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.