“Testing the Chains” (and the Edwards Thesis)

In Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Cornell, 1982), Michael Craton provides remarkably deep analysis of Caribbean slave resistance movements from 1600 until the 1830’s.  Its pertinence to Rugemer, however, lies primarily in his final section, on “Slave Rebellions and Emancipation, 1816-1832.”  After describing the previous two hundred years of slave resistance in the British West Indies, Craton here emphasizes slave agency, and slavery itself as the primary motive for rebellion, stating, “the fundamental motivation for slaves’ resistance in the last two decades of slavery remained, as it had always been, a determination to make, take, or recreate a life of their own.  This impulse owed little or nothing to metropolitan inspiration or aid” (243).

Despite this assertion, however, he does attest to the manner in which newspaper articles addressing political developments in Britain may have provided impetus for slave rebellion, and the way in which planters may have overstated this as a causal factor.  “Change was clearly impending, posing a threat to the masters and offering hope for the slaves.  But rumors of change played an even more important role in slave unrest than actual changes, becoming a part of a common syndrome” (243-4).  Craton goes on to explain, like Rugemer, how after plots or actual revolts planters would point to evidence that information, true or not, about emancipation had been circulated among the slaves, leading to the unrest.  Craton provides a more plausible motive for this reiteration of the Edwards thesis, however.  He describes how “by stressing the effect of mere rumors of change, the planters hoped to forestall actual changes.  They also hoped that by attributing slave unrest to actual or imagined changes imposed from outside they might draw attention away from local causes and deflect blame from themselves” (244).

Craton then hedges this bet by clarifying that “if they overemphasize talk among the slaves, the planters did not invent its substance.  The rumor syndrome in the late slave rebellions was far more than a mere plantocratic ploy,” highlighting the important role played by literate slaves, and the existence of an “effective network of communication” among slaves (244). In this way, reconciles the sides of this debate in much the way Rugemer does.  While he acknowledges that abolitionist agitation and its reporting in newspapers circulated in the Caribbean – misunderstood by the slaves as these reports may have been – contributed to the radicalization of the “black Atlantic to a certain extent, noting how the circulation of this (mis)information highlighted a “degree of concurrence between elite and ordinary slaves that deeply disturbed the master class,” and the way in which the “inaccuracy” of rumors about emancipationist developments in Britain “might serve the cause of slave resistance” (244).  Despite this, however, Craton also notes that whatever degree of legitimacy the Edwards thesis had in reality, planters overemphasized the effect of mere abolitionist agitation and rumor on slave resistance to serve their own self-interested ends.  Unlike Rugemer and Johnson, Craton seems to suggest that, realistic or not, planters highlighted the Edwards thesis in an effort to delay emancipation, not because they truly though it represented the whole story.

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One response to ““Testing the Chains” (and the Edwards Thesis)

  1. Nice post, though I wonder if Michael Johnson would also be open to accepting a Craton-like argument that planters spread Edwards-like arguments less because they actually believed them than because they served as tools to defend the institution. His descriptions of the Vesey court seem to imply that the whole thing was a theater in which they could prove they had things under control.

    Have you considered looking of Da Costa’s Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood? That seems like a book that Rugemer relies on a lot, and relates to a lot of the issues you’ve been raising.

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