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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Archive for October, 2013

The Environment of Emancipation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Reviewed Works:

Robert Edgar Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery 1850-1888 (Malabar: Kreiger Publishing Company, 2nd Ed., 1993), pp. 254, $36.58

James Oakes, Freedom National, The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), pp. 595, $21.19

The Environment of Emancipation

 In recent decades, historians of slavery and abolition have wrestled with the question of slave agency.  Did slaves have agency?  If so, how much?  The question of “agency” becomes even more poignant when addressing the role(s) of the enslaved in the emancipation process.  Who freed the slaves?  Did they free themselves?  Was it the government?  Abolitionists?  The Federal Military? Specific Individuals (Abraham Lincoln or Dom Pedro)?  A mixture of all of them?  Walter Johnson provides a refreshing approach to the idea of agency, specifically slave agency.  “One should ask,” Johnson writes, “what sorts of actions were available to enslaved people and in what sorts of circumstances, what sorts of notions of commonality undergirded their solidarity?” (Johnson, “Agency” in The Problem of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation, 28).  He suggests that scholars should explore the transubstantiation of “agency” into its material aspect.  In other words, how did material conditions (landscape, labor, reproduction, economics, etc.) limit or extend one’s agency?

Johnson’s “slave agency” argument can also be applied to other groups, especially those in opposition to slavery.  Put differently, how did the environment shape anti-slavery activities by politicians, lawyers, governments, and abolitionists?  James Oakes’ Freedom National and Robert Conrad’s The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery are two works that engage in a similar framework.  Both historians focus on how the mid-nineteenth-century political and economic environments shaped Brazilian and American anti-slavery efforts, respectively.

Oakes’ study traces the destruction of slavery in the American South, from the antebellum period to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.  While giving attention to multiple groups: white and black abolitionists, slaves, Confederate and Union soldiers, Southern Democrats, and abolitionists—his main focus is on the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln.  “In telling the story of how slavery was destroyed, I pay good deal of attention to the broad antislavery movement, in particular the Republican Party that set out to abolish the institution,” Oakes writes (xv).

Oakes corrects the mischaracterization of Lincoln as a “reluctant emancipator” and the idea that the Republican Party “did not have any serious antislavery intention” (xv). From its inception, the Republicans agreed that slavery must come to an end.  “For months before the 1860 Election,” Oakes argues, “Republicans across the North were giddily predicting the destruction of slavery in the South” (51).  Starting in the 1840s, supporters of anti-slavery saw two routes to emancipation.  One path was created by anti-slavery constitutionalists (a clear nod to William M. Wiecek’s work).  Starting with the Liberty and Free Soil Parities, anti-slavery politicians and lawyers such Salmon P. Chased argued for containment, “the federal government could not abolish slavery in that states, but it could restrict slavery to states where it already existed, and surround those states, and squeeze slavery to death” (256).  Freedom was national, and slavery was sectional (hence the title).

The other possibility was military emancipation.  As John Quincy Adams proclaimed, if the federal government fought in the slaveholding South, they could emancipate slaves “out of military necessity” (39).  Both plans provided opportunities to achieve emancipation, and both paths were often explored simultaneously.  The antebellum political and social environment, however, limited the reach of such actions.  But the environment changed with the Civil War, it “enabled Republicans to go further, to impose new pressures” which “would have been inconceivable in peacetime” (300).

Oakes does an impressive job of parsing out the differences between emancipation and abolition, in the American political context.  With the First and Second Confiscation Acts, emancipation became central to the northern politicians’ war aims.  Emancipation freed slaves from their rebel masters, but these acts did not outlaw the institution.  Following the victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Republicans started thinking about how to completely remove this labor system following the North’s looming victory.  In comes the Thirteenth Amendment, which Republicans believed was “the best way to destroy slavery completely” (431).

Scholars might criticize Oakes for his argument about the universal acceptance of anti-slavery policies by the Republican Party.  Was abolition an inevitable conclusion once the Republicans assumed power?  If so, why did Lincoln enact the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, not in April 1861?  The answer was circumstances.  Emancipation was a process, not a single moment.  American society changed throughout this period.  From fugitive slaves invading Union camps to the creation of West Virginia, abolitionists were forced to adapt their strategies and push as far as their limits allowed.  This included challenging or not challenging the constitutional validity of slavery.

