Market-Women and the Military: The West Indies Regiments and the Informal Economy in 18th-Century Jamaica

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Shauna J. Sweeney, College of William and Mary
In Jamaica, the British Navy, Infantry, and the local West India Regiments made colonial slavery possible by policing the enslaved black majority and constituting the most significant bulwark against slave revolts. Yet, British military forces suffered profound and prolonged deficits of food, water, and other provisions throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jamaica’s strategic geo-political location and economic significance, therefore, made quotidian questions of sustenance inseparable from imperial strategy. If, as Napoleon once said, ‘an army marches on its stomach,’ then Jamaica’s informal economy was the kitchen for the British military in the West Indies. This paper will examine the connections between Jamaica’s eighteenth-century informal economy and the British Empire. In particular, it will analyze the intersection between enslaved market women and imperial troops in Kingston, Spanish Town, and Port Royal.

Black market women, whose trading activities brought them to local garrisons and harbors, were uniquely positioned to sell provisions and other goods to sailors, soldiers, and units. The 1795 raising of the West India Regiments – black militia units established in the midst of the Haitian Revolution to police slave disturbances, capture runaways, and, later, conduct military operations in the Caribbean basin – only further strengthened the commercial and social bonds linking black market women and the military. Traditionally, the West India Regiments have been understood through the lenses of security and conflict. I argue that the entanglement of the Regiments and the informal economy was socially significant and not only kept troops fed and supplied but also allowed for enslaved women to accumulate funds and find measures of personal autonomy while forging personal and patronage relationships with military men.

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