British Sovereignty, American Expansionism and the 1907 Kingston Earthquake

Wed, 4 March 2020 17:30 – 19:00

Running parallel to relief, rescue, and recovery efforts was a drama of an entirely different nature, as the island’s governor, Sir James Alexander Swettenham, rejected the medical aid and military manpower offered by the United States Navy, launching a months-long debate over British sovereignty, US annexation, the respective racial regimes of the United States and the British Empire, and ultimately Swettenham’s fitness to govern. These debates were products of a final major transformation in imperial thinking and colonial policymaking about Jamaica during the Victorian period.

The idea that Jamaica was economically ruined from the decline in sugar was a constant presence in debates about the island in the late-nineteenth century, but it now sat alongside alternative narratives that emphasized the possibilities that sprang from the island’s natural bounty. Yet at the same time that British and American thinkers and colonial officials imagined new, though still extractive, possibilities for the island, the changing geopolitics of the Caribbean region complicated British calculations, especially when combined with increasing tensions in Europe. The earthquake, and in particular Swettenham’s choices, ushered in a final debate before World War I about the purpose of Jamaica within the British system, the nature of colonial rule in Jamaica and in particular the role and responsibilities of the island’s governors, and some of the still unresolved problems from emancipation in the 1830s.

Christienna D. Fryar is a Lecturer in Black British History at Goldsmiths University. She was previously Lecturer in the History of Slavery and Unfree Labour at the University of Liverpool and has also taught in the US at SUNY Buffalo State.

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