Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean

Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference

By Jenny Shaw

From The University of Georgia Press

256 pp / 6.0 x 9.0 / 18 b&w photos, 1 map / 2013

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A new examination of the experiences of Irish and Africans in the English Caribbean

Set along both the physical and social margins of the British Empire in the second half of the seventeenth century, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean explores the construction of difference through the everyday life of colonial subjects. Jenny Shaw examines how marginalized colonial subjects—Irish and Africans—contributed to these processes. By emphasizing their everyday experiences Shaw makes clear that each group persisted in its own cultural practices; Irish and Africans also worked within—and challenged—the limits of the colonial regime. Shaw’s research demonstrates the extent to which hierarchies were in flux in the early modern Caribbean, allowing even an outcast servant to rise to the position of island planter, and underscores the fallacy that racial categories of black and white were the sole arbiters of difference in the early English Caribbean.

The everyday lives of Irish and Africans are obscured by sources constructed by elites. Through her research, Jenny Shaw overcomes the constraints such sources impose by pushing methodological boundaries to fill in the gaps, silences, and absences that dominate the historical record. By examining legal statutes, census material, plantation records, travel narratives, depositions, interrogations, and official colonial correspondence, as much for what they omit as for what they include, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean uncovers perspectives that would otherwise remain obscured. This book encourages readers to rethink the boundaries of historical research and writing and to think more expansively about questions of race and difference in English slave societies.

Reviews & Quotes

"A nuanced and fascinating account of how Irish Catholics shaped the emergence of racial hierarchy in the English Caribbean. With meticulous attention to the constraints and possibilities of everyday life, Shaw explores the way that early settlers marked and ranked social difference, finding that status distinctions were surprisingly malleable, even in a society overwhelmingly organized by slavery and race. Offering close readings of fresh sources, this is both an important study and an impressive feat of the informed imagination."
— Vincent Brown, author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

"Jenny Shaw’s nuanced study illuminates how divisions originating in Europe—especially those that distinguished Irish Catholic servants from their English Protestant masters—shaped colonial society and ultimately the hierarchies of race that came to be the most important markers of difference. Shaw profitably lingers over the early period, when the early English Caribbean was in the process of becoming, and as a result she demonstrates that race and colonialism were negotiated, not preordained."
— Carla Gardina Pestana, author of Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World

About Jenny Shaw

Jenny Shaw is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama.

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"The Early American Places series is an exciting development in scholarly publishing, one that will highlight the most important part of the study of history: the local and particular dimensions of global issues and trends. This is where the rubber meets the road, where ordinary people's lives help to make, and are made by, the bustling wider world in which they live. Early American Places is an original series, and it will publish important scholarship."

— Stephanie M. H. Camp, University of Washington