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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Archive for December, 2013

Farewell Until Next Semester

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

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.

Reviewed Work: Andrea Major, Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire In India, 1772-1843 (London: Liverpool University Press, 2012)

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Over the last decade, scholars have made important inroads into the global and transnational histories of slavery and abolition.  Seymour Drescher’s Abolition (2009), David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage (2008), and Richard Huzzey’s Freedom Burning (2012) are only a few of the several works that have broadened our understanding of anti-slavery as a trans-Atlantic phenomenon.  Until recently, however, historians have done little with the issue of slavery in British India and its connections to the larger debates over slavery, freedom, and emancipation.  Andrea Major’s Slavery, Abolitionism, and Empire in India provides the first work that helps fill in this historiographical gap.

Major explores how “slavery in India was erased within the British public discourses on empire at the very moment when the horrors of the transatlantic (slave) trade were being seared onto the national conscience” (7).  She convincingly proves this statement by showing how EIC officials and British politicians casted slavery as a “scandal of Indian society,” not the British state (314).  British missionary propaganda, moreover, argued that Indian slavery was the child of “‘Hindoo theological doctrines’” (266).  The British EIC, in turn, did not challenge the different slaveries (agricultural, domestic, etc.) in order to maintain colonial order.  And British abolitionists did not challenge this form of labor until after the emancipation of African slaves.

Major makes an important point, which might be somewhat overstated: “slavery in India…(was) absent from both abolitionist and missionary discourses throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century” (9).  Of course this it not completely true, especially considering the wide readership of works such as: James Mill’s The History of British India; George Saintsbury’s East India Slavery (1823); Robert Montgomery Martin’s The History, Antiquities, Topography, and Statistics of Eastern India (1836); or James Pegg’s India’s Cries to British Humanity (1830), only to name a few.  Ironically, Major discusses many of these works, but her main point is not lost: slavery in India was not considered or treated the same as African chattel slavery in the New World, at least until the 1840s.

This work, along with several other monographs read his semester, has clarified a question that has haunted me since the beginning of my graduate studies: why have scholars who study slavery and abolition in the fields of South Asia and the Atlantic World not engaged with each other?

One answer that I have found is that until Richard Huzzey’s Freedom Burning, scholars of British abolitionism have assumed that anti-slavery sentiment died in the Victorian Era (1837-1902), which also happened to be the same period that the issue of Indian slavery was reevaluated and challenged by abolitionists such as Joseph Pease, Thomas Clarkson, Daniel O’Connell, and George Thompson.  Put differently, the lack of attention on British India in the early nineteenth century has led historians of slavery and abolition to overlook the importance of Indian slavery, and its role in the larger discussion about freedom and emancipation.

Major, however, does not miss the opportunity to bridge these two fields.  She intertwines works by Indrani Chatterjee, Gyan Prakash, and Jane Brenman with studies by Atlanticists such as David Brion Davis, Howard Temperley, and Seymour Drescher.  To understand the role of India in the Age of Emancipation, scholars need to start interacting with other fields, especially as we start discussing slavery and anti-slavery in a global context.  How does Indian slavery provided a new lens for understanding emancipation in the British Empire, the United States, Cuba, Brazil, or Puerto Rico, and vice versa?

Methodologically, Major’s work provides a wonderful model for handling the issues of slavery, religion, and freedom in different contexts (i.e. the East and West).  She does a wonderful job of identifying the various forms of Hindu and Islamic slavery and its relevance to conversations taking place over African slavery and the future of labor.  She briefly touch upon issue such as coolie indentured servitude and the problems of identifying slavery in multiple forms.

In relation to my dissertation, Major’s work will fit nicely into my examination of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the British India Society between 1840 and 1865.  She provides a wonderful foundation for understanding the role of British India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but stops with delegalization of Indian slavery in 1843.  She might have brought her coverage up to 1862 with the criminalization of slavery in India, or better yet, discuss how the issue of Indian slavery, labor, and freedom interacted with discussions over slavery in Brazil, Cuba, or the American Civil War.  Thankfully, however, she has left room for future scholars to pick up where she left off.  Andre Major’s Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India provides an important glimpse into the colonial and metropolitan debates over slavery in India.  Her work will help scholars rethink the role of the Eastern Empire in debates over labor, freedom, and slavery taking place in the New World.


