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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

What Happens After Emancipation

In “The Price of Freedom,” one of the five essays in collected volume What Was Freedom’s Price, historian C. Vann Woodward called on scholars to write about the history of emancipation from a comparative perspective.  He acknowledged, “the literature on comparative slavery has reached impressive proportions” but also lamented that “very little has been written so far on the comparative history of emancipations and reconstructions” (93).  A number of studies on slavery in the Americas have broadened our understanding of the shared intellectual, social, and economic contexts that allowed New World slavery to expand and flourish during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage (2006); Herbert Klein’s Slavery in the Americas (1988); Laura Foner and Eugene Genovese’s Slavery in the New World (1970); Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery (2010); and most recently Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (2013).

In the four decades since Woodward’s call, historians have made tremendous strides into the comparative examinations of abolition, emancipation, and reconstruction (I am using the term “reconstruction” in the sense of rebuilding society after the abolition of slavery).  Seymour Drescher (Abolition, 2009), Celia Azevedo (Abolitionism in the U.S. and Brazil, 1995), Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood (From Slavery to Emancipation in the Atlantic World, 1999), and several other works have shifted our attention to the transnational context in which the Age of Emancipation played out.  However, Thomas Holt notes, “Studies of the post-emancipation era remain relatively provincial—hewing closely to the American national narrative” (“Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century,” 21).  For the large part, this remains true, and I would add that many of these metanarrative works focus on the British context, while providing one or two chapter to the Latin American context (Davis, Drescher, and Blackburn).

Since my last blog focused on the transnational histories of anti-slavery, this post will focus on the particular themes associated with consequences of emancipation.  What did freedom mean after abolition?  What happens to labor relations and practices after emancipation?  What happens to anti-slavery after legal abolition of slavery?  These questions and others will be addressed in this blog?

The Various Meanings of Freedom

“Freedom” is a word that has several meanings, which are rife with ambiguity and contradiction.  David Brion Davis, for example, notes the paradox of freedom in the United States: After independence, the United States claimed to be a land of freedom and liberty, but this nation was also built on the backs of slaves.  In Slavery and Social Death, Orlando Patterson talks about the issues surrounding manumission, the act of a master giving freedom to a slave.  “The act of manumission,” Patterson writes, “creates not just a new person and a new life, but a new status…the single most important factor in determining the condition of the freedman in the society at large will be the nature of his relationship with his former master” (240).  Patterson stresses how manumission, in some locales, was used as a device to ensure the continued dependence of the freedman, while also helping to help prevent large-scale rebellion, this idea was at the heart of James Madison’s push against the Virginia legislature’s movement to limit manumissions.

James Patrick Kiernan’s 1976 dissertation “The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil” suggests that manumission occurred for several reasons, but was usually contingent on the slave remaining on the plantation to work.  In some cases, slaves were manumitted for economic reasons.  Brazilian law required that debts were settled upon a master’s death, usually by the sale of his property including slaves.  Masters would manumit their slaves on the condition they continued to work on the plantation and in faithful service to the family.  By doing this, the master ensured his family’s continued access to labor without the threat of government interference.

In the mid-nineteenth century, however, full-scale emancipation changed everything.  The tension between what slaves thought would come with freedom versus the reality of labor needs and social status created tensions across the Atlantic World in the mid-nineteenth century.  For slaves, freedom entailed full independence and access to citizenship (especially enfranchisement), some even believed their freedom came with forty acres and a mule (Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 198).  For planters and the federal government, however, the issues of freedom with emancipation were surrounded by questions of labor and economics.  How could they keep ex-slaves on the plantation, and ensure that they were neither “idle” nor “lazy”?  They answered these problems in a number of ways from apprenticeships and sharecropping to vagrancy laws and the use of indentured labor.