American supporters of anti-slavery were not the only ones who were forced to continuously adapt, this also happened in Brazil.  Like Oakes, Robert Conrad’s The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery also shows how their environment influenced the agency of Brazilian anti-slavery crusaders.   Conrad’s work offers two major historiographical interventions.  First, he shows that Paulista coffee planters were not supporters of anti-slavery until 1866.  This is critical.  In São Paulo, large coffee planters were one of the first groups to experiment with European colonos (immigrant contract laborers) in the 1850s.  Previous historians have linked this experimentation with their acceptance of anti-slavery, which Conrad shows was not the case (see Robert Toplin’s The Abolition of Slavery in Brazil).

Second and most important, the abolition of Brazilian slavery did not naturally develop from gradual emancipation legislation such as the Rio Branco Law of 1871 and the Saraiva-Cotegipel Law of 1885.  The Rio Branco law did not set a date for emancipation, and allowed for increased the exploitation of children under the age of eight.  The 1885 Saraiva-Cotegipel Act also allowed slaveholders to further exploit elderly enslaved Africans for another three years (as compensation to landowners).  Both laws actually did little to stem the tide of slavery in Brazil, and acted more as a smokescreen. Moreover, these laws were poorly enforced and often ignored in many circumstances.

The main thrust of Conrad’s monograph, therefore, is to explain how and why abolitionism arose in the 1880s.  Like Oakes, the rise of anti-slavery in Brazil was directly linked to materialism (not ideology).  Brazilian slavery end for several reasons: “the international repudiation of slavery which ended the African trade and eliminated the main source of plantation workers; the steady decline of the slave population after 1850 mainly through an excess of deaths over births; the internal slave trade which concentrated slaves and defenders of slavery into the coffee provinces; the abolition of slavery in the United States which helped to inspire policy of gradual emancipation through free birth; a slow but steady erosion of pro-slavery opinion, particularly in cities and in poorer provinces; and finally, the resistance of the slave themselves which reduced the efficiency of the labor system, frightened slaveholders, and culminated in the mass runaway movement of 1887 and 1888” (207).  In other words, a lot happened in a short amount of time, which in turn, pressured the Brazilian government to adopt anti-slavery policies.

Like Oakes, Conrad is very aware of the limitations facing anti-slavery sentiment.   By 1866, for example, the new political cabinet of Zacarais de Gois was actually prepared to abolish slavery in Brazil, but only when “circumstances permitted the government would consider abolition as an object of the greatest importance” (52).  The war with Paraguay prevented this anti-slavery cabinet from taking action until after this military dispute was settled.  It should also be mentioned that prior to 1850, Brazilian society was not conducive for an anti-slavery movement.  Brazil did not have a middle-class, and slave labor dominated the labor markets.  In turn, such an environment prevented an anti-slavery movement from developing.

Historians’ emphasis on agency has provided a strong break in the traditional top-down historiographical approach.  As Walter Johnson notes, however, this emphasis on “agency” has often overshadowed materialistic implications.  After reading both works, I am starting to wrestle with the questions of material versus intellectual motivations and limitations of anti-slavery movements.  Maybe the real question is not who freed the slaves or how much agency they had, but what environmental factors were most conducive for shifting political and public opinions into accepting abolitionism.  This also raises the question of abolitionists’ adaptability (as mentioned earlier), could the effectiveness of anti-slavery movements be measured by their ability to adapt to specific circumstances at specific times?  In other words, is the key for the success of anti-slavery movements versatility?  Does abolition require a specific set of circumstance to succeed, and if so what are those core circumstances?  I understand that such an approach might be too narrow, but at the same time, materialistic factors played a significant role in when and how various anti-slavery crusades developed.  Jim Oakes was correct when he argued that freedom was enough for slaves during this period, because it created an environment that allowed politicians and the public to explore how far that freedom would reach.

Free Labor: A Historiographical Inquiry

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Old Labor History was institutional, focusing on political debates, formal labor organizations, worker strikes, and labor leaders.  E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) changed this field.  His study marked an important intellectual shift, which led scholars to examine capitalism, labor, and slavery from the perspectives on the non-property holding working class, especially in northwestern Europe.  The growing curiosity for uncovering the lives of workers and their roles in the industrialized Atlantic (mainly the U.S. North and Europe) breathed new life into the historiographical debates over nineteenth-century free and slave labor.  These new investigations on the migrants, the proletariat, indentured servants, and the self-employed opened new avenues for comparison with other labor regimes in the New World, especially with chattel slavery.

By the 1980s, historians of labor, slavery, and anti-slavery started asking new questions about labor systems in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World: how free was “free labor”?  Was wage slavery a natural extension of chattel slavery?  What were the fundamental differences between slavery and free labor?  Such inquiries have shaped recent studies on this subject.