Review: Chris Schmidt-Nowara, Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874 (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 1999)

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Chris Schmidt-Nowara’s Empire and Antislavery is a short but complex work that sheds new light onto several debates in the field of slavery and abolition.  His work centers on four main arguments.  First, he suggests that historians need to reexamine the “power and complexity” of the nineteenth-century Spanish colonial project to better understand the rise and fall of Antillean slavery (2).  While Schmidt-Nowara concedes that economic and mass mobilization were critical factors for Spanish anti-slavery, it appears that the interests of the Empire, specifically the retention of Cuba and Puerto Rico, were the most important considerations in the struggle over colonial slavery.

Schmidt-Nowara does an impressive job of examining Spanish abolitionism under the backdrop of intra-imperial politics in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Writing against historians who have characterized Spain as a weak colonial power after Spanish American independence in the 1820s, Schmidt-Nowara demonstrates how Cuba and Puerto Rico remained prized colonial possession in the “Second Empire.”  Following the rise and fall of Spain’s “second slavery,” from the 1830s to the restoration of the Monarch in 1874, he reconfigures our understanding of Spanish slavery and abolitionism in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The second major theme in this work centers on the Spanish Abolitionist Society and the “political stage” that allowed for the development of anti-slavery initiatives (3).  Schmidt-Nowara craftily follows the development of pro-slavery and anti-slavery movements in both the metropolitan and colonial centers.  Unlike the Caribbean, where slavery was the heart of the colonial economy, Cuban and Puerto Rican anti-slavery supporters found acceptance with “Liberal Madrid,” and through a number of reform associations in the metropole, the Spanish Abolitionist Society came to be.  Put differently, Madrid offered an “anti-slavery space” where colonial and metropolitan supporters of anti-slavery could unite.  I also found it interesting that Schmidt-Nowara traces the origins of Puerto Rican anti-slavery to the idea that free labor would revive the colony’s failing sugar economy, not because of slavery was relatively marginal on the island.

The third major theme deals with race and how Spanish elites always viewed “political and economic transformations through a racial lens” (3).  And yet, elites in the metropole and both colonies continued to disagree about the implications and meanings of race and the timing of emancipation.  Although elites always lived in constant fear of race war (i.e. a second Haitian Revolution), by the 1860s, abolitionists came to “overlook race a qualification for liberty and nationality” (175).  Although Puerto Rican, Spanish, and Cuban elites saw “whiteness” as the foundation of the Nation, abolitionists came to overlook whiteness as perquisite for freedom and citizenship, especially after 1868.

The final major theme of Schmidt-Norawa’s book focuses on the interplay between the colony and metropole as an important part of the history of Atlantic anti-slavery movements, especially in the Spanish Empire.  Traditional historians have argued that liberal minded Europeans attacked colonial slaveholders.  However, Schmidt-Nowara shows that the development of anti-slavery, at least in the Spanish context, was a two-way street.  In fact, several Puerto Rican elites were part of the founding generation of the Spanish Abolitionist Society in Madrid.

The largest criticism that could be levied against Schmidt-Nowara’s work is that he ignores the lives and experiences of slaves in Cuba and Puerto Rico.  This is a heavy top-down examination of Spanish abolitionism, focused on the actions of the metropolitan and colonial elites such as José Antonio Saco, José Juan Acosta, and Rafael María de Labra.  Nevertheless, this work challenges us to examine how Spanish anti-slavery developed in light of other imperial issues, whether it was with Cuban slaveholders’ annexation movement, the debates over free trade, or the growing fear of race war.  Spanish anti-slavery did not form inside a bubble, and if we are to truly understand the abolition of Antillean slavery, we need to understand its place in the context of other issues overlabor, colonial/metropolitan economics, and intra-imperial politics.