Another tension arising with emancipation was what social status and political rights did the emancipated have in society.  Part of this question, I argue, emerged from the rise of nation-states and the creation of imagined political communities.  In Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, he explore the creation of “nation-ness” and how this new identity was not based on lineage or fealty to aristocracy, but instead constructed by people who now saw themselves as part of a physical and conceptual abstraction in “an imagined political community” (6).  This developed an “us” versus “them” mentality, which led to the question of where ex-slavery belonged, in the “us” or in the “them” group?  As slave regimes around the Atlantic fell, many societies were faced with whether to accept slaves as active citizens of their communities, or to push them to margins of society.  Unfortunately, most societies chose the latter.

Thomas Holt’s The Problem of Freedom, in my mind, provides one of the best accounts on the tensions arising over slave freedom.  First, he provides a definition of freedom, which I will most likely use for the rest of career:  Freedom “was neither natural nor indigenous, but a historically particular and socially constructed phenomenon” (xxii).  Put differently, the concept of freedom has its own history, and is NOT an innate or transcendent quality of humanity.  Freedom was a construction, and this construction changed in various periods and contexts.  With this definition in mind, Holt explores the problems of freedom in Jamaica between 1838 and 1938, which is an understudied period in Jamaican history.  Moreover, these bookends are two emancipation moments.  The first emancipation was the abolition of slavery and the freeing of slaves.  The second emancipation was Jamaica’s movement towards decolonization and freedom from the Empire, which they achieved in 1962.

One of Holt’s major contributions to the historiographical field is his exploration of how planters, politicians, and freedpeople understood freedom.  Planters wanted full control over cheap labor on their sugar plantations.  The British government wanted to transform slaves into wage laborers.  They believed the adoption of the “liberal democratic ethic,” the pursuit of material interests, would transform ex-slaves into motivated, industrious, and reliable workers.  For freedpeople, “they sought to build not just a free labor economy but a free society.  They sought to be not just free laborers but a free people” (176).  They attempted to achieve this loft goal by moving off sugar plantations and buying land, which created problems for the British government and planters.  These tensions led to violent conflicts over the next one hundred years, including the Morant Bay Rebellion and the Jamaican Labor Rebellion of 1938.  At the heart of these conflicts were tensions over the idea and reality of freedom.

Afro-Jamaicans wanted self-determination, while British politicians and planters wanted dependence embedded under the veil of “freedom.”  As Holt writes, British policy tried to provide a freedom “drained of the power of genuine self-determination; materially, a freedom stripped of control over basic material resources; ideologically, a freedom that internalized its own antithesis” (xxv).  At the end of the day, an interesting paradox emerged: the British government wanted economic freedom for all freedpeople (free labor system, see Drescher Mighty Experiment), but they waivered with the idea of full political freedom, especially in areas where it could lead to “black rule,” which white politicians believed would create another “Haitian nightmare” (218).

Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects is another illuminating study on British emancipation in Jamaica.  Specifically, she explores the connections between colonial Jamaica and Birmingham, England.  By approaching the history of the England from within the framework of empire, Hall brings together two historiographical fields that have been traditionally separated: the history of Britain and the history of the British Empire.  In short, Hall shows how people living in England fashioned their global identity around a number of postemancipation imperial projects.  In Birmingham, many missionaries and nonconformists looked towards Jamaica as site of humanitarian reform, which they also connected with franchise reform and other social projects as home.  In the 1830s, Birmingham was the epicenter of anti-slavery activity, the hometown of Joseph Sturge.  Missionaries and abolitionists from this region set out on a social project to first convert all Jamaican slaves to Christianity, as part of the new humanitarian imperial agenda.  Missionaries such as William Knibb, for example, were “shocked by the moral degradation of slavery and the mindless existence…to which enslaved were condemned” (100).  They were met with resistance from Jamaican planters, who feared that conversion would cause slaves to demand for more freedoms.  With the abolition of slavery, Birmingham abolitionists and missionaries argued that converting Afro-Jamaicans to Christianity would lead them to work industriously on plantations without compulsion, one of the key arguments against apprenticeship.