For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on how the works I read in the first half of this semester addressed the topic of “free labor.”  More specifically, I will examine how these historians engaged, directly and indirectly, in discussions about the parameters of “free labor” and its application in the British Empire.  I will end this blog with a brief examination of how movements towards transnational and global history have further complicated our understanding of “free labor” in the Age of Emancipation.

It is important to start with Robert Steinfeld’s Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor because this study provides a strong foundation for understanding how free labor worked on the ground.  In this monograph, Steinfeld debunks the traditional fixed binary of labor: workers were either free (voluntary) or unfree (involuntary).  Intellectually, free labor ideology was defined by wages and contracts, while unfree labor (including slavery) was characterized as involuntary and coerced.  It should be noted that in the Mighty Experiment, Seymour Drescher traces the origins of this fixed binary back to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

All workers, according to Steinfeld, faced various degrees of coercion (slavery being the harshest).  He suggests that we think “about labor relations in terms of the degrees of coercive pressures” (Steinfeld, 16).  For him the distinction between free and unfree labor is arbitrary, because in reality all workers faced some form of coercion.  Understanding how free labor worked on the ground is Steinfeld’s greatest contribution, however.  His argument weakens when he suggests that all forms of coercion were attempts to induce and control workers.  Steinfeld ignores what Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams explicitly shows: slaveholders and overseers used coercive tactics for other purposes than extracting labor.  Although slaveholders and overseers were capitalists, some of them were also sadists, who enjoyed the physical and psychological torture of slaves for other purposes than extracting labor.

Both historians agree, however, that slavery was a form of labor.  Johnson’s and Steinfeld’s works also highlight an important fact: on the ground free white workers and slaves were a part of the Atlantic labor system, which was based on coercive tactics.  When we look the labor experiences of slaves and wageworkers, the distinctions between free labor and slave labor becomes blurry.  Free labor is messy, and when investigating how this labor-system was employed and under what circumstances it becomes apparent that it was less free than many people originally assumed.

Where did this separation between free labor and slave labor develop?  Seymour Drescher’s The Might Experiment attempts to answer this question.  Following the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, many anti-slavery activists searched for proof of free labor’s superiority over chattel slavery.  Abolitionists started experimenting with free labor in Sierra Leon, Berbice, and Trinidad, granted none of these ventures succeeded.  I was also surprised to learn at UCD’s “Ireland, Slavery, Anti-Slavery, and Empire” conference that many Irish laborers were also part of these experiments.  Following the abolition of African chattel slavery in the West Indies, British reformers saw a wonderful opportunity for a “mighty experiment” in free labor.  Drescher agues that this experiment ultimately failed and led to declining public faith in anti-slavery and free labor by the 1840s.

This decline of British public faith in “free labor” and anti-slavery during the Victorian Era has been the traditional historiographical narrative (notably espoused by Drescher and Howard Temperley).  They have suggested that British anti-slavery buckled in the face of new imperialistic ambitions, growing racism, and public indifference.  Richard Huzzey’s Freedom Burning challenges this assumption.  He makes a compelling case for the continuation of anti-slavery sentiment throughout the Victorian Era.  At the heart of British society was a core set of anti-slavery principles, “where opposition to the ownership of humans was the core of the ideology” (8).  If we accept Huzzey’s “anti-slavery pluralism” thesis, can we not also argue that free labor was also a part of the anti-slavery core?  If British society rejected the ownership of human workers (mainly slaves), then did they not also implicitly support free labor (what nineteenth century ideologists and philosophers posed as the opposite of chattel slavery)?

The answer to this question is complicated.  As Steinfeld shows, free labor was never completely free, while other historians have argued that “wage slavery” was a natural extension of chattel slavery.  Ideologically, however, British society universally accepted a core set of ideas about free labor.  Just like anti-slavery ideology, free labor ideology allowed for differences and nuances, which could be contained beneath the wider British rejection of chattel slavery.  Another possible option is to invert Huzzey’s approach (working inside-out, instead of outside-in).  Where Huzzey traces a variety of opinions, methods, and definitions to a core anti-slavery ideology, maybe historians should examine how the core ideology of free labor (the opposite of chattel slavery) led to the creation of multiple labor system in the Victorian Era (indentured servitude, contract labor, free labor, wage labor, sharecropping, etc.)?

The movement towards transnational and global history has also dramatically shifted our understanding of free labor ideology.  Sven Beckert’s article “Emancipation and Empire,” for example, demonstrates how the British Empire searched for new ways “to extract labor for cotton production, without the use of slaves” (1424), during and following the American Civil War.  This search induced new forms of coerced labor (indentured servitude and debt peonage), especially in Brazil, India, and Egypt.  This transnational historiographical shift raises new questions about the tensions between the metropolitan ideas of anti-slavery and free labor with the reality of labor needs (and its shortages) in distant colonies.

