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.




  1. Of course, “what matters most” depends on what question we’re asking. If we’re trying to figure out the extent to which slaves themselves drove the process of abolition by seizing opportunities, testing their chains, turning abolitionists away from amelioration to more radical strategies, etc., then it is important to figure out what slaves actually did, to the extent that we can.

  2. I think the question I’m trying to answer though isn’t the impact slaves had on abolitionist strategy, but rather the extent to which planters perceived that abolitionist actions were influencing their slaves (the Edwards Thesis), and how this idea, in turn, influenced southern planters.

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