Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Importance of the Black Atlantic

In Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism various scholars of slave systems in the Americas provide insights into the relationship, or lack of relationship, between slave resistance and abolitionist activity.  The volume is organized as a series of responses to an opening article by Joao Pedro Marquez, “Slave Revolts and the Abolition of Slavery: An Overinterpretation.”  In his discussion of the British Caribbean, Marquez argues that, while active, violent slave resistance was clearly influenced by abolitionist activity in Parliament (and the subsequent rumors and misinterpretations it inspired), acts of slave resistance often hurt abolitionists attempts at achieving emancipation.  He describes how upticks in abolitionist activity in parliament – the call for slave registration in 1815, the approval of amelioration laws in 1820, and revived radical abolitionism in 1831 – all resulted in slave resistance in the Caribbean, but were subsequently followed by anger towards abolitionists and a decrease in abolitionist sentiment in Parliament.  Marquez asserts that it was not until missionaries drew the ire of Caribbean planters for their alleged involvement in slave revolts that popular opinion turned towards immediate emancipation; the execution of hundreds of black slaves could not transform public opinion the way the expulsion of white religious leaders could.

The responses that follow provide a series of anti-climactic Goldilocks analyses of Marquez’s argument, with each agreeing or disagreeing with Marquez’s assertions to different extents – but ultimately none finding them to be “just right.”  The disagreements are similar to those that have appeared in the historiography analyzed in my blogs over the past few weeks: the degree abolitionism caused slave revolts, and slave revolts affected abolition; what we can determine about motivations for slave revolts from the records produced from planters’ investigations; whether planters were sincere in blaming abolition.

One of the more vehement denials of Marquez’s argument comes from Hilary Beckles, who argues that Marquez did not sufficiently recognize the understandings enslaved people had of politics, and how their actions were inherently political in nature.  Beckles elaborates this point in an essay within The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People.  Though the collection is more focused on the abolition of the slave trade and not general emancipation, Beckles’ points raise interesting questions for my consideration of how abolitionist agitation motivated slaves to revolt (and conditioned planters’ responses to both).  He notes how, “the abolition of the British slave trade has traditionally been presented as a benevolent act by the British State that acquiesced under the mounting pressure of opposing intellectual voices and the mass advocacy of religious and humanitarian activists…it does not, however, give adequate attention to the political role of enslaved communities in the Caribbean” (114).  Beckles asserts, drawing from James Walvin’s analysis of the black Atlantic in Questioning Slavery, that blacks in the Caribbean gained information about abolition from white conversations and mass media, and that “they used this information, gleaned from the most distant points of the vast Atlantic system to inform and construct an oral culture to foster clear ideological views of their own” (115-6).  Rather than solely misinterpreting British debates about abolition, or responding to wild rumors, the enslaved of the Caribbean took information from a variety of sources to create their own, unique ideological framework in regards to the question of slavery and abolition.

Beckles also argues that the experience of the slave trade in Africa, of being sold from societies ruled by monarchs, colored their interpretations of the possibilities for abolition.  He asserts that their understanding of the profitability of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, either first-hand or passed down through generations, and the monarchical control thereof, resulted in a feeling among the enslaved that abolition could only be achieved through their own active resistance.  Through his analysis of folk songs and oral culture, he notes that the enslaved recognized Wilberforce as a strong advocate for abolition, but that he was unable to force his ideas upon a majority unwilling to forfeit the profits and prestige associated with the slave trade and slave systems.  As such “it affirmed their political thinking that it was necessary to take up arms in order to secure abolition and emancipation” (118).  Blacks in the Caribbean understood well that the only place abolition had been achieved was in L’OUverture’s St. Domingue, and thus, slavery would “only be abolished by their armed resistance” (118).

This interpretation of the causes for violent resistance among the enslaved in the Caribbean is a significant departure from the historiography I have previously dealt with, though Rugemer takes it seriously.  Rather than a misunderstanding of the prospects of British abolition, Beckles and Walvin assert that the enslaved had a politically sophisticated, and thus pessimistic, understanding of the chances abolition would be achieved solely through the political dealings of those in Parliament; as a consequence, slaves saw their only option for achieving abolition in armed resistance.


In Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood, Emilia Viotti da Costa provides an in-depth analysis of the 1823 slave rebellion in Demerara.  Similarly to Craton, da Costa stresses the multiple influences to rebel on the slaves of Demerara, but also that what bound them together was their common experiences in slavery.  While her story is ultimately one that discusses how the planters of the colony used missionaries, particularly John Smith, as a scapegoat, she continually highlights the importance of rumors about emancipation emanating from Britain as one of the primary factors motivating slaves to consider rebellion.

da Costa argues that slave rebellions obviously represented moments of crisis in plantation colonies, and that crises like the 1823 rebellion “forced people to take sides and to make their commitments clear.  It revealed notions and feelings that created bondings and identities, or that set people against each other” (xiv).  Forced to take sides in such a manner, planters “searched their past experience for whatever might validate their actions and demonstrate their truth.  When they tried to go beyond the immediacy of their experience…planters and authorities blamed dissenters, abolitionists, the British press, and members of Parliament who had lent ears to those who favored emancipation” (xiv).  Da Costa also echoes Craton to a certain extent in stating that these expressions of causality “are not simply statements about ‘reality,’ they are commentaries on their present experiences…and anticipations of a future they wish to create” (xv).

Despite this nuanced explanation of why planters blamed abolitionist rhetoric, brought to the slaves through newspapers, pamphlets, and missionaries, da Costa reveals some internal tension in her monograph when she states that, “Incensed by rumors of emancipation and convinced they had allies in England, the slaves seized the opportunity to take history into their own hands” (xviii).  I sense – and I think Michael Johnson would agree – that this tension stems from her reading of the “trial” evidence.  In an attempt to provide something of a linear narrative of how the rebellion went down, she deals too uncritically with the testimonies provided by slaves.  She is in perfect agreement with Johnson when she says that “By converting a historical process as complex as resistance and rebellion in a conspiracy promoted by a few men, [white authorities] sough to preserve the illusion that they could control what was in fact uncontrollable”; that they “blamed British abolitionists, evangelical missionaries, and the “reformist party” of Wilberforce”; and that “They called hundreds of witnesses – slaves, managers, masters, officers of the regiment, missionaries, anyone who might bring evidence which would serve their purpose” (170).  She follows this up with an extended re-telling of the story of the rebellion taken directly from the testimony she just questioned, stating that “All the different versions of [the slaves’] goals appear in the documents, and sometimes the same witness gives first one version then another.  This seems to indicate that not only had the rebels disagreed from the beginning about the goals to be achieved, but in the course of events many changed their strategies and purposes” (172).  To admit that the planters used the “trials” as a charade to serve their own purposes, as she seems to do, and then use the testimony the “trials” produced to analyze the motivations of the rebels seems rather contradictory.

The amount of time da Costa spends discussing how the news of new ameliorative guidelines for treating slaves passed by Parliament reached slaves and significantly influenced their displeasure with their masters, managers, and overseers seems to indicate that she believes that abolitionist agitation really did have a tangible effect on slave resistance; the way she discusses the trials as a farce designed to serve the interests of white planters suggest something of the opposite interpretation.

So where does this leave us (besides with a headache)? That the historiography converges and diverges in strange ways on whether slaves were/were not actually influenced by abolitionist agitation in Parliament, on how genuine planters were being when they blamed abolitionists for rebellions, and on the legitimacy of the investigations into slave rebellions and the evidence they produced, leaves me leaning towards believing that what really matters in these discussions is that Caribbean planters connected abolitionist sentiment, writings, and legislative agitation to slave rebellion and the destruction of the slave system, and planters in the US South latched on to this in their perpetual crusade to avoid both.  Whether Caribbean planters truly believed it, or tortured their slaves during kangaroo court proceedings to achieve their own selfish ends seems significantly less important, and ultimately impossible to prove.