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Trevor Burnard, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820

In: Journal of Early American History
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This book forum focuses on Trevor Burnard’s book, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820 (University of Chicago Press, 2015). In his book, Burnard argues that white men did not choose to develop and maintain the plantation system out of virulent racism or sadism, but rather out of economic logic. While plantations required racial divisions to exist, their successes were always measured in gold, rather than skin or blood. Burnard argues that the best example of plantations functioning as intended is not those found in the fractious and poor North American colonies, but those in their booming and integrated commercial hub, Jamaica. Ranging over nearly two centuries, from Guyana to the Chesapeake, the book provides many new insights and offers a revisionary interpretation of the connection between slavery and the American Revolution. The three reviewers in general praise the empirical research that underpins the book but challenge some of the conclusions. They also draw attention to a few points that, in their opinion, the author underemphasized or where he could have expanded his argument, for instance the role of support from the British Empire to the plantation system and the role of religion in shaping attitudes to slavery and the plantation system. In his response, Burnard argues against some of the criticism, such as the impact of the fear of slave revolts. In particular, Burnard stresses that his understanding of slavery in the colonial period of American history is that of an outsider to American politics. As such, he argues, his book does not speak to contemporary concerns about rising evidence of racial hatred.

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