This semester’s readings address a number of themes in field of anti-slavery studies, but one theme that has intrigued me the most is the diverse paths of emancipation. The destruction of American slavery occurred after decades of conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery constituencies and a bloody Civil War (Oakes, Freedom National). Brazilian emancipation was achieved rather rapidly for a number of reasons from international pressures to the decline in the Brazilian slave population (Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery). In Cuba and Puerto Rico, abolition of slavery arose with debates over the future of the Spanish Empire (Nowara-Schmidt, Empire and Anti-Slavery). In the British West Indies, emancipation was compensated and came after years of planning by abolitionists and politicians (Drescher, Matthews, and Hall). In British India, the delegalization of slavery arrived only after the British metropole, government, and East India Company decided to acknowledge that slavery still existed in their Empire (Major, Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire). In Northern Nigeria, the British government ended slavery gradually over time, which allowed the institution to remain until World War I (Lovejoy and Hogendorn, The Slow Death of Slavery). In Haiti and most of Latin America, slavery was abolished with independence, or shortly thereafter.
Such diversity raises the question of what historians can say, if anything, about the nature of emancipation. Does the diversity of abolition and emancipation make finding a master narrative impossible? Do local variations prevent us from making large claims about the general nature of anti-slavery and abolition? The British Empire, for example, took three different paths to emancipation in the West Indies, India, and Africa. How can we, therefore, write about British abolitionism and emancipation as a unified whole? Do we need to qualify such distinctions?
The history of emancipation is a diverse and complicated story. The question remains, however, whether we can say anything general about anti-slavery or emancipation. There was not one single plan or strategy, but instead a diverse number of different ways it was achieved. Through political agitation, violent war, compensation, negotiation, and so forth.
I do believe, however, there are a few commonalities, which we can use to talk about emancipation and abolition on a global scale. The first being the law or legal history. The abolition of slavery was always associated with changing the law, and more specifically removing the laws that protected slavery. Second, emancipation always followed by a major social transformation. The ending of the master slave relationship, by law, destabilized the very social order it helped build. This is one reason why the British government was concerned about removing slavery in India and Northern Nigeria; they feared it would lead to colonial instability.
Another commonality in all emancipation movements centers on labor systems and materialism. Just because slaves were freed did not mean that the labor demanded faded away. After emancipation, Brazilian coffee was still produced, West Indian sugar was still cultivated, and American cotton was still picked. Therefore, it might be interesting to see how these labor voids were filled. Moreover, when the system of slavery was abolished, other forms of labor coercion usually arose (sharecropping, parceria, debt peonage, indentured servitude, etc.). Employers and planters wanted to control their labor, and this usually led to replacing slavery with other kinds of labor systems that provide power to employer but not to the employee.
I also think it is interesting that emancipation was never just one moment, but a process that developed over time. After this semester’s readings, I have realized that abolition (the legal ending of slavery) was one moment, when the laws protecting slavery were abolished. Emancipation, however, was a much longer process that usually started before abolition and lasted well after it. Some might even say we still have yet to achieve it. It is also important to note, that slaves were never compensated and usually left with little to no property.
When thinking about the global history of emancipation, or the Age of Emancipation, it is helpful to remember that no two countries followed the same path. I think these differences say a lot about slavery’s ability to adapt and survive, it still exists today. However, thinking about the history of slavery across time and space, it does raise an interesting question: slavery has existed for thousands of years, but in the late eighteenth century, this system of labor finally came under scrutiny and challenge. Why then? What was it about the late eighteenth century that led British abolitionists to challenge slavery and the slave trade? Why after almost three thousand years, did slavery finally become unacceptable? Answering this question might also help historians write the global history of emancipation, a period when individuals and groups across the world finally agreed that slavery was an immoral and unacceptable system of labor. Just some food for thought.