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Book review - Deep analysis of slavery
published: Sunday | November 16, 2003

Title: Slave Society In The City: Bridgetown, Barbados 1680-1834

Author: Pedro L. V. Welch

Reviewed By: Billy Hall

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, this year celebrates 350 years as a city, therefore, this book is timely.

But the importance of this book to Caribbean historiography exceeds such celebration, for it is a book of unique value as a specialized treatment in the study of slave society, building on the works of major Anglophone Caribbean historians, yet, representing a significant departure that deepens analysis of the institution of slavery in the sub-region.

Dr. Pedro Welch is identified on the back cover as the coordinator of student support services at the University of the West Indies Distance Education Centre in Barbados.

Mention is also made that his academic background includes being 1984 Commonwealth Caribbean Scholar, and 1992 Johns Hopkins Fellow.

FINE TRADITION OF THE BEST HISTORIANS

But what commends him more than anything else, academically, is the quality of his work, as found in this book. He writes in the fine tradition of the best of Caribbean historians, whose work he acknowledges, as he cuts his own path.

In general, their views overlooked the city. Their dissertations on the institutions of slavery were preoccupied with the rural reality, which was the same that textbooks did, generally, even internationally.

For example, he quotes Gary Nash, who writes in the context of North America: "Textbooks in colonial history and black history rarely mention urban slavery" (Slaves and Slave owners in Colonial Philadelphia, William and Mary Quarterly, 30.2, 1973, p. 223).

On the whole, he makes the observation that, despite specific departures of studies concerning the urban formation of western colonial slave society, in recent historiography, "that awareness has not been translated into a rigorous interrogation with the data" (9. 194).

Consequently, it is this lacuna he addresses, while respecting the works of historians and sociologists who have written on cross-Atlantic slavery from the Anglophone Caribbean perspective, such as Elsa Goveia, Orlando Patterson, and Kamau Brathwaite.

However, despite the general trend of such respected historians, he recognises the distinctive work of Professor Barry Higman, "who succeeds in pointing the way forward for a more detailed treatment of the urban complex" (p. 194).

He notes that Professor Higman perceived the way urban slave society was significantly different. No doubt he was referring particularly to Higman's seminal work, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807-1834.

For example, Welch notes that Higman mentions how the urban phenomenon was characterised by 'contradiction and ambiguity', as slaves, masters, and free former slaves interacted.

Of course, this interaction took place despite the fact that the towns contained "visible symbols of oppression in the form of cages, stocks, and other socio-cultural and legal obstacles to freedom for blacks" (p. 194).

AN OASIS

Welch's work certainly comes as an oasis regarding the historiography of slavery in the Commonwealth Caribbean, in that it is the first academic work that focuses in such a systematic and sustained manner on the institution of slavery in Barbados.

This uniqueness is deepened by the fact that the focus is urban and not rural.

His nine chapter headings reveal the character of his research: 'Uncovering the Urban Matrix, Urban Ecology in Colonial Barbados, Bridgetown as Port Town, Demographic characteristics, White Life, Life and Leisure, In search of the Ostrechans and their Contemporaries, Reflections.

Approximately 50 pages of the total 250 are devoted to documentation of one kind or another ­ postscript, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index.

In addition, of course, there is a foreword, abstract, and introduction ­ apart from a few select photos and illustrations, and statistical data.

A peculiar date is given for the time it is first published in the United Kingdom, and that is next year ( 2004). Perhaps the publishers are revealing an intention, but in such a way that it will not cost them a re-print to do so.

CHARACTER OF THE BOOK

Professor Woodville Marshall, who contributes the postscript, does so in fine style.

He summarises succinctly and accurately the character of this book. Dr. Marshall acknowledges the diligent, original research that is the substance of the work, "exhaustive mining of vestry minutes, levy books, deeds, and wills", which is the basis for his "intelligent manipulation of the material".

DEEPENS ANALYSIS

Its breadth matches the depth of the scholarship, for, as Marshall says, Welch shows himself completely familiar with all the secondary literature. He does not confine himself to the research findings of the Caribbean but ranges over all the New World slave societies...he is also clearly informed of the theoretical literature ...as a social historian in the tradition of Barry Higman, Welsh displays a mastery of technique...He displays cliometric techniques on his mass of statistical data, and also exploits the multi-disciplinary approach...(p. 201).

This book, indeed, deepens analysis of the institution of plantation slavery in the New World.

Marshall, in summary fashion, says it well ­ "All in all, then, this book is a very solid contribution to the historiography of slavery, especially the urban variety." (p. 201).

Publisher: Ian Randle Publishers, 2003

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