By the 1840s and 1850s, however, things took a turn for the worst.  The Jamaican sugar industry faltered, especially as Afro-Jamaicans walked off the plantation to work in their own ventures (similar to Holt’s assessment).  The fear of black resistance, highlighted by the Morant Bay Rebellion, and the demand for political independence led the humanitarian Baptist mission to second-guess abolition.  The turning point came with 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).  Soon after Carlyle’s essay and the Morant Bay Rebellion, in addition to the death of Joseph Sturge in 1859, a new generation of reformists arose, and unlike their predecessors, they had strong racist tendencies.  In short, they used biological essentialism to argue that whites were civilized, while Africans were heathens.  Soon public opinion established strong racial lines, creating more inequality, similar to what Paul Escott describes in his study on emancipation in the United States.

Paul Escott’s “What Shall We Do With the Negro” provides an important investigation of the issues surrounding emancipation in the United States.  The pressing question facing white Americans in the antebellum and wartime periods, if slavery were to be abolished, was: “what shall we do with the Negro?” (2). Put differently, what would become of the four million freed slaves?  Would they be citizens and have the same rights as whites?  These questions were answered in various ways by northern and southern whites.  In the antebellum and wartime periods, elite white southerners maintained their belief that African Americans belonged in slavery.  The Republican Party and Lincoln opposed slavery, but ignored this question and focused on maintaining the Union.  As the war came to close, both the North and South were forced to address this question.  The key moment for Escott was the Hampton Roads Conference (February 3, 1865), where “the racial goals of the North and South intersected.”  Lincoln attempted reunification by bargaining “away much that was important to blacks in order to conciliate Southern whites” (224).  Emancipation, for Lincoln, was a means to reunification, not a movement to give equality to freedpeople.  Put differently, Lincoln, many Republicans, and Unionists saw emancipation as a military necessity, “an unavoidable incident of war,” and nothing else (242).  Lincoln and the Union’s unwillingness to fight for equality, therefore, is why after the Civil War many white Americans espoused strong racist ideologies, similar to the Brits in the 1850s.  Three Republican states, for example, rejected black suffrage, and many white Americans viewed freedpeople as a “grossly inferior group” who were “not legitimate Americans” (242 & 244).  Escott concludes, “Long after slavery ended, white racism would remain a central problem on the nation’s agenda” (243).

Jim Down’s Sick from Freedom also provides an innovative approach for examining the problems of emancipation and freedom after the American Civil War.  First, and most importantly for me, Downs persuasively presents emancipation as a process.  By exploring the history of “sickness, suffering, and death,” he reveals the complicated process of emancipation, which “functioned as a long, protracted process rather than a shotgun moment of liberation” (13).  As Downs shows through several anecdotes, slaves were liberated with the Civil War, but they were also left without “clean clothing, adequate shelter, proper food, and access to medicine” (4).  Unfortunately, this period witnessed the worst biological crisis in the nineteenth century, and the death of thousands of freedpeople.  Downs work goes against the “liberation narrative” that celebrates the accomplishments of freedpeople and the ending of slavery.  And in some cases this was true: freedpeople built schools; some were reunited with long lost families; some participated in the political franchise for the first time; some married; but many would “never enjoy any of these rights and privileges of the free” (17).

Similar to British government in Jamaica, the federal government attempted to assist freedpeople in their transformation to wage labor.  Their main concern was rebuilding the South’s economy using freedpeople’s labor.  The Freedmen’s Bureau, especially the Medical Division, Downs argues, “remained tethered to question of freedpeople’s labor power,” which in turn, “suggests that ‘freedom’ depended upon one’s ability to work” (64).  In fact, Johnson’s administration refused requests from both the Freedmen’s Bureau and from individual African American petitions for increased medical supplies and assistance.  Instead, federal politicians argued that those in need of medical support should be moved to where labor was needed.  They acted under the “rationale that employment could prevent and even cure sickness,” and therefore, the government “insisted on freedpeople returning to the South as plantation laborers” (87).

