The best books on the English Caribbean

Natalie Zacek Author Of Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776
By Natalie Zacek

Who am I?

Americans view the Caribbean as a place apart, ideal for a beach vacation, but I see it as a region settled by the English in the same era and for the same reasons as the “Thirteen Colonies,” and separated less by physical distance than by the fact that the West Indies chose not to enter the American Revolution. Questions about racial identity and the effects of slavery play out there in ways both comparable to and distinct from these processes in the U.S. I have studied the English Caribbean for 25 years, and am especially interested in how its histories connect with those of colonial America and Georgian Britain.

I wrote...

Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776

By Natalie Zacek,

Book cover of Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776

What is my book about?

Settler Society is the first study of the history of the federated colony of the Leeward Islands – Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts – that covers all four islands in the period from their independence from Barbados in 1670 up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, which reshaped the Caribbean as well as the mainland American colonies.

Natalie A. Zacek emphasizes the extent to which the planters of these islands attempted to establish recognizably English societies in tropical islands based on plantation agriculture and African slavery. By examining conflicts relating to ethnicity and religion, controversies regarding sex and social order, and a series of virulent battles over the limits of local and imperial authority, this book depicts these West Indian colonists as skilled improvisers who adapted to an unfamiliar environment, and as individuals as committed as other American colonists to the norms and values of English society, politics, and culture.

The books I picked & why

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Capitalism and Slavery

By Eric Williams,

Book cover of Capitalism and Slavery

Why this book?

This book remains a classic almost a century after its publication. Written by a black Oxford-educated scholar who would lead Trinidad to independence and become its first black prime minister, it shows readers how slaveholders in Britain’s West Indian colonies reaped immense fortunes, and how this wealth, invested in Britain’s infrastructure, helped create the Industrial Revolution and make Britain a global economic powerhouse. Lucidly written, it continues to inspire debate about the connections between slavery in the sugar fields of the Caribbean and the rise of the factory in England’s industrial heartlands.

A Small Place

By Jamaica Kincaid,

Book cover of A Small Place

Why this book?

Kincaid is best known as a writer of novels and short stories, but this brief and piercing account of her experiences growing up in Antigua towards the end of the era of British rule illuminates the ways in which slavery and colonialism continued to affect Afro-Caribbean people well into the twentieth century. This memoir describes ugly experiences in beautiful prose, and offers a meditation on how individuals are shaped by history, but also how they can liberate themselves from it.

Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

By Vincent Brown,

Book cover of Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

Why this book?

Tacky’s Revolt, a slave uprising in Jamaica in 1760-1, is not widely known outside the Caribbean, but Brown’s book should change that situation. Written with great attention to the significance of physical spaces as well as historical sources, Tacky’s Revolt provides insights into the lived experiences of enslaved people, and in particular how some drew upon their experiences as warriors in west African societies to stage a rebellion that aimed to overthrow plantation society. It depicts both the terrifying power and the surprising fragility of white authority in an island in which at this time 9 of 10 residents were of African descent, and nearly all of those were enslaved.

A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados

By Richard Ligon,

Book cover of A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados

Why this book?

A refugee from the English Civil War, Ligon arrived in Barbados in 1647 and purchased a share of a sugar plantation there. In this surprisingly readable account of his experiences, he provides a vivid picture of a society newly colonized by the English but already deeply committed to plantation agriculture and an enslaved labor force. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is Ligon’s various interactions with Africans, whom he is able to see as individuals, and by whose personalities, appearance, and talents he sometimes finds himself captivated, yet whom he has few moral scruples about buying or selling.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Marlon James,

Book cover of A Brief History of Seven Killings

Why this book?

This prize-winning novel does for Jamaica from the 1960s through the 1990s what Dickens did for Victorian London, exploring the structure of society, from political elites to slum residents, through dozens of vividly drawn characters: politicians and music promoters, gangsters and CIA agents. Centering on a real 1976 attempt to murder the reggae star Bob Marley, A Brief History depicts both the richness and resilience of Jamaican culture and the nation’s struggles to gain its independence and to create peace and prosperity for its people.

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