The "Ruin" of Jamaica
An 1855 tract by historian Richard Hildreth on the economic history of slavery in Jamaica. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Richard Hildreth (1807-1865) was a leading US historian and antislavery writer. He graduated Harvard in 1826 and practiced law before establishing The Boston Atlas in 1832. Plagued through much of his life with health problems, Hildreth traveled in the South, largely in Florida, where he encountered slavery. Based on his observations, Hildreth wrote the first US antislavery novel, The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore (Boston: John H. Eastburn, 1836) a pseudo-slave narrative. In 1840 he relocated to British Guyana, where he established two newspapers and wrote another of his antislavery works, Despotism in America: an Inquiry into the Nature, Results, and Legal Basis of the Slave-holding System in the United States (1840; 2nd. ed, Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1854), was one of the major antebellum histories of US slavery. [Digital editions by Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, and Making of America Collection, University of Michigan, respectively.]
Returning the the United States, Hildreth published his major work, a six-volume History of the United States, from 1849-1852. During the mid-to-late 1850s he wrote for the New York Tribune and pursued antislavery writing. President Lincoln appointed Hildreth as US consul to Trieste, where he served from 1861-1865. He died in Florence in 1865.
Hildreth wrote this tract to respond to pro-slavery arguments that claimed Jamaica and the Caribbean colonial economies were ruined by the emancipation of slaves. He reviews the rise of the Caribbean sugar plantation economy as a history of speculation, one built on smallholder bankruptcies and leading towards the consolidation of an enriched planter class. In summary, Hildreth’s argument is that Jamaica was continually ruined by sugar, with the only beneficiaries being a small number of British sugar houses with sufficient capital and knowledge to profit from the trade. “To every body else employed in it, black or white, it was incessant, exhausting, and unrequited toil, except that the black people had a very scanty and insufficient supply of food and clothing—the latter generally a rag about their loins,—and the white people a pretty good supply of those, with plenty of wine, brandy, ale, rum, and black mistresses, and horses to ride, and negroes to domineer over.” (8) The ruin of Jamaica, Hildreth concludes, was “an ancient and chronic complaint.” (12)
Although a major early American historian, journalist, and intellectual figure, little recent research has been published on Hildreth. Much of the small body of critical literature on Hildreth was published in the 1940s: Arthur Schlesinger’s essay “The Problem of Richard Hildreth,” New England Quarterly 13 (June 1940) 2:223-245 is an insightful examination of Hildreth’s conservative Federalist politics. The only full-length biography is Donald Eugene Emerson’s Richard Hildreth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1946). More recent critics have paid attention to Hildreth’s novel Archy Moore: see Evan Brandstater, “Uncle Tom and Archy Moore: The Antislavery Novel as Ideological Symbol,” American Quarterly 26 (1974) 160-175, and Christine MacDonald, “Changing Jurisdictions: Geography and Race in Slave Law and Literature of the 1830s,” American Quarterly 71 (1999) 4:625-655.
- Joe Lockard