Downs also demonstrates how freedpeople reported to various federal agencies and benevolent organizations about the “death and disease that attacked their community.”  In doing so, Downs suggests, “early forms of black political mobilization unfolded on the ground, in the camps, among the sick and suffering” (166-167).  This mobilization, put differently, demonstrates that freedpeople often associated access to healthcare during and immediately after the Civil War as part of their rights as citizens of the United States.

Downs is very clear that the federal government’s “demands for labor underlay virtually every federal policy drafted during this period.”  By tracing the destruction of slavery through the lens of freedpeople’s health, Downs provides a deeper understanding of what freedom meant to various groups in the United States.  “The narrative of American freedom implies triumph, celebration, and progress,” Downs writes, “but these terms leave little rhetorical room to tell the history of the thousands of freedpeople who were displaced from their homes, became sick, and died during the Civil War and Reconstruction” (168).  Put in different words, this work shows that significant gap between federal government’s vision of emancipation and how this process of emancipation played out in the everyday lives of former slaves.

As these works demonstrate, freedom took on many different meanings in the postemancipation era.  These different meanings often led to tensions, and in some cases, violent conflict.  The problem of freedom, in short, is the problem of emancipation.  In the sense of expectations, especially among freed slaves, emancipation came up short for their vision of independent and self-determined existence.

Labor History and Emancipation

As most the works above mention, one the major issues with emancipation concerns the labor.  The United States and the British government, for example, were concerned about the economic consequences of ending slavery.  Some believed that it would be replaced by a stronger and more efficient system of free labor.  Others believed it signed the death warrant for plantation production.  Still others looked for a new source of exploitative labor, which they found in the form of indentured servants from Asia.

In A New System of Slavery (1974), Hugh Tinker argues Indian indentured labor was a new system of slavery, which “indeed, replicated the actual conditions of slavery” (xv).  Between 1838 and 1938, British sugar planters in the Caribbean imported more than 800,000 indentured workers, and the majority of them came from Asia.  In Tinker’s view, indentured servitude replaced slavery.  These migrant workers endured their own arduous passage to the sugar island, under similar conditions as African slaves coming to the New World.  Upon arrival, these laborers were quickly put to work in the cane fields, and kept under careful watch by white planters and overseers.  Both pecuniary and nonpecuniary pressures were used to control and exploit these workers, in similar, if not the same, fashion as African slaves.  Tinker argues, “Slavery produced both a system and an attitude of mind” (19).  Although the system changed slightly, the attitude of slavery remained and created “a new system of slavery.”

This Tinkerian paradigm laid the foundation for an avalanche of studies on indentured life overseas, especially in the Atlantic.  Tinker’s argument that indentured servitude became a new system of slavery, however, has its detractors.  The most important argument against Tinker’s work is David Northup’s Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism (1995).  In this study, Northup argues that indentured labor had “more in common with the experiences of ‘free’ migrants of the same era than with the victims of the slave trade” (x).  Northup’s work is at the center of an important historiographical change in the 1980s, which suggest that indentured labor, although sharing many qualities with slavery, was distinctive from chattel slavery and more akin to free Europe migration during the same period.  First, Northup claims, “most indentured migrants left their homes voluntarily, just like most of the fifty million unindentured Europeans who migrated overseas” (7).  Second, both groups of migrants (Europeans and Indians) left for “permanent settlements as well as cyclical migrations” (7).  Finally, Europeans and indentured workers traveled on the same ships, which were both fasters and more spacious than slave ships.  Other historians such as David Galenson and Pieter Emmer have come to similar conclusions.

Rosemarijn Hoefte’s In Place of Slavery (1998) provides a post-revisionist examination of indentured labor in Suriname in the Age of Emancipation.  This work aligns more closely to Tinker’s interpretation than Northup’s.  Hoefte focuses on colonial Suriname, and more specifically on the lives of indentured servants working on the Mariënburg plantation, the equivalent to Jamaica’s Worthy Park plantation or the Codrington plantations in Barbados.  Hoefte provides an important look into the day-to-day lives of both British Indian and Javanese indentured laborers working on this plantation.  She concedes that these indentured laborers did sign contract, but they were often the victims of fraud and chicanery.  Moreover, the contract signed by the indentured workers was less focused on their rights than on the duties they were required to fulfill.

