Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866 (review)
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Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866. By Gale L. Kenny. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010. Pp. Xi, 257. $44.95 cloth; $24.95 paper)

Protestant missionaries are an important ingredient of the history of Jamaica in the nineteenth century, both during enslavement and after emancipation in 1834. Yet the work of male and female white [End Page 477] American Congregationalists linked with the American Missionary Association (AMA) is neglected in the accounts of the period. Happily, Gale Kenny's Contentious Liberties fills this gap in the historiography. Thoroughly researched and lucidly written, the work provides a window into the varied experiences of the AMA missionaries in Jamaica in the first thirty years after slavery. The well-considered work also underscores the value of studying antislavery movements within transnational contexts.

Kenny deftly analyzes the American background which inspired Oberlin's first graduates of "farmers-turned-missionaries" to establish a "civilizing" mission in Jamaica after 1839. Much influenced by their experience and context, they came to the island with notions of black independence and self-governance, constructed on black landownership and undergirded by Christian families reinforced by the church and the school. However, like the white English Protestant missionaries who had come to the island during the late period of enslavement, the American Congregationalists' expansive expectations were gradually eroded as African cultural retentions in the Creole society of Jamaica undermined their strict and inflexible religious discipline. Neither did the blacks share the missionaries' restrictive notions of female domesticity, since black women's economic activity contributed significantly to the survival strategies of families after slavery. Furthermore, the AMA church stations had to confront the ever-present rivalry of the black Native Baptist churches whose practices accommodated the more relaxed attitudes towards informal sexual unions of the indigenous culture of the island, the use of alcoholic spirits, and other personal habits that were anathema to the "purist" AMA missionaries.

Indeed, by the early 1860s, the American missionaries were at one with other white missionaries on the island who expressed great disappointment at the survival of what they described as "superstitious heathenism" that was manifest during the religious revival that swept Jamaica at the time. In contrast to the early Oberlin enthusiasts who wanted to demonstrate by way of the Jamaican experience that emancipation for the United States of America would be successful, [End Page 478] AMA missionaries in the later period no longer focused on "manly independence," and instead emphasized that the blacks were "passive people, eager for white oversight" (p. 195). It is, therefore, not surprising that the AMA missionaries condemned the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865 when the blacks in St. Thomas in the east rose up against injustice in the courts, the denial of their civil rights, and systematic obstacles to black landownership. The unsympathetic missionaries blamed the Native Baptists, their main religious rivals, for the outbreak, supported its ruthless suppression, and welcomed the introduction of crown-colony government that snuffed out embryonic black politics in Jamaica. The irony, of course, was that all this was at the precise time that Radical Reconstruction looked to black enfranchisement to consolidate emancipation in the South against a recalcitrant white majority. However, the AMA missionaries, despite republican sensibilities, were convinced by 1866 that the predominantly black population of Jamaica was incapable of self-government and therefore believed that British authoritarian rule was required for the success of the challenging task of "civilizing" Jamaican freedpeople and their descendants.

Gale Kenny's balanced work provides fresh insights into how black Jamaicans engaged with white mission churches in the post-slavery period. It is clear that the promotion of self-reliance and independence in church matters in the early period of the AMA mission empowered black members and trustees who exerted influence over which persons received the call to become pastors, as well as which missionaries had possession of church property. The AMA mission structure then provided opportunities for freed blacks to assert leadership that was often denied them in the larger society. [End Page 479]

Swithin Wilmot

Swithin Wilmot, a senior lecturer in history at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, is the...