Were the working classes of England willing to pay higher prices for “free sugar”?  The simple answer is no.  The victory of free trade over protectionism demonstrates their desire to find the cheapest goods possible.  However, Richard Huzzey complicates this narrative by showing how reformers used the banner of “free labor and anti-slavery” to raise public support.  Once again, we see the complexity behind the idea of free labor versus the reality of enacting this practice on the ground, especially when we look at how the need for labor in the colonies created a massive push to control laborers through pecuniary and non-pecuniary pressures.

So what is free labor and how different is it from slavery?  Although both labor forms share many qualities, there is one significant difference: slaves were human capital.  Slaveholders could buy and sell Africans, making large profits, as noted in Walter Johnston’s study.  Moreover, slaveowners investments in human chattel were protected through their respective legal systems.  Once emancipation occurred, at least in the United States, this fictive capital disappeared.  This was not the case for “free labor.”  Employers, at differing levels, were dependent on the cooperation and production of their laborers.  They did not own them.  This difference is critical when trying to parse out the dissimilarities between both labor systems.

Moreover, the movement towards transnational labor history demonstrates that there was no set definition of “free labor,” except that it was the opposite of chattel slavery.  Ex-slaveholders, in fact, often exploited the ambiguous definitions of free labor to garners stronger control over their employees.  The core tenet of free labor, however, was the complete rejection of owning humans.  By rejecting chattel slavery, Britons explicitly and implicitly declared their support for “free labor.”

Seymour Drescher was correct when he argued that mass mobilization was the key to the success of British anti-slavery.  I argue, however, that free labor was also the key to extending anti-slavery sentiment into the Victorian Era.  This labor system offered an answer.  An answer to what would come next after emancipation removed a labor system that was centuries old.  As scholars continue to follow in the footsteps of E.P Thompson, we are forced to rethink about what “free labor” meant and how it was different from chattel slavery.


Free Labor is Not Free?

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Reviewed Work: Robert J. Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 330, $14.80.

In Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor, Robert Steinfeld examines the development of free labor ideology in the nineteenth century.  More specifically, he attempts to breakdown the historiographical binary opposition between free and coerced labor.  Steinfeld muddies the waters by showing that all laborers in the nineteenth century experienced varying degrees of coercion, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary.

Steinfeld wants to debunk the “traditional wisdom” that has drawn a sharp line between free and unfree labor.  He suggests we “think about labor relations in terms of degrees of coercive pressure” (16).  In short, wage laborers, contract workers, and slaves all experienced different degrees of pecuniary and non-pecuniary pressures.  Therefore, the judgment about “where to draw the line to separate free from coerced labor turns out not to be a judgment about whether the labor is voluntary or compelled but rather a judgment about what kinds of coercive pressures are legitimate and illegitimate in labor relations” (16).  This approach is persuasive to a point.

Steinfeld argues that all workers are forced to choose between unpleasant alternatives in labor.  For wageworkers, this might entail working under less than stellar conditions or starving and being homeless.  For slaves, this meant either death or engaging in backbreaking labor.  Such an assessment leads him to argue that where we draw the line between free and unfree labor “is arbitrary” (15).  I agree that free wage laborers, contractual workers, and slaves were almost always in constant conflict with their employers/owners.  However, Steinfeld claims, “The choices presented in slavery were normally vastly harsher than the choices presented in free wage labor, so we may rightly say that the degree of coercion in one form is generally vastly greater than in the other…but we have to say either that both are involuntary in different degrees or that both involve free choice of a lesser evil (15, emphasis mine).

In my opinion, the non-pecuniary pressures (specifically physical violence) impressed on human chattel is not just more extreme, but completely different.  This issue touches on one of the more controversial debates in American historiography: what fundamentally changed for Africans after emancipation?  After reading Steinfeld’s work, I believe he would say nothing; it only lessened the harshness of their labor situation.  In my view, however, something fundamentally did change with emancipation.  Africans gained some ownership over themselves and their labor; they were by definition no longer chattels. As a scholar of anti-slavery, this is one question that I will continue to wrestle with for the foreseeable future.

Outside of this issue, Steinfeld correctly points out that workers continually faced labor situations based on coercion.  In England, employers used penal sanctions to control their workers, while in the United States employers threatened their workers with wage forfeiture if they did not fulfill their labor agreements.  In other words, Steinfeld poses the question: how free was free labor?

