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Response to Review of Edmund Burke and the British Empire in the West Indies: Wealth, Power, and Slavery

I am very grateful to Natalie Zacek both for her careful and thorough summary of my book and for her generosity towards my scholarly endeavours, which I much appreciate. In responding to her, I wish to make one preliminary point. She reviews the book, as she is perfectly entitled to do, from the standpoint of an historian of the Caribbean. I very much hope that Caribbean historians will want to read this book, but of course I had other readerships in mind as well, most obviously scholars of Edmund Burke and historians of empire. The book had to be shaped in part by their expectations. Nevertheless, although I am not a Caribbean specialist, I will try to respond to her in her terms.

Zacek is clearly not much in sympathy with my project, which she, entirely correctly, identifies as 'very much a history from the top down'. She points out, again with complete justification, that the book does little to enhance our 'understanding of the nature of West Indian societies at the height of their economic and geopolitical importance'. I plead guilty to such charges and have to admit that this is a book which is concerned with the British political elite. It tries, through the study of an individual, to show how that elite dealt with issues raised by their West Indian colonies.

Policies emanating from Britain were shaped by little, if any, awareness of the complexities of societies on the African coast or in the islands, which are being revealed by current scholarship to which Zacek is making a distinguished contribution. Burke's Negro Code, the theme of chapter 7 of my book, is probably the most comprehensive attempt by a leading politician to examine the slave trade and the West Indian plantations in any depth, but it is marked by assumptions about Africans and even about Caribbean whites, which modern scholarship finds deeply flawed. My purpose is to enable the reader to understand these assumptions, which shaped Burke's responses to West Indian issues, not, as Zacek seems to wish that I had done, to write an informed alternative to them. The extent to which I deal with wider issues of Caribbean history has, of necessity in my view, to be limited to trying to give the reader some idea of the context for the activities of Burke's connections in Guadeloupe, Grenada, or St Vincent or of the specific issues with which he had to deal in Britain. To have attempted more, even if I had the competence to do so, would surely have made the book unmanageable and is likely to have driven to distraction many readers, who may find keeping up with complex developments, both in Britain and in certain specific islands, taxing enough. Even within these limits, it is not, incidentally, the case, as Zacek asserts, that readers will not 'hear a word' about Tacky's Revolt in Jamaica. To understand the issues behind the Jamaican slave duties, an issue with which Burke had to deal, the reader needs to be aware of planters' concerns about security after the revolt and is briefly told of them.

I would urge historians of West Indian societies not to be too quick to relegate studies of the imperial connection to the status of 'historiographical throwbacks'. Imperial policies mattered because, however much people at all levels in Caribbean societies might try to subvert them, and could sometimes succeed in doing so, they still provided the framework within which life in the islands was lived. Essentially, British policies aimed at maximising the output of staples, above all of sugar. To achieve this, British governments gave British West Indian sugar a virtual monopoly of the home market; did their best to maintain and even to increase the flow of enslaved Africans to the islands; tacitly permitted the colonial assemblies to enact and operate brutal slave codes; and provided in the forces of the crown the ultimate safeguard for the planter regimes. These policies were not seriously challenged until the 1790s. The purpose of this book is to try to explain why this was so through the study of a man whose liberal economic views and undoubted humanitarian concerns could, one might suppose, have led him to dissent from them to a much greater degree than he did.

Study of the imperial dimension of Caribbean history would also seem to be an important element in the current preoccupation with the extent to which West Indian wealth based on slavery shaped British society and culture. Sugar plantations were highly capitalised projects. There was a high level of risk, leading to many failures, but they were capable of realising very large profits for successful planters and their merchants in Britain. This wealth sustained considerable consumption in estates and houses, as well as helping to fund the rich cultural life which John Brewer described so beautifully in his The Pleasures of the Imagination. It is hard to see how West Indian fortunes could have been realised on anything like the scale attained in the later 18th century outside the imperial framework. The conclusion to my book is that 'complicity in slavery' in Britain is therefore not confined to those who made money out of it but also includes those who maintained that framework that enabled money to be made.

Edmund Burke was certainly one of those complicit with slavery in this sense. How are we to judge that complicity? Zacek recognises that I feel some 'discomfort' about Burke's role, but seems to conclude that I am attempting to offer apologies, excuses, or defences on his behalf. That was not my intention, but I can understand that deficiencies in exposition on my part that she finds may have reasonably led her to that conclusion. I am happy to admit that after a lifetime of working on him, I am well disposed towards Burke. I think that his concern for suffering throughout the world was as well developed as we can expect of any 18th-century political figure. His failures towards Africans are therefore deeply disappointing to me. I try to explain these failures because I feel that an understanding of this particular case may help us to understand the failings of British society as a whole. My attempted explanation begins in the Introduction by trying to show that Burke's criteria for judging right and wrong in such issues as public gain through empire or private enrichment from office are not necessarily ours and that we should seek to understand them. This is, of course, potentially a slippery slope. I do not, however, endorse the conclusion 'tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner'. Over his entanglements with the African Company I believe that he failed even by contemporary standards of official propriety. On the widest issue of all that runs through this book, the conflict between supposed national interest and what might be due to Africans, I have, I hope, shown how Burke got enmeshed in that conflict and how he tried to resolve it. I am not offering a defence of his record, which I find disappointing. It is for readers to judge that record. I hope that my attempts to explain Burke's predicament may help them in reaching their judgement.

I am very concerned that Zacek finds this book a difficult read, its prose dense and its detail excessive. I have always valued clarity of exposition as the highest virtue in historical writing and have tried to do my best to attain it. I can only apologise to her and to others who may have the same difficulties. I would like to promise to do better next time. But when I admit to having in 1957, which was, aged 24, my first year as a graduate student and was to be the last year of his life, heard the greatest historian of the British Caribbean, the then paralysed Richard Pares, lecture with wonderful zest and clarity from a wheelchair, it will become apparent that that is a promise I am most unlikely to fulfil.