Moon-Ho Jung’s Coolies and Cane (2006) provides one of the most recent studies on the introduction of Asian indentured labor into the New World.  Unlike previous historians, Jung explores the issue of Asian indentured labor in the context of the American South and the Caribbean, which goes against the traditional starting point of coolies in the New World (which begin with their importation into California’s gold mining district).  In Jung’s work, we see how several groups approached the question of labor in the postemancipation period differently.  He writes, “Developments in the Caribbean led Americans to equate coolies with slaves in the age of emancipation, enabling anti-Asian forces to present Chinese exclusion as an antislavery, pro-immigrant measure” (6).  For sugar planters in Louisiana, however, indentured labor was the solution to the labor problem in the post-slavery period.  Ironically, these views were reversed in the antebellum period.  Abolitionists encouraged the importation of Asian workers, in hopes of showing how wage labor was stronger and more efficient than slave labor.  Planters, however, rejected coolie laborers because they wanted to protect their investments in slaves, and shame the British for using indentured laborers.

Following the American Civil War, however, the issue of coolie labor became more complicated.  As the United States was now a nation without slavery, indentured Chinese filled the labor void, but also inhabited a middle ground somewhere between free workers and slaves.  Jung writes, “In a nation struggling to define slavery and freedom, coolies seemed to fall under neither yet both; they were viewed as a natural advancement from chattel slavery and a means to maintain slavery’s worst features.  Coolies confused the boundary between slavery and freedom, between black and white, causing the mass demand for Asian migrant laborers as well as appeals for their exclusion in the postbellum United States” (6).  In the end, Chinese laborers were banned from the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  The plans to make the South “Chinese” did not work for several reasons—these laborers were not as efficient as imagined by southern planters, they were expensive, and they were too foreign.  Nevertheless, Jung’s work demonstrates the problems of emancipation in the United States, and how Chinese laborers played a critical role in race formation.

Often historians discuss slavery and emancipation in a white and black context, especially with studies on apprenticeship and sharecropping.  However, this was not the case on the ground as Jung, Tinker, and Hoefte demonstrate.  Asian laborers played an important role in reconstructions of postemancipation societies.  They were viewed in many different ways, racial stereotyped, and treated in a similar manner as slaves.  Historians of African slavery and abolition have often overlooked Asian laborers role in the restricting of society during the Age of Emancipation.  To understand the full complexities of emancipation, I argue, we need to consider what role these indentured laborers played in society without chattel slavery.

Post-Emancipation Anti-Slavery

Another important topic to consider, although less studied by historians, is what happened to anti-slavery after emancipation, especially in the case of the British Empire, the first of the European powers to abolish chattel slavery in the New World.  According to Holt and Hall, abolitionism and anti-slavery fell victim to the growing racism of the early Victorian period.  This aligns with the traditional narrative on British anti-slavery in the post-emancipation period, which suggests that anti-slavery sentiment succumbed to Victorian racism, imperialism, and/or indifference.  As Richard Huzzey summarizes in Freedom Burning: “The era can be viewed as a period of anti-slavery decline—a decline indicated by the fading influence of anti-slavery societies, by the rise of racial thinking, by the stirrings of imperialism, and by the apathy of many Britons toward the cause of the North in the American Civil War” (7).  Huzzey, however, undermines this narrative by showing how anti-slavery remained alive, but hidden to historians because of its diversity and variety.  He approaches anti-slavery ideology as a solar system.  At the heart of this system was “opposition to the ownership of humans” (8).  Creatively, Huzzey’s work shows how anti-slavery ideologies regularly found itself comfortably nestled against rampant racism towards blacks, imperialist agendas, and the acceptance of growing inequality.

