Crisis & Responsibility in Postemancipation Jamaica


A review of The Measure of Empire: Crisis and Responsibility in Postemancipation Jamaica, by Christienna Fryar.

Is it possible to write a history of nineteenth-century Jamaica in which slavery and emancipation become supporting players rather than leading roles? This history could not ignore race or class divisions, nor could it neglect the ongoing post-slavery labor debates. But what if these issues became an ever-present backdrop for a study spotlighting other aspects of Jamaican politics and society? Or a history that foregrounds Jamaica’s knotty relationship to the British Empire? Christienna D. Fryar’s dissertation, “The Measure of Empire: Crisis and Responsibility in Postemancipation Jamaica,” aims to do precisely this. Spanning from the 1850s to the early 1900s, Fryar does not attempt to construct a long narrative, but instead examines Jamaica and its imperial relations through four different crises: the cholera epidemic of the early 1850s, a scandal concerning the Kingston Insane Asylum in the late 1850s and early 1860s, a fire that consumed Kingston in 1882, and the devastating earthquake of 1907.

The decision to tell Jamaican history through four crises serves Fryar well and enables her to make multiple historiographical interventions. For one, each chapter features an array of sources that Fryar uses to show the different facets of each crisis. Her evidence comes from both sides of the Atlantic and includes official exchanges between the Colonial Office and the Jamaican governors, public and private assessments from reformers and journalists, as well as the testimonies of ordinary Jamaicans. Besides including a wide range of sources, the case study approach also calls into question the usual periodization of Jamaican history. As Fryar notes, most historians of nineteenth-century Jamaica pivot around two historical moments: the process of emancipation in the 1830s or the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion and the subsequent transformation of Jamaica into a Crown Colony. Questioning the limits of this chronology, Fryar opts to instead begin her study after emancipation, with the cholera epidemic in the 1850s. She also extends her study beyond Morant Bay. Rather than seeing the rebellion as an endpoint for the “postemancipation period,” she argues that slavery’s legacies, including the colonial relationship that had been defined by a slave economy, lasted at least until the 1930s. Only with modern Jamaican nationalism did a new struggle for freedom began, “this time national rather than individual” (p. 15).

Fryar’s dissertation also calls on her readers to rethink how imperial history has been told. Although Jamaica was relegated to a “minor colony” status by the mid-nineteenth century, it still remained a part of the empire. Across each distinct Jamaican crisis, Fryar shows the shifting place of Jamaica within the empire, and she analyzes both the Colonial Office’s management of Jamaica during times of crisis as well as the expectations that Jamaicans had for their imperial rulers. Throughout the dissertation, she probes the political culture and personalities of colonial elites and points to the ways ordinary Jamaicans appealed to British reformers and colonial officials. Her study of these various communications and lobbying networks reveal the difficulties of living and working in a colony on the decline, at least in the eyes of those in the Colonial Office in London.

The first two chapters of the dissertation address public health crises: cholera and the shocking reports of abuse at the Kingston Insane Asylum. Together, these chapters build on the work of Catherine Hall and Diana Paton, who have argued that humanitarian reforms in Britain often became distorted in the post-emancipation and colonial context of Jamaica (Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the British Imagination, 1830-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002; and Diana Paton, No Bond But the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. London and Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). Fryar vividly describes the devastation of the cholera epidemic on the island while also comparing it to other outbreaks in the empire and elsewhere. The Colonial Office sent financial aid and advice to the Jamaican government, and they also deployed three physicians to the British West Indies, including the Scotsman Gavin Milroy, who wound up in Jamaica. Fryar focuses on Milroy’s public and private reports in which, she argues, “sanitary prescriptions” combined with “moral sermonizing” about black Jamaicans’ perceived idleness, uncleanliness, and immorality (p. 37). Discussions of cholera and how to manage future outbreaks became critiques of the “ruinous transition to emancipation” (p. 70). As Fryar concludes, “What would keep cholera at bay was the same thing that would cure Jamaica’s economic woes: the creation of a class of docile, hard-working, married, healthy, clean, and otherwise morally upstanding plantation laborers” (p. 72).

