Professor @ University of Southampton, UK
Christer Petley is Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Southampton, UK, and a former Chair of the SCS. His work has focused on Caribbean history and the histories of slavery and abolition, with a focus on the Anglophone Caribbean in the period between c.1770 and 1838. He has worked in particular detail on the social history and political cultures of slaveholding whites in Jamaica and on the debates that led to the ending of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery during the 1830s. His books include Slaveholders in Jamaica: Colonial Society and Culture during the Era of Abolition (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009) and White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). He has published edited collections on the fall of the planter class, material cultures of slavery and abolition, and on the Royal Navy and the Atlantic world. His two most recent research articles are: ‘Slaveholders and Revolution: The Jamaican Planter Class, British imperial Politics, and the Ending of the Slave Trade, 1775–1807’, Slavery & Abolition 39/1 (2018); and ‘Managing “Property”: The Colonial Order of Things within Jamaican Probate Inventories’, Journal of Global Slavery 6/1 (2021).
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- Summary: This paper argues that warfare in the Caribbean was an important influence on the British decision to end the slave trade in 1807. This is currently poorly understood in the scholarship on abolition. Eric Williams and, more recently, David Ryden emphasised decline or crisis in the Caribbean sugar economy, their critics the moral arguments and popular support of metropolitan abolitionism. Only Claudius Fergus has offered an argument about the influence of conflict in the Caribbean, with particular emphasis on the Haitian Revolution and fears of slave uprisings, highlighting aspects of a complex topic that requires fuller attention. Focusing principally on Jamaica (the main point of focus for debates over the British slave system) this paper reveals a demographic transformation and crisis of colonial defence that began in the early 1790s. A yellow fever pandemic and new soaring rates of absenteeism caused the white population to decline. Free people of colour not only expanded in number but also shouldered an increasing military role. By 1805, free men of colour made up about a third of the Jamaica militia, by which time the new West India Regiments of armed enslaved troops were a mainstay of the regular military establishment. Those changes provoked an anxious response from white planters, who opposed British military policies in the Caribbean as forcibly as they opposed abolition. This was of central importance to the debate about security and reform in the British-colonised Caribbean that led, in 1807, to the ending of the slave trade.