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Scholarly Introduction

Contributed Scholarly Introduction: edwardsbryan-historybritishcolonies-1793

About this Intro


Scholarly Introduction

Bryan Edwards’s The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies was first published in 1792 in two volumes – in London by John Stockdale and in Dublin by Luke White. Edwards (1743-1800) was a planter in Jamaica, where he had moved in 1759 to live with his uncle, Zachary Bayly. Edwards had returned to England in 1792, a year before the publication of The History. Edwards divided the two-volume History into six books, each book consisting of four to five chapters with appendices. The first book describes indigenous people of the Caribbean, as well as the ancient geography, climate and ecology of the islands. The second and third books focus on the early colonial history of the Caribbean, detailing in particular Anglo-Spanish relations. The fourth book consists largely of ethnography and Edwards’s discussion of slavery: Edwards provides a history of the transatlantic slave trade, describes the state of modern slavery in the Caribbean and advances his argument against abolition. The fifth book is an examination of agriculture in the Caribbean, with a focus on the sugar industry. In the sixth and final book, Edwards describes the British system of colonial government in the West Indies and describes the recent history of political and economic relations with Britain and the newly independent United States.

As L. J. Ragatz notes, The History was enormously influential in the period immediately after its initial publication and during the nineteenth century (165). It was republished in London in 1794 by Stockdale again in two volumes, with maps of the West Indies and illustrations added; an abridged two-volume version was also published in 1794 by J. Parsons; in 1798, a single-volume abridged edition was published by B. Crosby (with Edwards’s 1797 Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St Domingo appended). Numerous expanded editions were also published after Edwards’s death. In 1801, a three-volume edition was published by John Stockdale in London, which included an expanded version of the Historical Survey, as well as an autobiographical sketch, and A Tour Through the Several Islands of Barbados, St. Vincent, Antigua, Tobago, and Grenada, in the years 1791 and 1792 by William Young. In Philadelphia, in 1805-6, a 4-volume edition was published by James Humphreys, which included A Sketch of the Life of the Author, written by Edwards just before his death, and A General Description of the Bahama Islands by Daniel M’Kinnen. In 1810, a four-volume edition was published in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston; in 1819, a five-volume edition was published in London, Edinburgh and Dublin. Between 1794 and 1800, translations were published in French, German, Dutch and Portuguese (Ragatz, 164, 165; Sheridan 2008).

Edwards’s History was initially well-received: in the Annual Register, 1793, several portions of the History were excerpted (380; 207; 421-6) and the reviewer praised its “magnitude” and “novelty” (418). The pro-slavery Gentleman’s Magazine, reviewed The History in 1794, excerpting a long passage, and praising Edwards’s “masterly hand” (51) in describing the lives and culture of slaves in the Caribbean. In the Monthly Review, Edwards was particularly praised for writing from “experience” rather than “theory” or “speculation” (158). In 1795 however, the Irish poet William Preston published A Letter to Bryan Edwards, Containing Observations On Some Passages of His History of The West Indies, in which he summarizes and refutes Edwards’s proslavery arguments, commenting “Your book is a strong proof how far education and use may harden the tenderest natures, and mislead the strongest understandings” (3). Edwards’s proslavery stance is also picked up and critiqued in the anonymous Memoirs of a West-India Planter (published in 1828 and edited by the abolitionist John Riland). The writer (an abolitionist) describes an incident in which one of his cousins argues in favour of slavery by referring to “‘the unanswerable arguments of Edwards’” (40) and quotes at length from the fourth book of the History, where, just after claiming that he is “no friend to slavery,” Edwards suggests that slavery is in fact inevitable, having been “interwoven into the constitution of the world” (Edwards 2.138). (For further information concerning the History’s circulation and impact in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries see: L. J. Ragatz).

