Rediker’s Fearless Benjamin Lay book.

A review I wrote for New West Indian Guide on Marcus Rediker’s book on Benjamin Lay is now in print.  Lay was an early and a very important Quaker spokesmen against slavery.  He’s described by Rediker as a carry-over of 17th century radicalism, who shunned and condemned the  brutal effects of the emerging capitalist economy of the mid eighteenth century.  He was particularly concerned with the abuses associated with slavery and did not refrain from making the comfortable feel uncomfortable.  For more, including publication details, follow the link below.


Galveston’s Maritime Workers in 1880: A Quantitative View

David Beck Ryden, “Galveston’s Maritime Workers in 1880: A Quantitative View,” East Texas Historical Journal 56:1 (2018): 40-54.

The ETHJ publishers are slightly behind schedule and just released the above 2018 articleIn this piece, I use the Integrated Public Use Series (IPUMS) to conduct a sloop“complete count” analysis of the 1880 Galveston Census.  Part of the paper discusses the limitations of this source, including the fact that the census was conducted in summer, when wharf-side work was slowest on Galveston island.

I was expecting that there would be more African Americans present in the study, but in 1880 this sector was surprisingly foreign-born, with Northern Europeans dominating the workforce.  The family demography of those identified as maritime workers suggests a standard of living that was higher than most residents on the island. However, given that it was the off-season during the enumeration, those who were identified as maritime workers were likely to have held the best jobs in this sector.

I hope to return to this local history project, soon, and compare the 1900 and 1920 figures with that of the 1880 census figuresboatman.  I’m sure that there are also other quantitative records that can also help piece together the lives of this understudied population.

I’m pleased that this piece is freely available.  Follow the link, above, to read the full version.





Living Costs in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica

Trevor Burnard, Laura Panza, and Jeffrey Williamson, “Living Costs, Real Income and Inequality in Jamaica,” Explorations in Economic History 71 (2019): 55-71.

In this quantitative study, Burnard, Panza, and Williamson put forth some important estimates of living standards, by class-of-worker, in eighteenth-century Jamaica. The authors’ findings underscore the grindingly low material condition of slaves, but what is novel about this research  is the demonstrated gap between the wealthy planter-merchant elite and common free laborers. Their estimates of comparative well-being are based on a ratio metric that divides estimated annual income for each employment category by a “bare-bones basket” of annual food expenditures.

The findings underscore the expensive cost-of-living for those along the middling and low income range of the income distribution, given that the highly capitalized and profitable plantation complex bid-up the price of food on the island.  Plantations not only monopolized Jamaica’s best lands for sugar cane, but the grand slave estates also placed intense demand on local food markets in order to feed slave laborers. This combination of demand and supply pressure on local and imported food stocks squeezed the poorest Jamaican’s, whose estimated Welfare Ratio Index is less than 1 (meaning their bare-bones basket of food cost more than their annual income).


Hannah-Rose Murray’s “Mapping African American Abolitionists in Britain and Ireland, 1838–1847.”

Hannah-Rose Murray: “‘With almost electric speed’: mapping African American abolitionists in Britain and Ireland, 1838–1847,” forthcoming Slavery and Abolition (posted on Taylor Francis site 04 Dec 2018).

It is great to see the proliferation of more-and-more digital history sites.  For at least several years, Hannah Murray been adding to her “Frederick Douglass in Britain” webpage, a mapping resource that that plots the geographic  movements of Douglass and


other African American abolitionists in Victorian Britain.  Using something like Google maps, Murray has provided interactive virtual pushpins that reveal the location of and sometimes details about antislavery speeches made throughout Britain and Ireland.  One quickly grasps from the data the exhaustive schedule Douglass and others pursued while in Britain.

In the above-cited forthcoming article in Slavery and Abolition, Murray presents a fascinating comparison between Douglass’s antislavery addresses in the 1840s and that of the lesser know African American abolitionist, Moses Roper in the 1830s.  She shows us that Douglass was able to capitalize on his compelling narrative and powerful public speaking talents with the help of Britain’s Antislavery and fledgling British rail network, whereas the Roper failed to penetrate British consciousness.  Unlike Douglass, Roper was more-or-less blackballed from the abolitionist clique and had few or no defenders.  Earlier enthusiasm for Roper gave way to a collective cold shoulder, leaving him nearly forgotten by historians.

In noodling through the mapping website, I find it particularly london taverninteresting that the Crown and Anchor and the London Tavern were both venues for Douglass’s speeches on antislavery and suffrage.   As I have noted elsewhere, both of these venues were meeting places for the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants, a lobby that first defended the transatlantic slave trade, then slavery, and then the government compensation of planters in exchange for emancipation.  It seems ironic, but it is likely that the owners of the luxurious London Tavern had little concern as to what organization used their space.


