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A failed settler society: marriage and demographic failure in early Jamaica

Journal of Social History, Fall, 1994 by Trevor Burnard

Despite a slow and steady increase in white population from 7000 in 1703 to ove 20,000 in 1774 (of whom 17,000 were "settled and resident white settlers"), Jamaica failed to keep pace with population growth in the plantation economies of the American mainland.(6) Whereas white population in the Chesapeake multiplied more than ninefold between 1660 and 1760 and white numbers in the Lower South catapulted from 21,000 to nearly 120,000 in the half-century before 1760, Jamaican whites only just managed to double their numbers.(7) The enormou population growth of Jamaica in the eighteenth century--from less than 4000 in 1661 to nearly 210,000 in 1774--was achieved only through the massive importation of African slaves. From 13.3% of the population in 1661, the proportion of the population that was black had increased to nearly 94% in 1774.(8) As early as the 1670s, blacks formed a majority of the population and the presence of such a large black majority soon came to shape every aspect of society in Jamaica. White Jamaicans came to depend on blacks for their economic well-being but feared being overwhelmed both culturally and physically--by thei numerical predominance and their unassimilabilty. The Jamaican government made occasional attempts to foster white settlement in the island, passing deficienc laws, for example, where planters were fined if requisite numbers of whites abl to serve in a militia were not present on their plantations. Nevertheless, whit population growth continued to lag and the gap between white and black populations increased to what Jamaican officials believed were alarming levels.

In Jamaica, demographic failure prevented the establishment of a settler society. Continuing high mortality among white settlers meant that white number could not be maintained by natural increase alone. This failure was crucially important in shaping the character of the fully-fledged plantation society that emerged in the early eighteenth century--a society characterised by large imbalances between the sexes and especially between races, by the widespread absenteeism of many of the most influential members of society, and by continuing population instability and slowness in developing a recognizably home-grown creole consciousness.(9) Moreover, the transformation of Jamaica int a plantation society in itself accentuated these trends and hindered the development of a settler society and settler institutions.

The extent of demographic failure among white settlers in Jamaica can be measured at the local level thanks to the survival of a surprisingly complete parish register from St. Andrews Parish.(10) St. Andrews was one of the earlies settled parishes in Jamaica and included within its boundaries the fertile plains of Liguanea, well suited both for the production of sugar and also for cattle-raising. The first entries in the register date from 1666, about four or five years after the first patents for land were issued in the parish and a decade after Jamaica had been settled in the aftermath of the spectacularly unsuccessful Western Design. Initially, St. Andrews was a garrison settlement with a regiment of over 1000 men and virtually no women or children. This force dwindled to under 600 men by 1662. Garrison government was soon superseded by civilian settlement in the 1660s but one legacy of that initial period of settlement was a highly imbalanced sex ratio in the fledgling parish. In 1662, of the 827 white inhabitants in Ligueanea, 553 (66.9%) were men.(11) Until 1673 smallholdings predominated with white population peaking at 1,269 whites out of a total population of 2,677. The 1670s are important not only for heralding the end of real growth in white population levels but for signalling the beginning of the transition from a small landholding settler community to a society dominated by large-scale sugar production. From the 1670s, common lands essential for small planter prosperity were gobbled up by large planters and large estates began to assume more prominence, even if such estates were still relatively small and hindered by insufficient slave labor forces. From the 1670s, also, the beginnings of a serious decline in already precarious demographic fortunes for white settlers can be dated, a decline that accelerate from the 1690s. We have no more information regarding white population levels i St. Andrews until 1730, when white population was 515 out of a total population of nearly 7,800, but it is probable that white population remained essentially static until the 1690s. The 1690s heralded serious population decline, brought on in part by epidemics following the earthquake of 1692 in Port Royal and French raids that devastated the eastern part of the island in 1693-94. White population figures in St. Andrews only gradually recovered to the levels reache in the 1670s through considerable immigration into the parish in the first thir of the eighteenth century.(12)

 

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