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Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: Edward Long, planter and historian

Published:Sunday | December 17, 2017 | 12:00 AM

A disturbing legacy of the history of slavery and sugar was the publication in Britain in 1774 of a three-volume History of Jamaica by Edward Long, the great-grandson of a man who had once taken on the crown.

Samuel Long was a lieutenant in General Venables' invading army, and, for his role, received land in Clarendon, which, by 1754, his descendants had grown to 606,755 acres. It was said that the Spanish had found gold on the Rio Minho adjacent to his sugar cane, but a neighbour observed, "We have so profitable a mine above ground (pointing to the cane piece), we will not trouble ourselves hunting for any underground."

Long was the speaker of the Jamaica Assembly and became chief justice at the time when a new governor, the Earl of Carlisle, arrived and announced that on the instruction of King Charles II, he and his general council would henceforth pass all laws, side-stepping the Assembly resentment mounted when the Assembly refused to sign a pledge. In addition, Chief Justice Long refused to act on the earl's belief that those opposing him should be charged with treachery. Long and the Assembly's speaker, Sir William Beeston, were taken prisoner and carried to England by the governor to face charges of sedition.

Long not only pleaded Jamaica's case, dismissing the charges as trifling, but also accused the governor of encouraging well-known pirates and sharing in their booty. The king proposed a more acceptable form of administration, and the men returned to the island in triumph.

 

CONTROVERSIAL HISTORIAN

 

Long's son, Charles, became the proprietor of Sevens Two plantation, later called Longville, on the death of his father in 1683, and, coincidentally took a second wife, who was Sir William Beeston's daughter, Jane, in 1702. His first son, named Samuel, eventually employed 443 slaves on the Long properties. His fourth son, Edward, later to become the controversial historian, was born in England and pursued a career in law at Gray's Inn in London.

In 1757, he accompanied Sir Henry Moore, who had been appointed governor to the island as his private secretary. He quickly entered public life, being elected to the Jamaican Assembly for the parish of St Ann and was later elected speaker of the house. Later still, he became chief justice. A year after he arrived, he married an heiress, Mary Ballard Beckford, who provided him with six children, four of whom were born in the island.

After only 11 years in Jamaica, he departed for Britain because of the ill-weather. Now an absentee plantation owner and no longer burdened by the demands of Jamaican public life, Edward Long devoted much of his time to writing articles and pamphlets and overseeing the family's British estates.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes his three-volume History of Jamaica as "his most influential work, which cemented his reputation as the leading contemporary commentator on the 18th-century British Caribbean". Edward Long simply announced it as an "unpolished survey of Jamaica".

Drawn from his own experiences, public records, and private papers, it is encyclopaedic in its detail, some of which were said to have been copied from other writers. On the other hand, Bryan Edwards' History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, published 20 years later, reproduced Long's section on the origin of the Maroons.

The first volume weighed heavily on the island's government and capture and its administration during the British early years. It described the country's Caribbean dependencies, trade, and money. This latter required considerable explanation as at the time, English, Spanish, Mexican, Portuguese and even Peruvian currency was in circulation.

The History of Jamaica, in volume two, covers the geography of the island, the composition of the population and offers a variety of insights into maintaining good health. For instance, he praised a fruit and vegetable diet but warned against eating too much meat, particularly the salted variety. Wine in moderation was recommended, as well as weak rum punch (but made with rum matured for at least a year). He made a case for early rising as contributing to good health and commented on the benefits of bathing, sleeping, and a limited amount of dancing.

The final volume focused on the climate, earthquake, hurricanes, the weather, as well as 352 entries itemising everything from nature's bounty to rats and reptiles.

It was in the second volume that he analysed the country's population, producing a racist description of slaves that even for its era, was extreme, to say the least. He did not classify Africans with the rest of mankind, and he considered slave trading as a profitable business and Jamaican slavery a benevolent institution. In his book Britain's Black Debt, Hilary Beckles describes Edward Long as the "pro-slavery ideologue of late 18th-century Jamaica". Long never returned to Jamaica, dying in Sussex aged 69.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian.

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