Despite the shared civilisational model, social structure, close trading ties and numerous cultural norms, the mainland Southern colonies and the British Caribbean colonies were politically divided in the 1760s leading up to the American Revolution in 1776. Recently, we have seen how White demographic failure and a rapidly growing Black slave majority fostered a ‘garrison mentality’ amongst British Caribbean Whites, who looked to British troops for support in maintaining social control. Meanwhile, mainland British colonists, even South Carolinians (who had been colonised by Barbadians and were closest in racial demographics and social order to the Caribbean), came to resent the presence of British troops and saw them as a danger to their liberty. This was a significant divide between the Caribbean plantation societies and those on the mainland. Another major difference which separated the Caribbean from the mainland was their very different reactions to the Stamp Act of 1765.
In an effort to raise funds to pay for the French and Indian War (as it it was known in North America; more widely this war was known as the Seven Years’ War) and offset its large national debt the British Government imposed a tax (signified by a stamp) on printed documents in their colonies in the New World. This tax sparked massive protests in the mainland colonies and led to violent acts against British colonial officials as well as riots in the streets. This was an important step in the build-up to military rebellion and the colonies’ Declaration of Independence a decade later. The tax was eliminated just a year after it was imposed, but by then a major rift in the Empire had been created.
Professor Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy explains why this rift occurred and what its long term implications were in chapter four of his book An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. The irony about the reactions to the Stamp Act is that this tax disproportionately taxed the Caribbean and yet the colonists there (with only a few exceptions) accepted the tax with little protest. Meanwhile, mainland colonists reacted violently to a tax that was minimal and primarily intended to pay for the troops which provided their security (protecting them from the French and their Indian allies over the Appalachians) – not for the benefit of Caribbean defences. The mainland response can only be understood from an ideological perspective, since the reaction to the tax was out of proportion to the economic burden it actually imposed. O’Shaughnessy writes:
The Stamp Act imposed the greatest tax burden on the British West Indies because it contained clauses that specifically discriminated against the islands.
…The British government consequently allocated more stamps to the Caribbean colonies than to North America. The greatest single consignment of stamps to British America went to Jamaica. The government apportioned more stamps to the Leeward Islands than to any of the mainland colonies: it expected revenues from Antigua to be higher than North Carolina or Maryland. Charles Jenkinson, the treasury secretary, expected roughly equal amounts of stamp revenue from the populous North American colonies as from the Caribbean.
British Caribbean Whites were not silent about the new tax. They had a strong argument against it: they were essentially being asked to pay for the defense of others. These West Indian colonists read the anti-British newspaper articles and pamphlets which mainland colonists wrote denouncing the new tax. They were influenced by the same intellectual and ideological trends which influenced those on the mainland. For instance, O’Shaughnessy points out that most West Indians shared a ‘Country Whig‘ ideology with most mainland colonists. They tended to support British radical John Wilkes, though not as strongly as did the North Americans (even South Carolina voted to send money to Wilkes, which none of the Caribbean colonies did).
Though many islanders voiced opposition to the Stamp Act, only the colonies of the Leeward Islands (the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles), and more specifically Saint Kitts and Nevis, experienced strong, organised and violent opposition to the tax. This is surprising, in some respects, because, as O’Shaughnessy notes, the Leeward Islands were in a weaker position than Jamaica and Barbados. They had a dwindling White population that was in a weaker proportional position than the British Caribbean Whites in Jamaica and Barbados. Their economy was less diversified. And yet, it was there that the radical activism of the mainland colonies was paralleled. The riots in Saint Kitts, O’Shaughnessy notes, likely involved over half of the island’s free adult White population. The stamp tax was not collected there and when it was repealed, a year later, there was great celebration. The much more populated islands of Barbados and Jamaica saw no such riots or organised resistance.
WHY DIDN’T THE CARIBBEAN STRONGLY PROTEST THE STAMP TAX?
As mentioned above, only Saint Kitts and Nevis strongly protested the Stamp Act. Why? This is a question that O’Shaughnessy adddresses on pages 96-100 of his book:
[T]he reaction of the Leeward Islands to the Stamp Act was abnormal within the British Caribbean. Jamaica and Barbados typified the natural inclination of the West Indies toward conciliation with British…
The vulnerability of the Leeward islands to economic sanctions by North American merchants explains their bold resistance to the Stamp Act. The Leewards, more than all the other islands, depended on the North American colonies for food. …The Leewards faced a stark alternative… resist the Stamp Act or suffer famine with the associated danger of a slave rebellion.
…[T]he Leeward Islands yielded to the economic pressure exerted by the North Americans.
Indeed, mainland colonists organised boycotts against their Caribbean kinsmen who complied with the tax. This caused a great deal of animosity between societies such as South Carolina and Barbados ( the former having been colonised by the latter), which shared a similar culture, social order and economy. O’Shaughnessy writes:
North American merchants boycotted all the British islands that complied with the Stamp Act. …Stamp papers from Barbados and Jamaica were publicly burnt in North America, and radicals proposed starving the “Creole Slaves” by a virtual embargo.
…North American merchants either blacklisted those islands that complied with the act or simply stayed away for fear that ships using unstamped papers were liable to seizure.