August 23 was the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. So it seems appropriate to notice a new book by my UWI colleague, Claudius Fergus: Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies, published by a well-known university press in the US.
This impressively researched academic study can be divided into two sections. The first deals with the British movement towards abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, accomplished between 1805 and 1807, and then towards ending slavery itself, accomplished between 1834 and 1838. The second considers developments in Trinidad between 1802 and 1838, which were central to the course of the British anti-slavery movement.
In his treatment of British abolitionism—a subject which has been furiously debated by historians over the last 50 years—Fergus takes strongly defined positions. He subscribes to the view that actions by the enslaved were pivotal to its eventual success: the “subaltern agency” position, subaltern here meaning the oppressed or subjected group.
To sum up his argument, persistent struggles for freedom by the enslaved throughout the Caribbean eventually convinced British policy-makers that the security of their colonies was endangered. Influential people in the region believed newly imported Africans were far more prone to rebel than the Creole slaves born in the Caribbean. Ending the trade in Africans would reduce this threat and allow the slave-based plantation to endure in relative safety.
Of course, the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803), and the many rebellions and conflicts in Grenada, St Vincent, Dominica and St Lucia (as well as Guadeloupe and Martinique) during the 1790s, greatly increased concerns about the security of the British colonies. African-born men played a crucial part in the Haitian defeat of the French, British and Spanish armies. Jamaica, Britain’s biggest and most productive colony, was just “down the road” from Haiti, an independent black-ruled republic after January 1, 1804.
Fergus shows how these “emancipation wars” in Haiti and the Lesser Antilles—successful in Haiti, defeated in the other islands, but costing thousands of British soldiers’ lives in both—persuaded the policy-makers of the link between massive importations of Africans and insurrection. To avoid a disaster similar to the Haitian Revolution, ending the African trade was essential for the security of Jamaica and the other British colonies as slave-holding societies.
It was done in stages: in 1805-06, importations from Africa were made illegal to the newly acquired British colonies, including Trinidad; then by the 1807 Act of Parliament the trade to all British colonies was prohibited. Abolition should be understood, Fergus argues, as Britain’s main strategy to prevent the spread of insurrection—revolutionary self-emancipation—from independent Haiti.
The belief that Creole slaves were much less likely to rebel than the African-born was soon shown to be false: the three great rebellions in the British colonies after the end of the African trade—Barbados 1816, Demerara (Guyana) 1823 and Jamaica 1831-32—were all led by Creole slaves, most of them Christians. By 1831-32, the huge rebellion in Jamaica had persuaded the British government that the safety of the colonists required an orderly, legislated end of slavery itself.
So security concerns lay behind the Act of Emancipation passed in 1833: much safer to free the enslaved by British decree, which allowed for a six-year “apprenticeship” or quasi-servitude, than to risk bloody rebellions in which they freed themselves.
In the second section of his book, Fergus shows how Trinidad was central to the evolution of British policy towards the slave trade and slavery after its formal cession by Spain in 1802. It was the crown colony in which various experiments with “ameliorating” (improving) the conditions of the slaves would be tried, as well as attempts to introduce free labour and to provide judicial protection for the enslaved.
This is fairly familiar ground which other historians of Trinidad have studied. But Fergus’s contribution is to stress the agency of Trinidad’s enslaved during the period of official amelioration (1824-34). They took advantage of the new laws and regulations as a “tool of resistance”; they complained to the new Protector of the Slaves at every opportunity, they staged work stoppages, they defended their “rights and privileges”, they ran away, they insisted on the right to purchase their freedom.
These actions, by women as much as and maybe more than by men, were not without risks. The enslaved were frequently punished for making what were deemed to be false or frivolous accusations against owners or managers. But they persisted in what Fergus calls a “constitutional revolt” against slavery.
When the new 1831 Amelioration Order reached Trinidad early in 1832, many of the enslaved had expected either outright emancipation, or the grant of several free days per week. They expressed their dissatisfaction in a wave of plantation protests, strikes, and arson, while continuing to use the Protector and the courts to defend their rights.
By the time the Act of Emancipation was passed in mid-1833, Fergus concludes, “a decade of constitutional resistance by the enslaved” had radically undermined the nature of slavery in Trinidad—a fact which, he considers, has not been properly recognized by earlier historians.
• I pay tribute to Louis Homer, who dedicated his life to documenting the
nation’s history and heritage.