In our study of the origins of Southern culture and identity we have reviewed at length the Caribbean origins of the plantation economy and social order. We have seen how a multi-national civilisation of plantation societies was created that stretched from Brazil to Delaware. Herein we are going to take a look at one of the important differences between the colonial South and the Caribbean: how the British military was viewed in these regions. Specifically, we are going to examine why colonists in the Caribbean looked much more favourably upon British troops than did colonists in the mainland South. The information below is taken from the first couple of chapters of professor Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s book An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean.
Professor O’Shaughnessy points out that White demographic failure (primarily due to an extremely high White mortality rate; we will explore this further in future articles) in the Caribbean was an important difference between the plantation societies of the British Caribbean and mainland South. This was part of the reason why the British military was viewed much more favourably in the Caribbean. As he notes on page 7, ‘The plantation colonies of the islands and the southern mainland shared a common ethos, which was materialistic, individualistic, competitive, exploitative, and comparatively secular.’ However, demographically, they were quite distinct. O’Shaughnessy explains on page 7:
The 50,000 whites in the islands were a minority in relation to a black and free colored population of some 416,000. The ratios were inverted in North America, where there were 2,000,000 whites and 460,000 blacks on the eve of the American Revolution.
In the colonial period only South Carolina, where the population was divided equally between Blacks and Whites, came close to approximating Caribbean demographics. Comparatively, Barbados, the island whence came the majority of settlers who established South Carolina, had a population which was 73% Black slaves at the time of the American Revolution. It’s important to note that Barbados had a much higher White percentage of the population than the rest of the British Caribbean and was the least welcoming colony in the region to British troops. Meanwhile, South Carolina, with the lowest percentage of Whites of any of the British mainland colonies, was the least resistant to British troops. It was in nearly all-White New England where the most resistance to British troops was to be found. Therefore, we can say as a general rule that the higher the percentage of White colonists (and the lower the percentage of Black slaves), the less support there was for British troops in the area.
The large Black slave majority (sometimes 22 to 1) in the British Caribbean produced what O’Shaughnessy refers to as a ‘garrison mentality’ amongst the Whites. The racial situation ‘preoccupied Whites,’ as he notes on page 9. British colonists in the Caribbean showed more racial solidarity with one another than did their counterparts on the mainland and also were most hostile towards the African population amongst them. Unlike mainland colonists, they frequently referred to Black slaves as ‘the internal enemy.’ Part of this arose from the slave rebellions which were far more frequent and disastrous in the Caribbean than on the mainland (O’Shaughnessy puts the number at 75 in the Caribbean before 1837). Given their situation as a small population living amongst a much larger population they viewed as an ’internal enemy,’ it is unsurprising that British Caribbean Whites looked for outside sources of protection. O’Shaughnessy explains on page 34:
Whites wanted the British army in the Caribbean because of the rising proportion of blacks and the threat of slave revolts. This was not paranoia; their fears were derived from both direct experience of slave resistance and the knowledge that conditions in the islands increasingly favored a successful slave rebellion.
The author goes on to note on page 43 that prior to the 1730s ‘the island colonists had shown little more support for troops than had their mainland counterparts in North America.’ But, ‘in response to the maroon wars in Jamaica and the slave conspiracy in Antigua of 1736, the island colonists began to want more troops.’ All of the British Caribbean colonies except Barbados actively enticed British troops with generous cash allowances, land, use of servants and other perks. Indeed, ‘the legislatures of Jamaica and Antigua not only paid additional subsistence to troops but also built and maintained barracks, fortifications, hospitals, guard rooms, arsenals, powder rooms, kitchens, stables and separate quarters for officers.’ Clearly, the planter elites of the British Caribbean were willing to spend a lot of money to lure British troops to their islands. Barbadians did not do this. They had a larger White population than the rest of the British Caribbean. They also had a well-trained and provided for militia which George Washington himself was impressed by on a visit to the island.
British colonists in the Caribbean did not greatly fear outside invasion. The troops in the region were insufficient to repel a determined invasion from another colonial power (France, the Netherlands, Spain or Portugal). On the rare occasion when one island colony was attacked by another colonial power, resistance was minimal, as O’Shaughnessy notes on page 49, and terms of surrender were, as a general rule, generous:
The colonists even questioned the value of resistance in the face of a major enemy landing. …The island colonies of all European nations in the Caribbean frequently submitted within hours rather than allow their plantations and property to be destroyed.
In the Southern mainland colonies there was, on the whole, not much resistance to British troops prior to 1768. Of all the colonies, South Carolina was the least resistant to their presence. It not only had the largest slave population, it also faced the constant external threat of the Spanish at St Augustine in northern Florida. In time though, even South Carolina became critical of British troops’ presence. On the mainland, colonists were not willing to sacrifice their civil liberties to maintain British troops, O’Shaughnessy says, as were colonists in the Caribbean who faced a different demographic reality. By comparison, the author concludes on page 57, ‘Even Barbados, which had the lowest proportion of slaves in the island colonies, gladly received troops as long as their expenses were met by the mother country.’