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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Problems of Emancipation

This week’s readings address the tensions arising between whites and non-whites over the issue of freedom, citizenship, and labor relations during the Age of Emancipation.

Before I examine each monograph individually, I want to briefly mention a few common themes I have found in these works.  First, social revolution often followed the abolition of slavery.  Freeing thousands or millions of slaves directly challenged a society’s social, economic, and political dynamics.  In turn, this led to tensions between freedpeople who demanded equality and autonomy and planters who attempted to maintain their economic livelihoods and social hegemony.

Second, these societal transformations were different in every region (to a point), but at the heart of these changes was the struggle over what freedom meant.  Racial egalitarianism? Citizenship? Occupational freedom? Free labor?  In almost every case study in this set of readings, the state, federal and colonial governments often failed to recognize ex-slaves as full and equal citizens.  Instead, they searched for ways to keep their ex-slaves/laborers on plantations, or importing new laborers than can exploit (indentured laborers).

Third, the problems associated with emancipation were linked to the Age of Revolution’s notions of “rights of man,” freedom, and capitalism.  Put differently, governments attempted to balance capitalist’s demands for labor while maintaining the liberty and freedoms of workers (usually, the demands for plantation labor took precedence).  Finally, the question facing post-emancipation societies was: what shall we do with the ex-slave, and how can we secure industrious labor?  In a way this question is self-evident, otherwise there would be no need for slavery.  Capitalist planters need a cheap supply of workers.  With the criminalization of slaveholding, they ultimately turned to new coercive labor reforms, pushed blacks out of the body politic (if they were able to enter in the first place), solidify white supremacy, and created laws that offered them control over their workers.

In Beyond Slavery, Thomas Holt, Rebecca Scott, and Frederick Cooper provide three excellent essays that examine the labor systems that replaced slavery following emancipation.  Holt’s article “The Essence of Contract” examines the “aspirations Jamaicans had” in relation to the expectations of “their imperial emancipators” (9).  He illustrates a fundamental change in British emancipation policy between the end of apprenticeship (1838) and the Jamaican Morant Bay Rebellion (1865).  He shows that the Morant Bay Rebellion was a clear sign for MPs of the “failure of British emancipation policy and as evidence of the former slaves incapacity for responsible citizenship” (56).  In short, white elite planters marginalized black from the body politic because they feared ex-slaves would pursue political and economic goals counterproductive to their needs.  By the 1840s, planters believed that freedpeople were lazy, undisciplined, and unprepared for civic life, however.  Holt demonstrates that a white-black public sphere was never possible anyways.  “No such public sphere existed in Jamaica,” Holt writes; “because slavery had produced a society divided into the powerful and the unprotected, the one dominating the public sphere, the other outside of it” (43).  The Morant Bay Rebellion confirmed this belief.

Rebecca Scott’s “Fault Lines, Color Lines, and Party Lines” follows a different path in assessing post-emancipation society.  Scott examines labor and cross-ethnic alliances between workers on sugar plantations in Cuba and Louisiana.  Engaging with Holt, she demonstrates how planters in both regions attempted reaffirm white supremacy, which in turn, removed non-whites from the body politic.  The consequences of such actions, however, produced different but similar results in Louisiana and Cuba.

In Louisiana, planters successfully secured a white-black dichotomy, which marginalized Africans and solidified whites atop the hierarchy (creating a Herrenvolk Democracy).  In Cuba, this was not the case.  Chinese, Spanish, and African laborers worked alongside one another.  They fostered a cross-racial alliance that strengthened after the Cuban War of Independence (1895-98) and led to the creation of a constitution (1901), which did not segregate based on race (for the right to vote).  This momentary political egalitarianism, however, did not last as the Cuban military killed thousands of non-white members of the Partido Independiente de Color.  As we saw in Jamaica, the possibility of a multiracial body politic created tensions between white and non-whites, which ultimately led to segregation between both groups.

