With Trevor Burnard

April 11 / 59

Professor Trevor Burnard is Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies in the Faculty of Arts. He is a historian specialising in the history of the Atlantic World. Professor Burnard will present a 2011 Dean’s Lecture titled Making Race; Making English Settlers: Lessons from the Colonies in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.

In 1760, Jamaica, the wealthiest and most important British American colony of its time, was almost brought to its knees by a massive slave revolt, led by African born slaves about whom we knew virtually nothing, except that when the revolt ended they were put savagely to death by a terrified and vengeful white populace. It was the greatest challenge to British colonial authority by non-white people before the 1857 Indian Mutiny.

The timing of the revolt was significant. It happened during the first modern global conflict, the Seven Years’ War, where France and Britain fought against each other on a variety of fronts. The Seven Years’ War led to a considerable increase in nationalistic feelings and proved pivotal in establishing British and French identities in the second half of the eighteenth century. It also coincided with a period of intellectual transformations arising from changing conceptions of medicine and the body. In particular, led by scholars such as David Hume, Voltaire and Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment intellectuals started to change notions of how race was thought of.

In the second half of the eighteenth century a fundamental idea of race was emerging in which race was a heritable and inescapable way of being that encompassed physical, moral, intellectual and psychological characteristics. These all provided a basis for hierarchical differentiation. People were gradually establishing and stabilising many of the terms, concepts and scientific questions that would lay the foundation for more elaborate attempts to create a science of race in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Just as sex was, in important ways, `made’ in the early eighteenth century, as people absorbed new medical information about how the body actually worked, so too was race `made’ in the latter part of that same century as new understandings evolved about bodily differences between peoples of different pigmentation and heritage.

Usually, the development of racial theory in the second half of the eighteenth century is discussed as an episode in Enlightenment intellectual history. Of course, it was that. But changes in how Europeans thought of Africans in this period were not just a product of Enlightenment intellectual discourse. They also were connected to specific historical events such as the slave revolt led by a slave rebel called Tackey in Jamaica in 1760.

I believe that the British and then Australian colonies were not just passive receivers of intellectual doctrines developed in the European metropolis but helped develop racial attitudes themselves in response to real practical problems in working out who belonged and who did not belong to increasingly egalitarian political and social structures.

Slaves, especially rebellious slaves, played a key role in convincing colonists, not only in Jamaica but later in Australia, that if rigid demarcations were not made between the various races – not just black and white but importantly mixed-race people, a category that rapidly lost all special privileges and was actively prevented from interacting with white people – the only way to preserve white dominance was to insist that colonials wishing to return to their own country, and identifying with that country as Britons living abroad, were set apart as legally and socially superior to people who could not claim to be British, and more precisely English.

Moreover, this discussion was conducted within Jamaica, and later Australia, within a larger set of concerns that white people had about whether they could be classed as English people in the eyes of metropolitan observers. 

The colonies, therefore, had a real impact on European thinking on two important matters, both of which help define the Enlightenment and thus the contours of the modern world. I am interested in this lecture in exploring that classic Enlightenment conundrum, which did not go away but which continues to be important in how we relate to other people in modern societies.

Put simply: can an expansion in equality and freedom only occur if simultaneously we act to rigidly exclude from the benefits of egalitarianism those people who are sufficiently different from ourselves to not be thought of the same race or ethnicity?

In the British colonial context: if the defining feature of being British (or more precisely English in the mid-eighteenth century) was an abiding commitment to liberty, freedom and equality and if the colonies are the places par excellence where radical egalitarianism is most to be found, can that egalitarianism be only sustained if at the same time racial boundaries between whites and non whites were rigidly policed?

 The slaves who rebelled in Jamaica in 1760 brought this problem forcibly to ordinary white people’s attention. The racially exclusionary and politically egalitarian policies (but only for white men) that colonial Jamaicans forged profoundly shaped the context within which developing ideas of scientific racism flourished.  The toxic combination of colonial political realities and changed intellectual assumptions about racial capabilities profoundly shaped colonisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century British World, including the new colonies that Britain established after the loss of part of British America in 1783 in the Antipodes.

Professor Burnard's Dean’s Lecture, Making Race; Making English Settlers: Lessons from the Colonies in the Mid-Eighteenth Century, is on  Thursday, 5 May at 6.30 pm in the Public Lecture Theatre, Ground Floor, Old Arts Building. Register to attend at: 

http://alumni.online.unimelb.edu.au/s/1182/index.aspx?sid=1182&pgid=1223&gid=1&cid=1988&ecid=1988 . 









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