Planters and Fear in the Age of Revolution

When:28 Mar 2017, 12:30pm - 1:45pm
Who:Professor Trevor Burnard, University of Melbourne
Trevor Burnard

History Seminar Series


It has become axiomatic in studies of American slavery that planters lived in constant fear of slave revolt. Of course, planters were aware that enslaved people hated them and were wary of what their slaves might do to them, if given the chance. Nevertheless, historians, in my view, have overemphasised the extent to which planters were disable by fear in how they acted towards enslaved people before and during the Age of Revolutions. In complete slave societies, such as eighteenth-century Jamaica. I suggest, by contrast, that fear was not so much a problem for planters than a solution. They used the emotion of fear and the practice of terror against enslaved people - in a literal working out in a social setting of the theories of Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan as best described in the writings of historian and proslavery defender, Bryan Edwards - as a means of creating white solidarity and a method of instilling obedience from a terrified and traumatised enslaved population. In the period before the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 changed the rules of the game forever, Jamaican planters were satisfied by their ability to counter a massive slave revolt in 1760 through applications of maximum terror that they could be kept safe from attack from African slaves. Fear worked as a strategy in Jamaica. The problem with this strategy was that it did not work in a rapidly abolitionising Britain. Many Britons were appalled at the society built of fear that sustained planter power. They came to see Jamaican planters as cruel tyrants and were happy to curb their power. Thus, the policies of fear in a slave society like Jamaica had highly ambivalent consequences for planters, slaves and British observers of empire.

About Trevor Burnard

Trevor Burnard is Professor and Head of School at the University of Melbourne. He has previously taught in Britain, Brunei, New Zealand and Jamaica. He researches in the history of early British America, including the British West Indies, before ca. 1790 and in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800. He has published extensively on slavery and slave societies. His most recent book is The Plantation Machine Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (co-authored with John Garrigus) (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

View Past Events