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"Not worth one groat": the status, gentility and credit of Lawrence and Sarah Crabb of Antigua.

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date2011
JournalJournal of Early American History
Journal number1
Volume1
Number of pages36
Pages26-61
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

This article recreates the lives of two settlers in Antigua between the years 1690 and 1740. As such, it is a key addition to the paltry number of studies of the island of Antigua and the other Leeward Islands of the West Indies. It takes as its base point the study of the Antigua settler elite identified by Richard Sheridan in his article, now forty years old, which constructed the institutional systems of landholding, taxation, customs and the Slave Trade which produced so-called Plantation Society. In the years preceding this, however, life for everyone concerned in the West Indies was uncertain and insecure. is was as much the case for those at the top of the socio-political ladder, such as island governors and Crown viceroys, as for relatively modest settlers, such as the subjects of this essay, Lawrence and Sarah Crabb. For all of those who were incorporated into the 18thcentury Plantocracy, many more were sacrificed in the struggles of early capitalism, buoyed up not by the level of 'credit' that they were accorded, but by the levels of debt they carried. The construction of a social history of modest settlers is made possible through the survival of documents which were kept by the Crabb's agent, George Moore, and which he would subsequently use in a Chancery case against his late friend's widow. These manuscripts have not been used before, except for occasional references to the legal precedents established by the case, Moore v. Meynell, and, given the paucity and patchiness of manuscript survivals for the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, show what can be reconstructed from otherwise overlooked sources. The result is a study of the measurement of a person's worth, and the increasing elision of God and Mammon in gauging credit, value and trust. In the case of the Crabbs, particularly because Lawrence was himself a man of little initial wealth who clawed his way up through his own ingenuity and his wife's family's West Indian estates, we are able to demonstrate how the language of credit and worthiness applied not only to men of business and politics but also to women.

This article illustrates several aspects of emergent innovative practice in the writing of the history of the colonial Americas. It makes extensive use, for the first time, of corpora of manuscripts which have not previously been used, and puts predominantly legal documents to the purpose of writing social history. It is concerned with the colonial histories of parts of the Americas not before written about, and is comparative across the West Indies' region. It forms a contribution to the debates about measurement of worth, credit, capital and morality, their transformation in the age of burgeoning capitalism; and is also part of the emergent trend in colonial American scholarship which is to place the Americas in wider pan-European, pan-African and pan-American contexts (hence it appropriateness to this new journal which is a pioneer in this field).

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