Jack Mansong insurgency, 1780-1781
University of California, Berkeley
A Treatise on Sugar (1800): A Scholarly Introduction
By: Elizabeth Polcha and Kate Simpkins
A Treatise on Sugar is one of several treatises in which the English physician Benjamin Moseley traces Eurocentric geographical histories of plant cultivation in the Caribbean. This treatise, like Moseley's others, culminates in observations about colonial agricultural production and the plantation’s related scientific cultures in the Caribbean. Moseley’s other treatises include A Treatise on the Properties and Effects of Coffee and A Treatise on Tropical Diseases . . . of the West Indies, both published in 1792. Moseley lived in Jamaica between 1768 and 1784 while practicing as a physician. A Treatise on Sugar is notable in part because it includes a brief and early account of the runaway slave and Maroon leader, Jack Mansong, “the famous Negro robber” as well as an account of the Afro-creole, Jamaican religious and medical practice of Obeah (197).
A Treatise on Sugar appeared in London in multiple editions throughout the early 1800s, and though not republished in the U.S. in its entirety, the Mansong story was extracted and widely published in U.S. newspapers, including the Boston Gazette (1801) and the New-York Courier (1816). Alongside Bryan Edwards’s early writing on obi and obeah practices in The History Civil and Commercial . . . of the West Indies (1793), Moseley’s rendering of Mansong’s obi would serve as a major source of information on obeah circulating in a variety of print and performance materials in the U.S. and in Europe at the end of the 18th century. By 1800, the circulation of fictions drawing from Edwards’s and Moseley’s accounts of obi priests and obeah practices had promoted a reimagining of this figure in “obeah fictions” and in widely successful stage adaptations of these texts (Jaudon 2012). Stage adaptations typically treated the obi priest as either a noble rebel or an evil conjuror whose medical practices signified disease, corruption, and evil, and whose presence signified the continued fear of insurrection for colonial authorities in the wake of the ongoing revolution in Haiti.
Reviewers of Moseley’s Treatise portrayed the text positively; however, several reviewers took issue with Moseley’s suggestion that “every root and earthly product is nutritious, in proportion to the saccharine principle it contains” (140). A review in the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine from 1800 criticized the medical claim that sugar was the basis of all nourishment, pointing out Moseley’s lack of knowledge of “the facts and doctrines of modern chemistry.” Several reviews speak to the treatise as entertainment, such as a review from The Gentlemen’s Magazine from 1801: “on the subject of Obi, and of African, Indian, and American witchcraft, we need only to say, that it is the most curious dissertation that ever appeared in print.”
Historian Diana Paton shows that by the time the Treatise appeared in London, Jack Mansong’s insurgency of 1780-81, which severely threatened British colonial authority, had already unfolded for planter class readers over a six month period in articles and advertisements in the Jamaican newspaper, The Royal Gazette. However, Moseley’s text was the first to form a narrative around the historical slave and obi priest. The second edition of the Treatise, published in London in 1800, features Moseley’s account with “much new matter” (“Preface”); Mansong’s story appears in the context of a larger agricultural treatise on sugar and aspects of its production, together with an appended section on medical observations.
Other notable critical scholarship on Moseley’s Treatise continues to focus primarily on the text as a source of information on obeah and on Jack Mansong, rather than as a reference on the natural history of the island. In a 2015 issue of Atlantic Studies, Kelly Wisecup and Toni Wall Jaudon argue that Moseley’s text represents “obeah-as-assemblage, listing the ostensibly natural objects that an obeah might contain and making visible the ways in which obeah’s powers confound empiricist modes of observation” (137).
Moseley, Benjamin. Preface to A Treatise on Sugar: With Miscellaneous Medical Observations, iii-vi. London: John Nichols, 1800.
Paton, Diana. “The Afterlives of Three-Fingered Jack.” In Slavery and the Cultures of Abolition: Essays Marking the Bicentennial of the British Abolition Act of 1807, edited by Brycchan Carey and Peter J. Kitson, 42-63. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2007.
Wall Jaudon, Toni. “Obeah’s Sensations: Rethinking Religion at the Transnational Turn.” American Literature 84, no. 4 (2012): 715–741.
Wisecup, Kelly, and Toni Wall Jaudon. “On Knowing and Not Knowing about Obeah.” Atlantic Studies 12, no. 2 (2015): 129–143.
How to cite this article
Polcha, Elizabeth and Kate Simpkins. “A Treatise on Sugar. With Miscellaneous Medical Observations (1800): A Scholarly Introduction." The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2015.