Bryan Edwards was born in Britain but lived much of his life in the colony of Jamaica, where he was a planter with several estates. Later, he became a Member of Parliament and used this position to speak in favour of slavery and the slave trade. He was well educated, and The History, Civil and Commercial, of the West Indies (1793) was one of several works that he wrote. It was a popular book that was reprinted a number of times and translated into other languages.

What information does The History, Civil and Commercial, of the West Indies contain about different Caribbean societies during this period?

Despite the title of the book, it also covered topics that go beyond what we normally think of as ‘history’. Descriptions of the different groups of people to be found in Caribbean societies were included. There were around 250,000 enslaved people of African descent at the time. (By ‘African descent’ we mean both people who had been born in Africa and taken on slave ships, and the children of such people who had been born in the Caribbean.) Living in slavery, they had harsh and brutal lives, sometimes rebelling or running away when they had the chance. In contrast, the power in Caribbean colonies lay firmly with the white population (around 20,000 in number), especially the planters, some of whom had been born in Europe and moved to the region – like Edwards himself – while others had been born locally. They had the money, the power and the freedom to act as they pleased.

Between these two groups were non-white people who were free, including so-called 'free people of colour', who had mixed African and European ancestry. Edwards describes the complicated categories that were used to classify these people, depending on who their parents were. Such categories show the importance attached to classifying everyone in Caribbean slave societies, and how being 'white' meant automatic freedom.