the USA as both accidental and not altogether positive and American history in the colonial period as way more interesting and transformative than modern American history. I write my works as an outsider who is more attuned to Britain and the Antipodes than to the USA. I wish the USA well but my work is, unsurprisingly given my background, not written with any ambition to say anything about contemporary America. One thing I hope readers will think if they read my book is that American history can look differently when written from Melbourne or London or Kingston
JF: What is your next project?
TB: Next year I publish a book with the University of Pennsylvania Press, out in June, which is linked to the topics in Planter, Merchants, and Slaves. It is called The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint Domingue and British Jamaica, 1748-1788 and is co-authored with John Garrigus.
JF: Thanks, Trevor!