“Anti-slavery ideologies,” Huzzey writes, “were one of the principal ways that commercial, strategic, spiritual, and moral objectives could be combined…anti-slavery was a principle public expression of imperial enthusiasm” (174).  In the case of Africa in the 1860s, the suppression of the slave trade gave way to “moral imperialism.”  Britain role as the international “moral policeman” dates back to their attempts to suppress the transatlantic slave trade.  This also introduced them to Africa.  Imperial expansion into Africa, therefore, was by design the construction of anti-slavery, where British imperialist conquered various parts of Africa in the 1860s to “improve” the territory and introduce legitimate trade (Buxton), and suppress any lingering systems of slavery or the slave trade, especially with Brazil (chapter 6).

Anti-slavery ideology also fit into the growing racism expressed towards Africa and Africans.  British experience with African slavery and the slave trade served as “proof” for British imperialists of their immoral nature and racial inferiority.  It also, ironically, wetted their appetites for Africa colonization.  Moreover, the issues arising in the West Indies, especially in West Indian sugar colonies, only further ingrained this racist attitude.  As freedmen appeared to the British as unreliable workers, racism grew while also justifying a number of coercive laws to keep them on the plantation and under control.  The same attitude was applied to Indian indentured labor.  Anti-slavery ideologies were at the heart of keeping ex-slaves working on plantations and ensuring the stability of the British overseas economy and their existence as industrious and Christianized workers.  As Huzzey puts it the best: “The road to hell was paved with anti-slavery intentions” (210).  In my mind, this is a perfect summation of the problem associated with emancipation (similar to Downs anti-liberation approach).  Emancipation and anti-slavery might have been victorious, but it also provided the foundations for racial segregation, gross inequality, and coercive labor practices and laws.

Joel Quirk’s The Anti-Slavery Project is the second work that really provides an exploration of anti-slavery in the postemancipation period, although his work also starts with anti-slavery in the eighteenth century.  His main goal is to present an analytical tool “to help illuminate a variety of connections and associations between historical practices and contemporary problems” (6).  In this work, Quirk provides important definitions for “legal abolition” and “effective emancipation.”  This is critical for my dissertation, especially as my work examines slavery and abolition in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds.

  • Legal Abolition: “typically involved an official change in status, with slaves receiving no compensation and little or no support” (7)
  • Effective Emancipation: “does not represent a static, singular standard, but instead constitutes a set of evolving political aspirations and ethic expectations… ‘a politically contingent idea around which people…discuss what to do next in politics.” (6)
    •  “Effective emancipation now includes issues such as prevention, restitution, rehabilitation, further institutional reform, and larger concerns about social justice (6)

Quirk also discusses the comparative issues attached to “strict equivalence” versus “sufficient similarity,” especially when talking about the different forms of slavery across time and space.  Strict equivalence requires that slavery be compared or related in “only cases of close correspondence” (9).  This is similar to David Northup’s argument that indentured servitude was not equivalent to chattel slavery.  Sufficient similarity, however, compares or relates various forms of bondage with slavery “on the basis of familial resemblance” (9).  This approach is aligned with Hugh Tinker’s argument that indentured servitude did resemble, if not mimic, slavery.  I find myself more aligned with the “sufficient similarity” camp, mainly because I argue this approach opens doors for comparative studies.  I think that historians have traditionally used Atlantic slavery as a yardstick to evaluate other forms of forced labor.  By doing this, they either debate over what should and should not be considered “slavery,” or completely ignore other forms of forced labor prevalent at the same time.  If we step back and look at the history of slavery in the broadest sense, we can start to see how Islamic slavery in Indian Ocean, for example, influenced and was influenced by African chattel slavery in the Americas.  Alternatively, how indentured servitude filled the void left by slave labor in the West Indies and American South.  These events were connected, and Quirk provides us with the analytical tools to follow these developments from the eighteenth century to the present.  He shows us how we can start to comprehend the whole story, and the contexts for which slavery was abolished and replaced new forms of inhuman bondage.


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