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Seminar: Making 'Race' and Justifying Slavery

In this seminar we will discuss the concept of 'race', what it is and how it has been formed in relation to slavery in the Caribbean and Americas. We will also discuss how pro-slavery advocates used racial ideologies, particularly hiearchical ideas of 'whiteness' and 'blackness', to justify the enslavement of people of African descent.

Some of the readings we engage with will use highly offensive language and ideas. We will discuss how we can engage with objectionable and violent language and ideology in a way that is sensitive and respectful.

Seminar questions

  • What does Stuart Hall mean when he describes race as a 'floating signifier'?
  • Explain the racial theory evident in Edward Long's History of Jamaica.
  • 'Social groups that did not fit within the broader pattern of white free/black enslaved posed a problem for Caribbean plantation societies'. Discuss.

Required reading


Read the transcript (available via the link) or watch the video on Youtube of:

Jhally, Sut, and Stuart Hall, 'Race: The Floating Signifier', Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1996.

Everyone should read:

Long, Edward, The History of Jamaica; or, General Survey of the Ancient and Modern State of that Island, with Reflections on its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, etc., volume 2 (London, 1774), pp 260-263 and EITHER: pp 351-374 OR pp 404-440.

This is also available as an electronic resource through The Making of the Modern World and Eighteenth Century Collections Online databases, or through Google Books.


Finally, read at least one of...

Chaplin, Joyce, 'Race', in David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (eds), The British Atlantic world, 1500-1800 (Basingstoke, 2002), pp 154-172. [There are multiple copies of the first and second edition - from 2009 - available.]

Lewis, Gordon K., Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in its Ideological Aspects, 1492-1900 (Baltimore, 1983), pp 94-170. [e-book]

Further reading

Burnard, Trevor G., Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, N.C.; London, 2004), pp 1-35 and pp 137-174.

Lambert, David, ‘Master-horse-slave: Mobility, race and power in the British West Indies, c.1780-1838’ Slavery and Abolition (published online 26 Mar 2015).

Ono-George, Meleisa, 'By her unnatural and despicable conduct': motherhood and concubinage in the Watchman and Jamaica Free Press, 1830–1833,’ Slavery & Abolition (April 2017), pp. 356-372.

Petley, Christer, Slaveholders in Jamaica: Colonial Society and Culture during the era of Abolition (London, 2009).

Lambert, David, White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity during the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, 2010).

Seth, Suman, 'Materialism, slavery, and The History of Jamaica' Isis 105: 4 (2014) 764-772.

See also the reading list for lecture 6.