Steinfeld argues that our modern conceptions of “free labor” do not apply to nineteenth century Anglo-American and European laboring worlds.  In England, workers who breached their labor contracts faced imprisonment and hard labor.  In the United States, workers who absconded or left their jobs were not paid, and their families (in Europe) were held financially responsible for their debts.  By the 1860s, however, labor organizations began lobbying on behalf of workers.  In England, they demanded for shorter contracts (from annual to fortnight, monthly, or minute contracts) and the removal of penal sanctions.  This led to the 1875 Employers and Workman Act, which abolished the Master and Servant acts, and made it more difficult for employers to use penal sanctions.  It is important to note that the United States followed a different path, where legal sanctions were not available for employers.  Instead, they threatened their employees with forfeiting their wages if they did not follow through on their contractual obligations.  In 1908, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bailey v. Alabama (1908) that involuntary servitude violated the liberties of Americans, influencing African Americans.

Steinfeld’s work raises many questions about nineteenth-century free labor ideology.  More specifically, how activists in both the United States and Britain used the notion of free labor to further their anti-slavery crusade.  Did their beliefs in the superiority of free labor over slave labor include some form of coercion?   How did abolitionists reconcile the visions of free labor espoused by Hume, Smith, and Burke, with the reality of capitalism’s need for laborers, usually gained through coercive tactics?  Did employers and planters exploit the free labor ideology for their own purposes?  Most importantly, how does Steinfeld’s work complicate Richard Huzzey’s anti-slavery pluralism argument?  Did employers seriously value the core anti-slavery principles that Huzzey argues remained relevant throughout the Victorian Era?  If so, they did a horrible job of showing it.

Steinfeld’s Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor provides a detailed examination of common and positive laws, regarding labor, individual court cases dealing with employers and employees, and the political, social, and economic debates surrounding free labor in the nineteenth century.  His work challenges the traditional binary opposition of free versus unfree labor, and forces scholars rethink nineteenth-century labor relationships in England and the United States.


Experimentation in Free Labor

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Reviewed Work: Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor Versus Slavery in British Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 307, $31.81

Seymour Drescher’s The Mighty Experiment provides an insightful study on British abolitionism and free labor.  Following suit with his previous works (Econocide and Capitalism and Anti-Slavery), he maintains that slavery was abolished in the British Empire through “mass abolitionism” (7).  In this examination, however, he focuses on how social science shaped the politics of slavery from the late-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.  He argues that the rise of the “cultural status of science” during the Enlightenment Era brought many opportunities to “bring new methods and findings to bear on the increasingly politicized discussion of slavery” (6).  He identifies three main areas of social science, which influenced the political debates over slavery: political economy, demography, and racial/epidemiological science.

Drescher’s narrative arc starts with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  Smith’s study provided three important legacies for subsequent discussions over slavery and emancipation.  First, Wealth of Nations was the initial scientific exploration into differences between slavery and free labor, where Smith posited that contractual labor was more efficient than coerced labor.  Second, he attacked slavery as an economic institution in this work.  Finally, Smith presented a “bifurcation of labor relations in the Americas”: laborers were either slaves or free workers (32).

Drescher illuminates how abolitionists did not immediately engage with Smith’s “free labor” thesis until after the abolition of the slave trade.  This most likely happened because Smith’s assessment worked for northwestern Europe, but quickly fell apart when applied to the Americas—a region he mostly ignored in his writings.  Instead, abolitionists focused on demography.  Anti-slavery politicians and activists such as Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that the failure of African natural reproduction in the post-slave trade British Caribbean demonstrated the inhumanness of this labor system (first espoused by Malthus’ 1806 study Essay on Population).  Moreover, abolitionists linked the “reproduction argument” with the “civilizing principle” (the idea of civil, cultural, and economic improvement).  In other words, the “backwardness of Africans,” highlighted by their deficiencies in technology, art, education, and manners—was only aggravated by the European slave trade and slavery (84).  This line of argument was the most difficult to resolve for the British “slave interest.”

By 1807, abolitionists started searching for evidence of free labor’s success in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  Sierra Leon and Haiti are two examples that Drescher draws from.  These experiments were not successful, or controversial at best, but abolitionists protected their “free labor ideology” by dismissing such failures as the result of the local populations not being “truly free” (104).  This raises an interesting question about how the early “free labor” failures in Sierra Leon, Haiti, Trinidad, and Berbice might have influenced the argument made by reformers such as George Thompson.  Did he argue for East Indian emancipation, but not independence, because he was fearful of India reverting barbarism, as was the case in Haiti (in their view)?  Or did such beliefs protect his imperialistic ambitions?