The second chapter narrates a fascinating public debate about the scandalous mistreatment of patients at the Kingston Insane Asylum. Led by Lewis Bowerbank, a white Jamaican-born physician, some Jamaicans published exposes on the conditions of those held in the asylum, and they argued that the institution was in violation of modern reforms. The critics included an ex-inmate of the asylum, a colored woman named Ann Pratt, and a former warden. On the other side, the institution’s defenders included the lead surgeon at the hospital and asylum, James Scott, and the Governor, Sir Charles Henry Darling. The scandal began in Jamaica but moved to England when Bowerbank went to seek out allies in the British reform movement, and his complaints also made their way into the Colonial Office. While the controversy itself resulted in a trial and an acquittal of the accused matron and other attendants, Fryar uses the scandal to uncover other issues as well. She shows how the Jamaicans who protested the asylum’s conditions believed in “metropolitan fairness” throughout the crisis as they appealed to British reformers and colonial officials to address the asylum’s problems (p. 145). It also shows how some colonial officials, including Scott and Governor Darling, believed that the high standards of humanitarian treatment expected in Britain could not be applied to a colonial context in an institution primarily serving black and colored people.

The third and fourth chapters turn to disasters, a term Fryar uses with some caution as she emphasizes the social and structural factors that must be considered when surveying “acts of God” (p. 19, citing Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Indeed, both chapters show the influence of recent studies examining the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Haiti earthquake. Like the chapter on the asylum scandal, these final two chapters also focus on Kingston, and they therefore provide an urban history of the colony. The third chapter addresses the coincidental timing of an 1882 fire that burned down much of Kingston and the inflamed protests from a month before the fire over the structure of Jamaica’s government and the influence of the Colonial Office on local affairs. The Colonial Office uncharacteristically (as Fryar shows through briefly examining earlier examples) offered a loan to those who had lost property during the fire, and this offer of aid on the part of Britain stemmed not from the facts of the fire but from their realization that “it would be politically disastrous” to refuse aid at a time of constitutional tumult (p. 190). The loans, however, were never paid out, most likely due to the fact that the people who lost homes during the fire were impoverished renters who were ineligible for the rebuilding loans. The offered aid did not address the persistent inequalities in the colony that left the poorest inhabitants in the most vulnerable position to be ruined or killed in a disaster.

In the last chapter, Fryar reexamines the case of Governor James Alexander Swettenham. In the days after an earthquake rocked Jamaica in 1907, Swettenham appealed for medical aid, and American ships, rather than the British government, responded. Rear-Admiral Charles Davis and American marines landed in Kingston, taking up positions at the American consulate and the prison. Swettenham, however, treated Davis’s landing as an “armed intervention,” and he wrote a harshly worded letter to Davis with a sarcastic statement wondering how British soldiers would be received if they arrived in New York to aid the New York Police Department (p. 200). Fryar proceeds to examine the fallout from the letter: Swettenham’s correspondence with the frustrated Colonial Office and his eventual forced resignation, the opinions of journalists in Jamaica about the presence of Americans, and Jamaicans’ changing interpretations of the event over time. This last chapter suggests how Jamaica’s proximity to the expansionist United States helped to shape its place in the empire as well as its importance to British diplomacy, but it also shows how Jamaicans themselves had mixed opinions of the United States. While many welcomed American aid in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, others, including Swettenham, expressed concerns over how white Americans would treat black Jamaicans. Further, as more time passed, Swettenham’s “resistance” to the Americans became a point of pride among some Jamaicans who identified as both British subjects and Jamaicans, a point that encapsulates the complex nature of colonial identity present throughout the dissertation.

Taken individually, each tightly narrated chapter works on a few different levels. First, Fryar provides vivid portraits of Jamaican political and social history at particular moments, and she renders both famous and lesser-known historical figures in all of their complexity. Second, through analyzing the exchanges between those in Jamaica and the Colonial Office, she explores how the crisis played out on the level of imperial bureaucracy, and her inclusion of marginal notes on dispatches passed around the Colonial Office offers a sense of the layers of discourse taking place over Jamaican crises. Finally, because public health crises and natural disasters were not specific to Jamaica alone, Fryar opens the door to considering Jamaican history in relation to world history, and on issues related to but distinct from comparative slavery and emancipation. Indeed, Fryar’s structure and focus on crisis moments suggests ways of thinking about humanitarianism and its limitations more broadly as a way to understand the dynamics between colony and metropole as well as international relations without losing track of the particularities of the local context.

Gale L. Kenny
Term Assistant Professor
Religion Department
Barnard College

Primary Sources

Colonial Office Archives, National Archives, Kew, Great Britain
National Library of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica
Jamaica Archives, Spanish Town, Jamaica
Daily Gleaner (Kingston)
Jamaica Daily Telegraph and Anglo-American Herald (Kingston)

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2012. 251 pp. Primary Adviser: Linda Colley.


Image: Jamaica Times (March 16, 1907, page 1).

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