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The History of Jamaica: Reflections on Its…

The History of Jamaica: Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements,… (1774)

by Edward Long

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It gets to be a fraught matter, this evaluation of old stuff alongside new stuff (and assignment of star ratings thereupon). I mean, we can prolly mostly agree with that hoary definition of genius (Harold Bloom, was it no?) as that which is powerfully reinterpretable to speak to the succeeding generations in new and unforeseen ways. And we can probably also agree that stuff which continues to be useful to people with a historical or area interest because of its astute observations deserves more credit than stuff that just comes off, down the road, as a collection of blinkered absurdities.

So like, with this, I hate to give anything less than three stars to a dude who gives us such good detail on the civil admin of a British sugarcolony in the 1700s, or on the cultural practices of the newly arrived slaves and the integrated "Maron" creoles in their separate communities, or their lanuage (CAN JAMAICAN CREOLE REALLY BE THe ORIGIN OF THE WORD "TAINT"? I HOPE SO), and all with an evident or apparent commitment to firsthand observation or collection of eyewitness testimony rather than just hearsay and prejudice. Most of all, I like howLong goes into such intriguing folkhistorical detail on the slave rebellions in Jamaica in the 1760s, tracing the narratives, sketching the players, giving us such a good sense of events on the ground. It's almost Iliadic at moments, like e.g. the end of the rebel leader "Tacky".

And that word "Iliadic" throws the problem into a kind of relief. We don't judge Homer for not having a problem with slaughter and slavery, or at least we defer and attenuate said judgment indefinitely till it means nothing. Why can't we do the same for Long? This is powerfully racist stuff, but its commitment to accuracy and documentation means you think: "oh yeah! even the progressives were racists. It's the 18th century".

And if I can take a leaf from the coalescent world of my emerging speech-language pathologist self, the way to draw that line is not in terms of what goes on internally--"Edward Long is a racist"--or even what manifests itself symptomatically--"Edward Long says racist stuff"--or EVEN even what can be expected contextually--"Edward Long is a racist, but no more than most people of his day. No, we need to look at impact; and in that sense our progressives become the racists who thought Africans were like children who should be treated with a firm but loving hand, or even the fiscal conservatives later on who thought Europeans should get out of the empire business because it was hurting the balance sheets. And the reactionaries become the ones who, for whatever reason, perpetuated the system. And Edward Long is emphatically one of the latter--running down "cruel masters" as a stain on the British honour, but refusing to let the appalling death toll even under "gentle" masters, to say nothing of the mercenary slave traders, in any way sanction rebellion or even reformism. Like, abusive whites get condemnation by polite society but no hard consequences; blacks who try to work within the system and then die like dogs get our sympathy, but fuck all else. What is, is right, especially if it's good for business.

So there is much of use here to the scholar, and I'm not trying to give a free pass to people whose bad beliefs had good results, but Edward Long was part of the problem, emphatically. ( )
  MeditationesMartini | Feb 19, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0773525521, Hardcover)

It marked the first occasion that an extended historical narrative had been undertaken by an author with a prolonged association with the island. More than just a social and political history, Long's trilogy offers readers detailed practical advice for life on the island, covering everything from the start-up requirements for a plantation to the tastiest fish. Of particular interest to a contemporary audience is the extensive information about slavery, from the cost of owning a slave to rules governing slaves and slave owners. This new edition, with an introduction by Howard Johnson, makes Long's classic work available once again.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:33 -0400)

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