Nevertheless, the abolition of African chattel slavery in the British West Indies provided the perfect opportunity for the British government to test the free labor superiority thesis.  The “Might Experiment,” coined by Colonial Secretary Edward George Stanley in the House of Commons, was Britain’s attempt to prove that liberated slaves could “produce tropical staples, as abundantly, more cheaply, and more efficiently” than slaves (144).  Drescher does a wonderful job of showing how decades of scientific research and analyses led up to this one experimental moment in history.

Initially, the Might Experiment appeared success.  The British government abolished chattel slavery peacefully, unlike the cases of France and Spanish America.  Reproduction of African populations also started increasing naturally.  The standard of living for ex-slaves improved.  Antigua, who forwent apprenticeship, even maintained the same rates of production in sugar.  Abolitionists used this success to launch their global anti-slavery crusade.  Although Drescher mentions that slavery in the British East Indies was not abolished until 1843, he surprisingly leaves out this important topic in his discussion of the 1840 General Anti-Slavery Convention.

Drescher shows that British abolitionists belief in free labor started to ebb in the 1840s, following the failure of Buxton’s Niger Expedition in 1841.  Moreover, fluctuating sugar prices and the rise of racism also led to a decline in the faith for free labor.  Thomas Carlyle’s essay is one example Drescher uses to prove this decline.  Soon land values plummeted, creditors stopped supporting planters, and new forms of labor coercion (Indian indentured servitude) arose.  The British West Indian failure, moreover, led the government to adopt indentured servitude and a “slow death of slavery” approach in its eastern colonies (235).  Drescher attempts to end of high note by arguing that the British emancipation kick-started the human rights movement of the twentieth century, but the reader is left with an dreadful notion of the failures in free labor experimentation.

Drescher places political economic scientists at the heart of his study, and shows how social sciences were used for and against instituting free labor into the British West Indies.  He continually reminds his readers, however, that the “true root of antislavery lay in its successful mass political mobilization around a fundamentally uneconomic proposition” (237).  This assessment aligns with Drescher’s previous assessment of British abolitionism (expressed in all his works).  He shows that despite political economists’ arguments against free labor (think about the Parliamentary debates over slavery during 1832-33), anti-slavery activists somehow found a way to mobilize massive public support for emancipation (more 1.3 million signatures in the last petition campaign).

While reading Drescher’s study, I could not help but think about my own dissertation idea.  Could I argue that free labor experimentation in postemancipation India was Britain’s “Second Mighty Experiment?”  Did the failure in the British West Indies lead anti-slavery activists to explore free labor in India?  I think there is something to this.

I also contemplated how Richard Huzzey asserts that many reform groups during this period claimed to be the heirs of their anti-slavery predecessors.  But if we follow Drescher’s argument, that legacy was not very positive:  abolitionists failed in their Mighty Experiment, they practically bankrupted the West Indian sugar colonies, and opened the door for a new forms of “near slavery.”  Men like Thomas Carlyle, moreover, attacked abolitionists for their misguided views of Africans as hard working and industrious citizens.  What value did abolitionists offer reform groups in the 1840s and 1850s?  Is Drescher’s assessment of their failures too critical?  Or maybe the better question is how did abolitionists maintain their preeminent standing in public opinion, even after these failures?

Seymour Drescher’s The Mighty Experiment provides an important window into understanding the role of free labor in the postemancipation Empire.  This is work that I will continually return to throughout my career.

Baptists and Anti-Slavery

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Reviewed Work:  Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 556, $35.65

Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects is a thought-provoking book that engages with a number of fascinating topics.  First, she provides a wonderful examination of several generations of British Baptist missionaries in Jamaica and Birmingham.  She examines how their ideas about slavery, emancipation, race, and freedom for Africans shifted over time.  Second, she places Jamaica and Birmingham in one “analytic frame” (a fundamental tenet of post-colonial historiography) making the metropole-colony dynamic “mutually constitutive” (8).  In other words, to understand the national formation, Hall argues, we “have to look outside it” (9).  Finally, Hall’s work incorporates several mini-biographies, “A Cast of Characters,” throughout her work, which includes but is not limited to: Baptist missionaries (i.e. William Knibb), colonial politicians (Edward Eyre), and abolitionists (Joseph Sturge).  These actors wrestle with a number of questions over ideological, social, and cultural issues arising in both colonial Jamaica and metropolitan Birmingham.