Mulcahy and Schwartz, “Nature’s Battalions: Insects as Agricultural Pests in the Early Modern Caribbean”

Matthew Mulcahy and Stuart Schwartz, “Nature’s Battalions: Insects as Agricultural Pests in the Early Modern Caribbean,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, 75:3 (2018): 433-64.

This coauthored article is a cross-national, colonial study of some of the hazards that cash-crop planters faced from ca 1500 to ca 1800.  “The Blast” was the most common, generic term used to describe a variety of destructive diseases meted out by insects, such as caterpillars, beetles, flies, and worms.  Fire ants were commonly fingered by contemporaries as the culprit behind crop die-offs, but modern analysis show that, if anything, these nuisances to humans actually provided plant protection from some destructive pests.

The authors also point out the secondary threat insects had on the Caribbean plantation complex.  In addition to killing sugarcane, cocoa, and coffee, food crops were also sometimes destroyed by bugs, thereby further compromising the already sub-optimal nutrition of slave laborers.  We learn from this piece that the famed “Barbados diaspora” of the late-seventeenth century was driven, in part, by pests and crop failure on the island.

The most valuable Caribbean crop, sugar, suffered from both “black” and “yellow” blasts,which were caused by two separate insect species.

A Rendering of the Destructiveness of “Yellow Blast,” 1750.

Mulcahy and Schwartz explain that the black blast was caused by the “cane fly,” which would swarm plants,  suck the cane juice, and leave a sweet excrement that fostered plant fungus growth (presumably black in color).  The yellow blast, on the other hand, was caused by the “bore,” which was a moth larvae.  Whichever blast infected sugar cane plants, however, the consequence was the same: the affected canes were either utterly destroyed or, at the very least, damaged so that the sugar yield inferior.

From an economic  history perspective, this article is particularly worth noting in that it makes the distinction between pestilence disasters and natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.  Infestations tended to have little impact on infrastructure and the public’s investments, but of course had a significant private cost for individual investors.  It is interesting that despite its limited effect on the public property, Assemblies offered bounties in order to incentivize  individuals to find solutions to these plant infestations. This  rent seeking (raiding the public purse for private ends) behavior by the planter class can be seen in a variety of contexts, both in the colonies and back in the metropole.  It makes sense that historians define slave societies as settlements where slave owners not only dominated the economy, but also politics.  It is a story that is repeated throughout the Americas.

Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership

The December 2018 Newsletter for the LBS center, at UCL, announces that the LBSLBS_LOGO database will be updated once per year in order to “stabilize the database and release new information publicly in a formal series of updates.”  Heretofore, the dataset of biographical and slave compensation information has been updated continuously.  It has been necessary to change the update protocol in order to give researchers the “ability to specify which version of the database has been used to generate a given set of results.”

As I’ve noted elsewhere on my homepage, this is an amazing source for professional historians and for anyone interested in the business and personal ties between Britons and West Indian slavery.



Manumission in Eighteenth Century Jamaica

David Beck Ryden, “Manumission in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 92:3-4  (2018): 211–244.

I’m very pleased that my most recent research on manumission in late-eighteenth century Jamaica has been published in the New West Indian Guide, the oldest scholarly journal with a focus on the Caribbean.

Manumission (the liberation of individual slaves) took place in many slave societies throughout history for a variety of reasons.  In this article, I use over 300 manumission deeds from Jamaica to explore the rationale for freedom grants, demography of the manumitted population, characteristics of the manumitters, and prices paid for freedom, when cash was exchanged.  In Jamaica, the proportion of slaves who were manumitted was very small, but one has to keep in mind that the entire population of bondsmen and women was very large on the island.  Nonetheless, manumission occurred on a regular basis and had a major bearing on the racial makeup of the island’s small free population. The voluntary granting of freedom took place in every parish on the island, however, there was marked concentration of deeds being signed in Kingston, St Catherine, and Port Royal: like other parts of the Atlantic World, manumission was disproportionately an urban phenomenon.

The source for this paper is based largely on the British Library’s endangered archive program’s Jamaica collectionJamaica Archives.  I used Volume 11 of the the Manumission Libers in order to build a database that captures information of over 300 manumitters and over 400 manumittees. The original hand-written manuscripts are at the Jamaica Archives, which I first explored in the 1990s. This record office has extensive collections that continue to offer major insights into seventeenth and eighteenth century Jamaica.  I will hopefully have these data made available in a SPSS and Excel format, soon.

The quantitative results paired with eighteenth-century commentary reveal how individuals negotiated their way to freedom and how white elites held contradictory understandings of racial and class-based boundaries.

The editor of the journal,  R.M.A.L. Hoefte and the team at Brill were incredibly helpful and patient with me throughout the editorial process and I thank them.  The New West Indian Guide is very much on the cutting edge, releasing the article as open access, CC. Be sure to download a pdf version of the article: it is free of charge!