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The History of Jamaica or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island, Volume II (1774): A Scholarly Introduction
By: Dania Dwyer
First published by T. Lowndes in London in 1774, Edward Long's History of Jamaica or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island served for nearly a century as the canonical Anglophone colonial history of Jamaica. The three-volume work provides a comprehensive account of the geographical, political, social, and economic makeup of Jamaica from 1665 to 1774. The English-born son of a prominent Jamaican plantation owner, Long spent twelve years (1757-1769) running his father's slave-holding estate, an experience which informs the History of Jamaica in its descriptions of the island's past, present, and future. Long was an influential member of the Jamaican plantocracy: he served in the Jamaican Assembly in 1761, 1765, and 1766 and briefly held the office of speaker of the assembly in 1768. He was both a slave-owner and a vocal advocate of slavery; his racist views of Africans and Afro-creoles, whom he often describes as an inferior species, permeate his account of life in Jamaica. Upon moving to England in 1769 (due to health problems), Long was a member of the West India merchants' and planters' committee, and authored articles and pamphlets asserting planters' views on the sugar trade and imperial politics.
At the time of its first publication, History of Jamaica was generally received as offering insight into colonial rule in Jamaica and as a culmination of Long’s work on imperial policies and the slave trade. Advertisements for the History indicate that it was widely available, promoted as “a new work” with “maps, illustrations and ornamental views.” In 1774 the Caledonian Mercury ran at least one long excerpt from the “just published text”--one consisting in detailed racial descriptions of the inhabitants of the island of Jamaica and instructions to the reader on how to distinguish among them.
Volume I of Long's History provides the reader with an overview of colonial government under British rule and outlines the history of Spanish colonization of the island. It also provides details concerning the population, the economy, and statistics on the purchase and export of slaves. Volume II describes the island's topographical landscape, its inhabitants, and a number of sites throughout. Volume III examines the island’s meteorology, and the effects of climate on health.
Although many historians and literary scholars agree on the importance of this work as one of the most comprehensive accounts of a Caribbean territory during the time of slavery, beginning as early as the early nineteenth century, criticism of the work’s accuracy and bias began to emerge. Robert Renny published his own History of Jamaica in 1807, with observations similar to Long’s on the island’s geography, inhabitants, customs, manners, but with an amendment. Renny’s work provides “an illustration of the advantages which are likely to result from the abolition of the slave trade.” In his preface, Renny takes issue with Long’s “voluminous, ill-digested, unconnected” history which he claims was priced to “exclude most purchasers” (ix).
Long's work has also been widely criticized for its racist tone and his assertion of the inevitability of slavery. Robert Braxton Bird highlights the work as influential in disseminating European ideologies of race and human difference: “The collection combines a wealth of scientific, legal, and historical information which has served as an important primary source for early Jamaica and British West Indian culture from the conquest of 1655 to the stresses of the late eighteenth century” (Bird 2007). Critics including Kenneth Morgan note the presence of racism as well as plagiarism in the work. Morgan writes: “The book combines encyclopaedic detail with polemics and propaganda; some sections are plagiarized from other writers...[Long] was a strong pro-slavery advocate who regarded enslaved Africans as subhuman, an inferior species. He thought that transporting enslaved Africans to the Caribbean instilled order and discipline into their lives. He associated slaves with apes in terms of lechery and feared the prospect of slave revolts. He considered the slave trade a profitable business for British interests and portrayed Jamaican slavery as a benevolent institution" (Morgan 2014).
Long’s study of Jamaica has been used extensively by historians including Elsa V. Goveia in her work, A Study on the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1956); Richard B. Sheridan in Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775 (1974) and John J. McCusker, Rum and the American Revolution: The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies, 1650-1775, 2 vols. (1989). Modern facsimile reprints of this work were published by Frank Cass in 1970 and by Ian Randle in 2002.
Braxton Bird, Robert. “Eighteenth Century Transformations of the Jamaican Plantocracy: Edward Long and Bryan Edwards,” Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Florida State University, 2007.
Morgan, Kenneth. “Long, Edward (1734-1813).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified May 29, 2014. Accessed July 8, 2018. doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/16964.
Renny, Robert. An History of Jamaica with Observations. J. Cawthorn, 1807.
Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Bohl, Elizabeth A. “The Gentleman Planter and the Metropole: Long’s History of Jamaica (1774).” In The Country and the City Revisited: England and the Politics of Culture, 1550-1850, edited by Gerald MacLean, Donna Landry, and Joseph P. Ward, 180-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Goveia, Elsa V. A Study on the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Howard University Press, 1956.
McCusker, John J. Rum and the American Revolution: The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies, 1650-1775. Garland Publishing, 1989.
Morgan, Kenneth. “Materials on the History of Jamaica in the Edward Long Papers held at the British Library: An Introduction to the Microfilm Collection.” Microfilm Academic Publishers, 2006.
Seth, Suman. “Materialism, Slavery and The History of Jamaica.” Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Today 105, no. 4 (2014): 764-772.
How to cite this scholarly introduction:
Dwyer, Dania. “History of Jamaica or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island.” The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2016.