The fulcrum of Hall’s lengthy text is Baptist ministers and missionaries, which she follows from 1830 to 1867.  In Part I, Hall introduces us to these missionaries, such as William Knibb.  They were important agents for anti-slavery because they argued that Christianized black workers in Jamaica would industriously work without compulsion. Baptists evangelists like Knibb were “shocked by the moral degradation of slavery and the mindless existence…to which enslaved were condemned” (100).  Missionaries and slaveholders clashed over the religious future of slaves.  On one side, men like Knibb argued that slaves needed to be baptized and brought into the Christian faith.  On the other side, planters feared that Christianity would lead slaves to demand for more freedom.  By the 1823, a propaganda war erupted between anti-slavery missionaries and pro-slavery planters.  Like Gelien Matthews, Hall argues that following the Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831 (later called the First Baptist War), abolitionists adopted the framing positions that emancipation would prevent another Haitian Revolution.

Following the abolition of African chattel slavery and apprenticeship (Part II), Hall examines how Englishmen started to question emancipation, especially in Birmingham.  With the fall in West Indian sugar production, the removal of protective tariffs (free traders won out), and growing reports about the reemergence of African religion and African idleness in Jamaica—Englishmen started to claim that abolition was disastrous.  This was most pronounced in Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 essay “Occasion Discourse on the Negro Question” (republished in 1853 with a more racist title).  He clearly identified with the planters’ cause and argued that abolition “led to the ruin of the colonies, the ruin of the planters, and the ruin of black people who would not work” (349).  The Baptist Missionary Society’s (BMS) hopeful vision of Jamaica as a Christianized industrious colony was no longer credible.  The watershed moment for this change in thinking was the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865), led by a black Baptist leader named Paul Bogle (see video below).  Following the rebellion, biological essentialism ascended to prominence.  Englishmen used science to claim a genetic difference between whites and blacks, civilized and heathens.  Although stalwart abolitionists continued their humanitarian crusade, according to Hall, Joseph Sturge’s death marked the passing of an older generation and the arrival of more racist one.

Hall’s work is wonderful and will play a large role in the development of my dissertation.  First, her work has encouraged me to explore the British Missionary Society Archives.  Religion has not been a major aspect of my preliminary research, so far, but the BMS collections at both Yale and Wheaton College will most certainly be fruitful.  I also have her footnotes to help guide my archival research.  Although she downplays the BMS’s involvement in India, it was helpful to see the Jamaican side (which I knew little about).

Second, I like the structure of this work and how Hall handles a large group of characters.  I also deal with a diverse group of people who thought about anti-slavery in the Victorian Era.  Her prose and intertwining of narrative, biography, and argument provides a nice blueprint for writing the intellectual and cultural histories of several individuals, groups, and societies. Finally, I enjoyed her transnational framework, which does not favor either the colony or metropole.  She moves fluidly between Jamaica and Birmingham, making her argument and thoughts easy to follow.  Moreover, I am also excited to see how the Morant Bay Rebellion influenced India.  Both Matthews and Hall focus on rebellions and their importance in transforming abolitionism, ideas about race, and humanitarian reform movements.  This is something I would like to explore as I move forward with my own research.

I want to conclude with a few words on her overarching narrative, which highlights the rise and fall of humanitarian sentiment in England during the Victorian period.  I understand why historians like Hall make this argument, but I am still finding myself aligning with Richard Huzzey’s anti-slavery pluralism.  I believe that the British Empire held a core set of anti-slavery principles, which was used for various ends.  After reading Huzzey and Hall, however, I am thinking about how central these core anti-slavery principles were at any given time.  This issue will most likely be my end project for this class.  I agree with Huzzey that anti-slavery never goes away, but I also think it was not static.  My feeling is that we should look at these core principles on a continuum.  How central were these values during events such as: the debates over free trade, East Indian emancipation, the Morant Bay Rebellion, the Sepoy Rebellion, the scramble for Africa, and so forth.  Instead of the solar system metaphor espoused by Huzzey, maybe we should think of it as a pendulum, where anti-slavery swings from one side to the other based on certain events.

Video of Morant Bay Slave Rebellion with Stuart Hall, Catherine’s Husband



Slave Rebellions and the British Anti-Slavery Movement

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Review Work: Gelien Matthews, Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), pp. 197, $24.95.

