‘Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement’ — How Did I Not Find This Book Until Now?

In Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement, Gelien Matthews argues for the reverse of the Edwards thesis outlined in Rugemer.  While she acknowledges the argument by contemporaries and historians alike, that abolitionist agitation in British Parliament influenced slaves to seize opportunities for revolt, she asserts that the opposite is no less true.  Specifically, she notes how, especially after the 1816 Demerara rebellion, abolitionists used the periodic slave uprisings to support the shift in their positions from ones of slave code reforms and gradual emancipation to one of the immediate abolition of the slave regime.

Matthews outlines how the relationship between abolitionist activity in England and slave rebellions in the Caribbean were subject to competing interpretations from pro- and anti-slavery advocates, obviously with the pro-slavery folks arguing that agitation led to rebellion, and the anti-slavery folks arguing that rebellion indicated slaves were fit for freedom and that immediate abolition was necessary.

For Rugemer’s purpose – outlining how the seeds of sectional conflict and secession were sown in the Caribbean – I don’t think it truly matters who is right or wrong here.  Regardless of if abolitionist agitation inspired revolt, or revolt gave ammunition to abolitionists, Southern planters would seen and read about how slave insurrections in the Caribbean led to significant losses to life and property, and that abolition came not long after, both events southern slave holders wanted to avoid at all costs.  So on the one hand, given the Caribbean pro-slavery interpretation most easily visible in Rugemer’s treatment of the Edwards thesis, southerners would have had the desire to secede to avoid further slave revolts stemming from Congressional discussion about the future of slavery in the United States – regardless of whether this was the actual sequence of events.  But on the other hand, even if southern planters understood and accepted the argument Matthews and abolitionists put forward –that insurrection proved slaves’ fitness for freedom and was instrumental in achieving abolition –I think slave holders would have felt the same animosity towards the north and the same impetus to secede so that if another insurrection did occur it wouldn’t lend credence to the abolitionist position.

Nonetheless, the pro-slavery/Edwards position has received far more treatment as the “true” sequence of events than the mirror image proposed by Matthews.  While both seem equally plausible, and Matthews agrees with thiat interpretation, The Problem of Emancipation seems to be more in conversation with those treating the Edwards thesis more seriously (Michael Craton, Hilary Beckles, and others I will be dealing with in the coming weeks).

Ultimately though, and maybe this is negating everything I just typed out, I don’t really think any of this matters all that much for Rugemer’s argument.  Despite some level of historiographical disagreement about what caused what, the Rugemer all that matters is that the pro-slavery faction thought abolitionist agitation was reaching slaves in some manner, and that this led to insurrection.  This is the interpretation planters in the South latched onto, and in that way, the Civil War genuinely had roots in Caribbean slave society.

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One response to “‘Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement’ — How Did I Not Find This Book Until Now?

  1. You’re probably right that what’s most important to Rugemer is perceptions about the causes of insurrection rather than the realities. But suggesting that slave rebels were responding to abolitionists (or at least working in tandem with them) is at least somewhat important to his idea that the “black Atlantic” was radicalized by an abolitionist-slave alliance of sorts (see pp. 98-108, though on p. 108 he does seem to come down on the side of “it doesn’t matter if the planters’ accusations were right,” after entertaining the possibility that they were).

    One larger historiographical question that might be worth pursuing is whether the direction of causal influence should matter to historians here. If Rugemer represents a shift in the historiography towards the history of perceptions about slave insurrections (also signaled by Johnson’s treatment of Denmark Vesey), instead about their realities, what are the implications of that shift? What are the reasons for it?

    The point you raise also may have a bearing on the question of what kind of “transnational” history Rugemer is practicing. Whereas someone like Mathews seems more interested in tracing influence and cause and connection across national lines, Rugemer’s model seems to be to look at how actors primarily in one nation reflected on events elsewhere. What are the costs and benefits of each approach? Where might they cohere, complement and intersect, and where do they diverge?

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