Toni Wall Jaudon has noted that Edwards’s History (along with Benjamin Moseley’s A Treatise on Sugar) was particularly influential in shaping conceptions of obeah in the United States and Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Edwards’s account is based on the account of obeah in the 1789 Report of Lords of the Committee of the Council Appointed for the Consideration of All Matters Relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations which Edwards attributes to Edward Long (Jaudon 737). Edwards’s History was one work which “detailed the uncanny agency of obeah’s objects” (Jaudon 716). This representation of the “uncanny” may have been behind some of the frightened reactions to obeah in texts responding to the History. The Monthly Review article refers for example to Edwards’s “particular account of the obeah, the dreadful practice… which has been the occasion at times of almost depopulating whole plantations” (299); Preston, at one point in his antislavery letter to Edwards, transfers the target of his rhetorical attack from the institution of slavery to obeah (18). While John Riland, in the second appendix to the Memoirs of a West India Planter, (where he cites Edwards as the authority on the subject), claims it is “essentially the same” as “Roman Catholic superstition” (186). By contrast, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in the prefatory note to his poem “Three Graves,” collected in Sibylline Leaves) refers to having been influenced in his understanding of the imagination by his reading about “Oby” in Edwards’s History (218).

The History has been important to a wide range of scholars; Ragatz in 1970 claimed that the History was “standard for over a century and [is] still in many respects the best book on the subject up to the close of the eighteenth century” (165). Scholars of transatlantic slavery, economic history and Caribbean historiography have been particularly interested in the text. Francisco A. Scarano analyses for example the text’s multiple and apparently contradictory stances on slavery (240-1), while Colleen A. Vasconcellos refers to Edwards’s estimates and figures concerning the slave trade in her analysis of slavery and childhood in Jamaica. By contrast, Walter C. Rucker focuses on the mediated voice of an enslaved woman in Edward’s History, Clara, reading her narrative alongside the short narrative by Ashy.



Works Cited

The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, For the Year 1793. London: W. Otridge & Son et al, 1793.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Three Graves.” Sibylline Leaves: A Collection of Poems. London: Rest Fenner, 1817.

The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle for the Year MDCCXCIV Volume LXIV. Part the First. Ed. Sylvanus Urban (Edward Cave). 64.1. London: John Nichols, 1794.

Jaudon, Toni Wall. “Obeah’s Sensations: Rethinking Religion at the Transnational Turn.” American Literature. vol. 84 no. 4, 2012, pp. 715-741.  

Memoirs of a West India Planter, Published from an Original Manuscript. Ed. John Riland. London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1828.

The Monthly Review; or, Literary Journal, Enlarged: From May to August inclusive, mdccxciv. With An Appendix. London: R. Griffiths, 1794

Preston, William. A Letter to Bryan Edwards, Containing Observations On Some Passages of His History of The West Indies. London: J. Johnson, 1795.

Ragatz, Lowell J. A Guide for the Study of British Caribbean History 1763-1834 Including the Abolition and Emancipation Movements, Da Capo Press, 1970

Rucker, Walter C. “Women, Regeneration, and Power”. In Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power, Indiana University Press, 2015, pp. 207–228.

Scarano, Francisco A. “Slavery and Emancipation in Caribbean History.” General History of the Caribbean, Volume VI: Methodology and Historiography of the Caribbean. Edited by B. W. Higman, UNESCO Publishing/ Macmillan Education Ltd, 1999. 233-282.

Sheridan, Richard B. “Edwards, Bryan (1743-1800).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition, Jan 2008.

Vasconcellos, Colleen A. Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788-1838. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Secondary Bibliography

Dierksheide, Christa. Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in the Plantation Americas. University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Kumar, Prakash. Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Sheridan, Richard B., Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. Kingston: Caribbean University Press. (Printed for The University of the West Indies), 1974.

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Abolition Debate, Agriculture, American Revolutionary War, Commerce, Ethnography, History, Jamaica, Obeah, Slave Trade

Cite this Introduction

Bond, William. “Introduction to Bryan Edwards' The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, in Two Volumes (1793).” The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2016.


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William Bond is a PhD student in the English Department at Northeastern University. His research and...