‘The West Indies and the Development of Colonial Government 1801-1834’ by D. J. Murray

Colonial government comprises particular institutions; it also comprises the relationships between the parts  (p.xi)

Many books on colonial constitutional history focus on the structures of government- The Colonial Office, the Governor, the Executive and Legislative Councils and Legislative Assemblies (if they existed) but  instead of looking at them from a centralized organizational viewpoint, this book looks at these institutions in terms of the relationships between them.  By addressing   the period around the Napoleonic Wars and ending with the abolition of slavery, the empire he describes was expanded by the incorporation of ‘foreign’ colonies previously owned by French, Spanish and Dutch governments which had their own practices and structures of government.  This put the ‘British’ empire into an interesting position.  Although there was an influx of British plantation-owners into these newly-acquired colonies, it suited the local colonists’ purposes that the locus of control should rest in the colony itself rather than in Whitehall, and the old ‘foreign’ system of government was better placed to provide this.  At the same time, following the loss of the American colonies, the British Government steadfastly asserted its right to impose policy (although not taxation) from the centre while repeatedly demonstrating its unwillingness to actually exercise it.  This book explores the nuances of this delicate dance of colonial diplomacy which made good use of the hiatus in communications forced by distance to ensure that, as far as the government of the sugar colonies was concerned, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.  Hence, the British government would pass legislation that required matching colonial legislation in order to come into operation: the colonies would stonewall: the British government would wait, and give another chance for the colonial power-groups to ‘do the right thing’- and round and round it would go, with both sides benefitting from this mutual squeamishness about really pushing the issue.

However,  the rise of the anti-slavery lobby in Britain in the late 18th- early 19th century disrupted this coy and mutually-beneficial relationship.  There had only been slow progress on the ‘amelioration’ of slavery by actions on the ground in the colonies.  From about 1810-1830 there had been a lapse of attention on the question of slavery prompted by a change of personnel in the anti-slavery ranks and the distracting influence of other events like economic depression,  the Test and Corporation Act and Catholic Emancipation.  But by the 1830s attention turned again to West Indian slavery, and by this time the Colonial Office itself had transformed itself, largely through the influence of James Stephen, into a more professional and methodical organization.  However, by this time there were two conflicting opinions at play: first, the belief that colonies should be governed under a representative system; and second and conversely, that  representative government could not be granted to post-emancipation societies because colonial elites would ensure that power remained in their own hands.

Although the book is focussed on the West Indies, its canvas is actually much broader than this, and extends to the 19th century British Empire more generally.  It examines carefully the structural changes in the Colonial Office in terms of its place within the British government and the roles of parliamentarians and civil servants as individuals with their own skills and political imperatives.  It explores the co-existence of James Stephens’ more liberal emphasis on bureaucracy and methods, with his colleague Sir Henry Taylor’s more authoritarian and interventionist approach that led to the imposition of Crown Colony government into all the West India colonies excluding Barbados over the next fifty years .  It concludes that during the mid 1830s, despite impressions to the contrary, the British government relinquished the initiative in colonial government, becoming merely reactive to the decisions made in the colonies by colonial officials and colonists about how government was to be conducted.

As a result, while the system of executing business in the Colonial Office assumed that one form of government should exist in the colonies, the government which was eventually introduced was founded on the contrary principle and assumed that constructive government would be promoted- if at all- from the Colonial Government.  In colonial government as it related to the West India colonies, the Colonial Office and the institutions in the colonies were each to be organized on the assumption that the initiative in colonial government would stem from the other (p.232)

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