The Measure of Empire: Disaster and the British State in Postemancipation Jamaica 
book manuscript in progress 


 

Jamaica sees Governor J. Alexander Swettenham off after his resignation in 1907—"Putting aside little smudges, caused by that temper of yours, there is only one bad blot on your record, and, now you are going, we will forget that. Goodbye. You are as honest as you are courageous"—"Telling Him Goodbye," Jamaica Times, 16 March 1907, 1.

In the decades after the end of slavery, Jamaica's economic value plummeted. While traditional accounts suggest that Jamaica's economic crisis was coupled with a decline in political and cultural importance within the British Empire, these formulations too often assume imperial irrelevance rather than prove it. Even if British imperial bureaucrats did try to neglect Jamaica, that neglect could not be sustained in the face of continued demands from colonial subjects and the island's proximity to the rising United States. Moreover, neglect served a purpose. The attempts of imperial bureaucrats to minimize their efforts governing the Caribbean, no matter how unsuccessful, sustained the narrative of Britain's imperial liberalism by hiding its hypocrisy. The abolition of slavery had provided moral justification for continued imperial expansion: since the British Empire had freed its slaves, its champions believed it was a liberal and humanitarian empire with important work to continue. Yet few if any traces of this supposed humanitarianism still lurked in the ideological underpinnings of imperial endeavors throughout the Caribbean, the region where most of those slaves had been freed. Thus, Jamaica remains the crucial site to study the combination of sustained neglect and occasional strategic benevolence that characterized imperial governance throughout the late-nineteenth-century British empire, an explicitly postslavery empire. "The Measure of Empire" uses disaster as an analytical lens to highlight these dynamics in postemancipation Jamaica. Disasters provided more effective opportunities for black Jamaicans to register grievances, and they also laid bare the ideologies underpinning an imperial administration facing demands from a supposed marginal colony. In disaster's wake, moreover, subjects and colonial officials alike used a shared language of responsibility to reassert the durable connections between Jamaica and Britain. Thus disasters paradoxically (but temporarily) strengthened the ties between colony and metropole.

For a review of a portion of this work, see Gale Kenny's review of my dissertation over at Dissertation Reviews.