Colony built by clan-do network

Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World, 1750-1820
December 2, 2005

In 1786, the young Robert Burns was on the point of joining a long list of earlier Scots bound for the West Indies. A position of book-keeper on a Jamaican plantation awaited him. But news of the success of his first book of poetry reached him in Greenock and he stayed at home.

This simple story forms the point of departure for Douglas Hamilton's book on one of the most important aspects of Caribbean (and Scottish) history.

From the early days of settlement in the mid-17th century, but especially after the Union in 1707, through to the peak years of enslaved Jamaica, Scots formed a crucial presence in the country. A similar story could be repeated across the British Caribbean at much the same time, just as it was to be reprised in the creation of a new British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was also true in other parts of Britain's far-flung colonial possessions (at the heart of the tobacco industry in the 17th to 18th-century Chesapeake, for example).

Scots were everywhere, their accents and networks, their literacy, numeracy and industry always in demand on the expansive frontiers of colonial agriculture, and in the ports and urban centres on both sides of the English-speaking Atlantic. And everywhere they worked, traded and settled, they came to exercise an influence out of all proportion to their numbers.

Historians of the Caribbean have long been aware of the Scots - not least because non-Scots regularly talked about them (and not always in an approving or flattering fashion).

Thomas Thistlewood's infamous diaries regularly recorded disapproving voices about the Scots in Jamaica. Although the Scots were ubiquitous, hard-working and looked after each other, the English on the plantations did not always approve. Yet where would those plantations have been without the Scots?

The story begins, of course, in Scotland, and Hamilton deftly describes the great upheavals there: the clearances, the emergence of new agricultures and early industries, the creation of a distinctive local education - and the consequent bands of educated Scots looking for work wherever it presented itself.

After 1707, opportunities beckoned, especially across the Atlantic, and thousands sailed westward to populate and to manage those engines of Atlantic growth - the plantations. There they formed important networks based on Scottish ties and connections that fuelled colonial success, the profits from which often flowed back to Scotland itself. Small towns at home often benefited from their Caribbean efforts (schools, housing, economic improvements) and formed lines of economic development between the enslaved Americas and Scotland.

What emerged was a complex human and economic structure linking Scotland, England and the West Indian islands. Personal and commercial networks fed upon each other: Scottish planters, bankers, merchants and shippers gleaned their news and learnt of economic openings from each other. It was, at once, both complex and yet coherent. And the lubricant of the system was trust in fellow countrymen.

The most striking example of a Scottish network was to be found among the doctors, themselves a vital product of their homeland's superior education system. Doctors were vital to the wellbeing of the plantations. They tended the slaves, adapting African folk and medical customs to their formal medical learning. Throughout, they helped one another. It was hardly surprising that this vibrant economic and social presence would be quickly reflected in the politics of the islands, and from there the centre of colonial power in London - where, of course, it intersected with that powerful Scottish presence in British politics. In economics as in politics, Scots lay at the heart of British metropolitan and colonial power, the two locked in a mutually reinforcing transatlantic network.

All this had a major impact on Scotland. The migration of educated and skilled manpower was paralleled by a return of money for investment and by the creation of commercial openings and systems exploited by Scots at home.

What makes Hamilton's book especially important is the way it offers a genuinely transatlantic vision.

From his mastery of materials on both sides of the Atlantic, Hamilton has fashioned a well-written, original book of great importance to students of Scotland and the Americas. His book is an important addition to the vibrant scholarship of the enslaved Atlantic.

James Walvin is professor of history, York University.

Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World, 1750-1820

Author - Douglas Hamilton
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 249
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 7190 7182 8

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