Frederick Cooper’s chapter provides the largest temporal scope in this collection of essays.   Focusing on French Africa, he shows how the colonial labor policy attempted to mold Africans into “universal free workers” (108).  Like in Jamaica, the creation of quasi-independent workers threatened the economic production of the region (because white believed that Africans would work for themselves, not for the colony).  In turn, the colonial French government rejected chattel slavery, but allowed other forms of coerced labor (debt bondage for instance) to emerge in order to keep Africans in the fields.  Although a little later than Jamaica (1840s), the French colonial government, by the turn of the century, abandoned the idea that Africans were capable of becoming industrious laborers.  By the early twentieth-century, criticisms of coercive labor systems arose, especially after the ILO’s Force Labor Convention in 1939.  By mid-century, there were several attempts by French officials in the metropole to create a universal citizen of the Empire.  When Houphouet-Boigny was elected in Paris, for instance, he created a bill that ended forced labor.  Unfortunately, this bill was not fully implemented into the colony, which in turn, provided the foundation for the anti-colonialism movement.

In The Slow Death for Slavery, Paul Lovejoy and Jan Hogendorn present an important glimpse into British slavery and abolitionism in Nigeria during the twentieth century, a topic that Cooper casually forgets to mention in his essay on Africa (slavery still existed in Africa!).  Starting with the Royal Niger Company and British military conquest of Nigeria in 1897, both historians make a strong case for the Empire’s prominent role in fighting slavery in the modern period.  Focusing specifically on the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria, Lovejoy and Hogendorn illuminate that slavery remained vibrant well into the twentieth century.  In fact, Caliphate held more than two million slaves when Britain colonized this region, and continued until World War II.

Instead of immediate and compensated abolition, the British colonial policy approach was to implement abolition gradually over time.   Lovejoy and Hogendorn primarily focus on the actions of Sir Frederick Lugard, the British governor of Nigeria.  In effect, the British policy towards slaves in Nigeria during this period (1897 to 1836) was to prevent massive desertion from plantation, which would threaten the colonial economy (no laborers to work on plantations) that was primarily based on production of cotton and groundnuts.  The British implemented policies that discouraged slaves from leaving, required them to pay for their own freedom, and obligated them to live relatively close to their master’s plantations.

However, the British colonial government, especially Lugard, did enact several laws that would bring about the slow death of slavery (hence the title).  Ordinance No.1 of 1901, for example, “confirmed that all persons born in or brought into the Mandated Territories were free” (273).  After initially take control of Northern Nigeria, Lugard criminalized slave raiding, kidnapping, and attempted to limit the African slave trade (which created all kinds of social and political problems).  His attitude towards the institution of slavery (under Islam), however, was a bit different.  Taking a page from the British East India Company, he did not immediately outlaw slavery because he believed it “provide political stability and social order” (32).  Even when slaves were manumitted, British colonial officials attempted to keep the Africans economically tied to the plantation, an action premised on the problems created from West Indian emancipation and apprenticeship.

Slavery eventually ended with the outbreak of World War II, mainly after the British colonial administration started enacting more stern laws against slave-ownership (plus several investigations into Nigerian slavery by the League of Nations helped speed the process along).  Although emancipation was not reached in Nigeria until the 1930s, the questions over labor, freedom, and the roles of freedpeople in a post-emancipation Nigeria guided Britain’s policy and ultimate acceptance of gradual abolition.   Slavery provided workers, stability, and economic security to this new colonial territory.  After experiencing and witnessing the struggles between whites and non-whites in post-emancipation societies throughout the Atlantic, it should come as no surprise that Britain elected to abolish this Nigerian institution slowly over time.

Rosemarijn Hoefte’s In Place of Slavery provides the third and final study.  Her work focuses on British indentured servants in Suriname.  Following abolition in Suriname (1862), Dutch planters struggled to hire workers from China, the British West Indies, and Africa.  Therefore, they explored options for large-scale immigration of workers, and British India “seemed the ideal place from which to recruit laborers” (30).   The Dutch signed an “imperial deal,” which later became known as the “Dutch-British Agreement” that brought indentured workers from India to Suriname (31).  Like the British Emigration Act of 1842, the Dutch implemented laws to protect these migrant workers.  Both the Dutch planters and British recruiters, however, often violated such legal protections, according to Hoefte.

Hoefte does a wonderful job of showing that both British Indian and Javanese workers were exploited in many different ways.  They found themselves marginalized from the body politic and at the bottom of the plantation hierarchy.  She also demonstrates that these laborers resisted in several ways, from running away to violent uprisings.  Such resistance, in turn, demonstrated these immigrants’ discontent with their social status.  Ironically, however, British and Dutch officials argued that such labor was not slavery.  Indentured servitude, by nature, was a contract between two parties.  The indentured servants entered into the contract and were provided free passage and money.  They repaid this debt through their service.  They were also afforded the opportunity to file complaints with the British consul in Suriname, which they did often (especially women).  To colonial officials and planters, this separated indentured servants from slaves.