For the last several decades, historians have explored slave resistance from a multitude of perspectives.  Walter Johnson (Soul by Soul) and Eugene Genovese (Roll, Jordan, Roll) examine the relationship between “slave agency” and “resistance” (passive versus active).  Seymour Drescher (Abolition) and Robin Blackburn (American Crucible) focus on how the Haitian Revolution influenced the advancement of anti-slavery.  Hilary Beckles (Afro-Caribbean Women) and Michael Craton (Testing the Chains) explore how slaves used resistance (passive & active) to negotiate their place in colonial society.  These various works and many others have pointed towards the importance of slave resistance and rebellion in the larger narrative about the rise and fall of New World slavery.

Gelien Matthews joins this overcrowded subfield with her thought-provoking work Caribbean Slave Revolts.  She offers a new perspective, if possible, to consider when examining the relationship between slave insurrection and the British Anti-Slavery Movement.  Matthews is writing against the traditional view that slave insurrection retarded the growth and progress of abolitionism.  The older view suggests that massive slave rebellions (Nat Turner, Haiti, Barbados) hurt the abolitionist cause and gave weight to pro-slavery arguments (social stability and control over the “unruly and dangerous” slaves).  Writing against this assessment, Matthews illustrates how slave rebellions in Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823), and Jamaica (1831-1832) created an environment from which British abolitionists drew their thoughts for immediate emancipation.  In her own words, “slaves in rebellion [during the abolition period] contributed to the metropolitan attack on colonial slavery” (11).

The general gist of her narrative goes as follows:  At the opening of the nineteenth century, abolitionists were conservative and defensive about slave rebellions, often trying to disassociate themselves from these events (Wilberforce).  By the Baptist War (1831, Jamaica), however, Matthews shows that abolitionists were no longer attempting to avoid blame, but instead used these rebellions to their advantage.  Rebel slaves were agents of change, which allowed abolitionists to make demands for immediate eradication of slavery throughout the Empire.  They believed that slaves were fighting for freedom and liberty.  They also used the threat of another Haitian Revolution to further their claims for emancipation, which would quell the tensions between African slaves and planters (which they argued would lead to race war).  In short, slaves’ decision to rebel “unlocked an offensive and defensive pro- slavery and anti-slavery debates that centered on slave revolt, (28)” which in turn led abolitionist to become more radical and aggressive.

This “unlocking” raises an interesting question about how abolitionists were limited by their environment (the Marxian idea of “agency”).  Matthews asserts that slave rebellions “succeeded in shifting the abolitionists’ conservative policy progressively to the left” (10).  Does this mean that these reformers would not have been “immediatists” (stealing language from the American anti-slavery historiography) without slave rebellions?  Or did these three insurrections provide the room for anti-slavery activists to make bolder demands on the Parliament and British public for emancipation?

This switch from gradualist to immediatist was not immediate, but happened slowly over time.  Starting with Thomas Fowell Buxton’s speech to the House of Commons on slavery in 1823—where he vacillated between accepting the necessity of slave rebellion for the larger humanitarian cause and outright disapproval of such actions—and ended with the Anti-Slavery Society’s call for immediate emancipation following the Baptist War in Jamaica.  This change is interesting when looking at the larger transnational context.  During the same period, abolitionists in the United States made a similar movement, going from the gradualism of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society to the immediatism of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (see Rich Newman The Transformation of American Abolitionism).  For the most part, Matthews stays within the national boundaries of the British Empire, but provides a wonderful opportunity for comparison.  Would Matthews’ argument hold up in the American context?  Did Nat Turner and Daniel Walker have the same impact on anti-slavery as the Demerarean and Jamaican rebellions?

At first glance, it would appear to be yes.  American abolitionists and free blacks moved from moral suasion arguments to outright calls for black rights and freedom.  Think about the difference in approaches between Richard Allen (Mother Bethel) and William Parker (Christiania Riot).  British and American abolitionists both called for immediate abolition during the same period, in the midst of violent rebellions (Jamaica and Nat Turner/Walker).  However, one institution of slavery ended shortly after and the other existed for another thirty years?  Why the difference?  This might be a fruitful question to explore.

Gelien Matthews, Caribbean Slave Revolts is a social history of slave resistance.  She uses the agency of a marginalized group of people (slaves) to show how they influenced larger societal changes (the ending of slavery).  The value of Matthews’ work is even more pronounced when considering how other historians have written about these revolts.  Emilia Viotti da Costa, for example, provides the most comprehensive examination of the Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823.  Viotti da Costa, however, ends her study in 1824.  Leaving the reader curious about the how the Demerara Rebellion was linked to the actual abolition of slavery.  Matthews provides an answer to this question and many others, filling in an important the historiographical gaps.

Slave rebellions database for the United States.  This LINK provides an interesting overview of the various types of rebellions and how we can possibly categorize them.  This might be useful to consider when reading Matthews’ work.