Demographic trends in late-slavery Jamaica, 1817-32

June 8, 2022 | Blog
Home > Demographic trends in late-slavery Jamaica, 1817-32

by J. R. Ward

This blog post is based upon the author’s article forthcoming in the Economic History Review.


On 27 December 1831, an uprising was launched by African-born and African-descent enslaved people across large parts of Hanover and St James, north-western parishes in Jamaica, the most important British West Indian slave colony. A prominent role was played by ‘Baptist’ converts to one of the several Christian missionary groups active on the island, so the revolt became known as the Baptist War. Its suppression by colonial militia and regular army units took several weeks, reportedly killing around 500 of Jamaica’s some 300,000 enslaved people. Sugar was the Jamaican export staple, and insurgent attacks damaged about a tenth of the island’s sugar estates. As a result of the Baptist War, and with the aim of preventing renewed disorder, in 1833 Parliament voted to abolish British colonial slavery, the triumph of a public campaign that had begun in the 1780s.


Metropolitan anti-slavery won its first major success in 1807, when Parliament outlawed British slave trading from Africa. In 1816, Britain’s slave colonies were required to register their enslaved people, as a check against illegal labour importing. In 1823, the British government was pressured into starting a supervisory scheme, under which cautious regime ‘amelioration’ would gradually prepare the enslaved for freedom at some unspecified future date.


Historians have developed contrasting ‘political’ and ‘economic’ views of the Baptist War.  ‘Political’ interpretations attribute the revolt largely to the fact that, in 1830-1, the British anti-slavery leadership lost patience with gradualism and became more militant, demanding immediate emancipation. News of the attitude change reached Jamaica, where enslaved people got the impression that freedom was now theirs to be taken. The insurrection mainly affected Hanover and St James because Baptists were concentrated there. Baptist missionaries differed from other evangelists in exercising a looser control of the enslaved men who served as congregational leaders. This gave the insurgents an organizing network. The Baptist War broke out despite an improvement in workforce maintenance standards, favoured by slaveholders to secure population increase through an excess of births over deaths, after the purchase of labour from Africa was shut down in 1807.


Figure 1.   Attack on the Roehampton sugar estate, St James parish, Jamaica, January 1832

Source: Wikimedia Commons


‘Economic’ assessments judge that material conditions had been getting worse rather than better for several years before the revolt, which culminated a period of mounting popular unrest. Few slaveholders achieved any significant regime improvement, because heightened market competition was depressing sugar prices and estate profits, while the growing strength of British anti-slavery made emancipation seem imminent.


There is little direct evidence on slave workloads, diet, and punishment. Historians therefore rely heavily on demographic statistics as an indirect measure of welfare, and the late-slavery British West Indian population registers are a valuable data source. The Jamaican registers start in 1817 with a full census of enslaved people, identified for each holding by name, gender, age, and origin (either African or locally-born ‘creole’). Subsequent returns, made every third year until 1832, specify slaveholding changes over the intervening period: gains through birth and purchase, losses through death, sale, manumission, desertion (‘running away’), and conviction at public slave courts, usually of ‘runaways’. The courts sentenced to life imprisonment or deportation from Jamaica.


‘Economic’ interpretations of the Baptist War note that Jamaican slave deaths exceeded births by a widening margin between 1817 and 1832. The trend is taken to imply a welfare decline, which will have aggravated labour force unrest. However, such arguments are based on statistics for the enslaved population as a whole, and overlook the effect of changes in its makeup caused by closing the transatlantic slave trade. My study addresses this structural issue through a more detailed analysis of the registration data, distinguishing between Africans and creoles. I show that register-period demographic deficits resulted mainly from the post-1807 ageing of Jamaica’s last Africa-born enslaved people. There was apparently no general pre-1831 regime deterioration. Jamaican creoles were self-reproducing by the late 1820s. Survival rates improved considerably for infants and young children, who would only become productive workers several years in the future. Thus slaveholders were clearly seeking to maintain their Jamaican capital over the long term, despite the anti-slavery movement. Emancipation came much sooner than they had expected. Rates of loss through running away and slave court conviction held steady across Jamaica during the 1820s, and usually remained below average on the future ‘rebel’ estates in Hanover and St James. So the 1831-2 revolt is associated with a particular local missionary style, rather than signs of harsher treatment or of a long-term growth in popular resistance. ‘Political’ accounts of the Baptist War are confirmed; ‘economic’ alternatives are refuted.



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