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Slave abolition Part 2


(An adaptation of a presentation made to the Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival, November 3, 2007)

In recent years a lot more emphasis has been put on the role of the slaves leading the Jamaican lawyer and historian Richard Hart to produce two volumes entitled “The Slaves Who Abolished Slavery.”{{more}}

Of significance in examining the role of the slaves was the Haitian Revolution that impacted on slavery and the slave debate and created the options of emancipation from above or from below. True enough the Haitian Revolt was the only successful slave revolt, but it has to be remembered that slave resistance was a constant pattern of slave life.

Hilary Beckles is probably right when he argues that “it was anti-slavery rather than sugar production which stamped the most prominent unifying marks on the region.” Slave resistance was a constant, but slaves always had to make accommodation to slave society and to the circumstances of the time. Resistance took many forms, running away and establishing maroon villages, setting fires to plantation property under the guise of accidents, reporting sick, seeking to ‘go to bush’ and feigning ignorance, that is, pretending not to understand what the master was saying. There were in any event many recorded examples of slave revolts in the 17th and 18th centuries. For Jamaica I have noted the following years, 1673, 1685, 1686, 1690, 1760, 1765 and 1776; others were in Barbados 1675; Antigua 1736 and Tortola 1790. In the 19th century one notes Barbados 1816, Demerara 1823 and Jamaica 1831.

Beckles makes two other important points that I want to introduce. He wrote, “From a Caribbean perspective slaves struggle for freedom should not be diminished when placed alongside the legislative interventions of European parliaments. These metropolitan actions were part of the final episode of an epic struggle initiated and propelled by its greatest sufferers- the slave population.” He gives central place to the struggles of the slaves and saw what he called legislative interventions as part of a final episode.

Early Euro-centric historians have largely rejected or dismissed any role that slaves might have played. Beckles also helped to discount the racist view that slaves lived in “an atheoretical world which was devoid of ideas, political concepts and an alternative socio-political vision”. Some of these racist assumptions still continue. I am not a fan of American football, but I seem to remember that at one time it was felt that blacks were incapable of being good quarterbacks. The fact is that many of the revolts involved a great deal of planning and strategising.

The constant running away and escape from plantation life by slaves was considered of nuisance value, but the frequent references to runaways in treaties with the Black Caribs and Maroons suggested that they were more than that. In any event it was a major issue when escaped slaves formed themselves into maroon communities or joined existing ones. These communities which were largely self sufficient were used as bases for launching attacks on plantations threatening the existence of those very plantations. The most famous of the Maroons were those in Jamaica, but second in terms of organisation, unity and discipline, according to Bernard Marshall, were those in Dominica. The topography in both countries assisted the establishment of maroon communities which remained inaccessible to whites.

These maroon camps were fully stocked with provision, as can be seen in the case of Jamaica where white troops had come across a camp with 300 acres of land fully stocked with provision. They used the element of surprise to great effect and most often frustrated the white forces and the plantations. Bernard Marshall in his Slavery, Law and Society in the British Windward Islands reported the case in 1785 of reprisals by the maroons after the news that one of their members had been captured and disciplined by the governor who was the owner of a sugar estate. One hundred fully armed maroons went to the estate at 7 in the evening, burnt all the buildings and threw some of the whites in the flames and did the same thing to one slave who was described as the ‘principal black’ on the estate. That year, too, they threatened to destroy every English estate in the island and had actually started setting fires to a number of estates, forcing the whites to seek refuge. In Jamaica and Dominica a decision was finally taken by the establishment, to open negotiations with the maroons.

The point which has to be emphasized is that one cannot make an assessment of the role of the slaves based only on the fact of one successful slave revolt, that in Haiti. Sure enough the Haitian revolt had a major impact. It demonstrated to the slaves that it could be done and it impacted on the abolition debate in England. But generally the slaves by their constant efforts at resistance were making slave society expensive by regularly burning and destroying plantation equipment and crops. It was indeed necessary for slaves to make some accommodation to slave society because although the slaves greatly outnumbered the whites, revolt was not easy. Slave society gave top priority to defence. Regiments were kept in the territories, militias were established and organised and assistance was readily available from neighbouring islands. The Laws were meant to aid the security measures; restrictions against keeping and beating drums, horns and shells that were used to communicate. Restrictions were also placed on the movement of slaves away from the plantations.

Eric Williams had made the point about the increasing cost of sugar production and undoubtedly, the amount spent on defence and the destruction to the crops on the plantations generally would have factored into this. He summarised his position on emancipation in the following words, “In 1833, therefore, the alternatives were clear, emancipation from above or emancipation from below. But emancipation.” He went further in identifying the other factors at play. “Economic change, the decline of the monopolists, the development of Capitalism, the humanitarian agitation in British churches, contending perorations in the halls of Parliament, had now reached their completion in the determination of the slaves themselves to be free. The negroes had been stimulated to freedom by the development of the very wealth which their labour had created.

His critics maintain, however, that he did not give enough weight to the political and moral argument. The celebration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade gave them an occasion to highlight them again.