Beyond Slavery, The Slow Death for Slavery, and In Place of Slavery provide three important works for understanding the tensions created between workers and employers in post-emancipation society.  After reading Hoefte, it is apparent that slavery and other forms of coercive labor were different in kind.  However, this does not mean that one is better than the other.  As Scott, Holt, and Frederickson demonstrate—the major issue for ex-slaves was securing their full equality and entrance into public and civic life.

In the United States, blacks did vote and hold office, but Herrenvolk Democracy and segregation laws quickly removed them from the body politic.  In the British and French Empires, planters and colonial officials often searched for new ways to control their laborers and tie them to the plantation, through either apprenticeship, indentured servitude, or forced migration (or all three).  In Cuba, interracial cooperation was also achieved momentarily, but ultimately thwarted by the military.  In Nigeria, British colonial officials decided that it was better to let slavery die a slow and natural death in order to avoid the problems found in other post-emancipation societies.

After reading all three studies, I think it might be helpful to think about abolition as the criminalization of slaveholding (removing its legal protections) and emancipation as an attempt to not just free slaves but also provide them with equality and autonomy (economic and political).  If we think about abolition and emancipation in these terms, then we can start to examine what abolitionists really set out to change: did they want racial egalitarianism and black autonomy or just the illegalization of slaveholding?

I also think that all of these works support James Oakes claim in Freedom National when he asserts that freedom was enough for slaves, because without securing their legal freedom first, dialogues over their political, social, and economic rights could not have occurred.  Ironically, this idea also allowed planters and employers to institute new forms of coercive labor such as indentured servitude, because to them it was not slavery, but a contract premise on the ambiguous idea of free labor ideology.

One Response to “Problems of Emancipation”

  1. Thanks for this post, Wes, and sorry I’m just now getting a chance to comment.

    To your list of things that these three books have in common, perhaps we could add that they all challenge the idea that emancipation was monolithic across space and time. Or perhaps we could say that all three of these books share that theme, which seems like it has emerged as a theme of our directed readings together, too. Is it possible, after reading these, to refer to a “British way” of emancipation? Relatedly, to what extent can we identify an “idea of freedom” that all enslaved people or ex-slaves shared across space and time? You note that “the major issue for ex-slaves was securing their full equality and entrance into public and civic life,” but as you hint, the minute we begin to define those terms we will run up against local variations.

    Speaking of local variations, one aspect of Lovejoy’s argument that I think is important to flag here is the British policy of “legal-status” abolition, which was adopted in deference to the jurisdiction and practices of local Muslim courts. This ambivalent concept of “legal-status” abolition was deemed necessary to preserve colonial rule but it allowed concubinage and other forms of exploitation to persist. That tension between the demands of maintaining colonial rule and the demands of “saving face” on antislavery in the international community strikes me as an important one that may be particularly relevant to your dissertation work.

    Another theme that I think rises from your comments is the question of how we can write about antislavery and emancipation on a transnational, multi-century scale if the local instances of abolition were so variable. One way to do so is identify very broad commonalities—like the seemingly universal attempt of the planter or slaveholding class to reassert control over the labor of emancipated slaves—but another way suggested by some of these works is to use comparative history to bring multiple emancipation experiences into a single frame. Different historians have come to different conclusions by drawing such comparisons, however. Eric Foner, for one, argues that political suffrage for American freedmen made a crucial difference to the experience of emancipation there when compared to Caribbean societies, whereas for Scott, the rapid rise of herrenvolk democracy is ultimately what’s important. Are their views incompatible, or is it just a matter of how one periodizes and defines the parameters of comparison?

    One last note that I think also comes up often in these books is the issue of land after emancipation: who owned and controlled land seems in many ways determinative of the outcomes in each case. By that standard, American planters, by retaining the land, arguably had an overweening advantage in political and economic struggles with former slaves, though it’s worth thinking more about how unique that advantage was. If I recall directly, the question of who could own land also figures importantly in Slow Death for Slavery, since British economic policy, British economic policy, by enforcing land rights and systematically denying ownership opportunities to slaves, made it nearly impossible for impoverished slaves to take advantage of their only legal means of emancipation: self-redemption.

    Good stuff in this post, as always! There was a lot of rich food for thought in this week’s material!