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Who ended the British slave trade and freed the slaves in the British West Indies? An older historiography insisted that Christian philanthropists such as Granville Sharpe and dedicated parliamentarians such as William Wilberforce did. This traditional explanation failed to satisfy a rising generation of Caribbean anticolonial intellectuals during the 1930s such as C. L. R. James and Eric Williams who argued, respectively, that slave resistance and sugar plantation decline were more important explanatory factors. More recently, Roger Anstey and David Brion Davis have questioned the significance of slave rebels. Seymour Drescher has attacked the decline thesis by arguing for the profitability of plantation slavery during the abolitionist decades. The role of the metropolitan philanthropists has re-emerged in the work [End Page 505] of Adam Hochschild and was echoed in the 2006 movie Amazing Grace, as well as the official bicentennial commemorations of slave trade abolition in England the following year.
Claudius K. Fergus, senior lecturer in history at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, disagrees with most of this historical literature, especially its limited attention toward the role of enslaved Africans. He argues that British abolition came about because of the dialectic between what he dubs “revolutionary emancipation” and the notion of “imperial trusteeship.” The former depicts a tradition of the resistance of enslaved Africans, from Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760 Jamaica through the 1791–1804 Haitian Revolution to the Baptist War in 1831–32 Jamaica. Such resistance played a fundamental role in ending colonial slavery. He defines the latter as the responses to these outbreaks by metropolitan elites, including political authorities who feared the breakdown of imperial control and benevolent abolitionists who could not countenance complete emancipation for those who were enslaved because of their unequal human status. Fergus draws upon the biographies of emancipated Africans as well as what he calls “an African-centered worldview” to trumpet the influential role of slaves in bringing about abolition in the British West Indies (p. x).
This reviewer agrees that enslaved Africans have traditionally been marginalized in these debates. British colonial abolition clearly began in December 1831 with the outbreak of the Baptist War and not in August 1833 with the passage of the Abolition of Slavery Act. The success of the Haitian Revolution had a tremendous impact on slave and free societies as illustrated by recent historical works of Robin Blackburn, Jeffrey W. Bolster, Mathew J. Clavin, Matt D. Childs, Ada Ferrer, David B. Gaspar and David P. Geggus, Alfred N. Hunt, Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, and James S. Scott, among others. At the same time, it does seem odd that there appears to be little documentary evidence of the Haitian Revolution swaying the minds of British parliamentarians between 1804 and 1807. Moreover, the British abolitionist movement took off during the late 1780s, an era long removed from Tacky’s Rebellion [End Page 506] nearly a generation earlier.
It is not clear exactly where this historical debate is headed. Much ink has been expended on the era preceding abolition in pursuit of historical explanation. Perhaps, we need to turn our attention to the aftermath of the legislation and its historical consequences. Exciting new research on liberated Africans from illegal slave trade ships in the British, Brazilian, and American orbits by Rosanne M. Adderley, Babatunde Sofela, and Sharla M. Fett is one possible avenue. Another would be to follow British diplomatic and military pressures on other slave-trading nations to abolish their participation in this odious commerce.
We cannot conclude without mentioning the personal passions stirred by this debate. The Pan-Caribbean scholarship of James, Williams, Colin A. Palmer, Selwyn H. H. Carrington, Gelien Mathews, Fitzroy A. Baptiste, and others, versus what Fergus calls “neo-imperialist scholars” like Anstey, Davis, and Drescher reflects not only a racial divide between black and white scholars but a more basic philosophical clash between “our” history and “their” history. This distinction was embedded in the earliest critiques of imperial practice and scholarship...