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The Children of Africa in the Colonies

Free People of Color in Barbados in the Age of Emancipation

Melanie J. Newton

Publication Year: 2008

When a small group of free men of color gathered in 1838 to celebrate the end of apprenticeship in Barbados, they spoke of emancipation as the moment of freedom for all colored people, not just the former slaves. The fact that many of these men had owned slaves themselves gives a hollow ring to their lofty pronouncements. Yet in The Children of Africa in the Colonies, Melanie J. Newton demonstrates that simply dismissing these men as hypocrites ignores the complexity of their relationship to slavery. Exploring the role of free blacks in Barbados from 1790 to 1860, Newton argues that the emancipation process transformed social relations between Afro-Barbadians and slaves and ex-slaves. Free people of color in Barbados genuinely wanted slavery to end, Newton explains, a desire motivated in part by the realization that emancipation offered them significant political advantages. As a result, free people's goals for the civil rights struggle that began in Barbados in the 1790s often diverged from those of the slaves, and the tensions that formed along class, education, and gender lines severely weakened the movement. While the populist masses viewed emancipation as an opportunity to form a united community among all people of color, wealthy free people viewed it as a chance to better their position relative to white Europeans. To this end, free people of color refashioned their identities in relationship to Africa. Prior to the 1820s, Newton reveals, they downplayed their African descent, emphasizing instead their legal status as free people and their position as owners of property, including slaves. As the emancipation debate in the Atlantic world reached its zenith in the 1820s and 1830s and whites grew increasingly hostile and inflexible, elite free people allied themselves with the politics of the working class and the slaves, relying for the first time on their African heritage and the association of their skin color with slavery to openly challenge white supremacy. After emancipation, free people of color again redefined themselves, now as loyal British imperial subjects, casting themselves in the role of political protectors of their ex-slave brethren in an attempt to escape social and political disenfranchisement. While some wealthy men of color gained political influence as a result of emancipation, the absence of fundamental change in the distribution of land and wealth left most men and women of color with little hope of political independence or social mobility. Mining a rich vein of primary and secondary sources, Newton's study elegantly describes how class divisions and disagreements over labor and social policy among free and slave black Barbadians led to political unrest and devastated the hope for an entirely new social structure and a plebeian majority in the British Caribbean.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

Growing up in Barbados, away from the Caribbean’s major centers of radical state and social experimentation, there was no escaping the excitement of the region in the 1970s and early 1980s. The very air was charged with a sense of possibility that a more humane and people-centered socialist or social democratic path could be forged. In an echo of Grenada’s Fedon Rebellion of 1795, the Grenada Revolution...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. 1-19

On August 2, 1838, one day after the act that ended slavery in the British Caribbean came into effect, “a large and respectable party of . . . gentlemen” dined at the Bible Depository of the Barbados Auxiliary Bible Society of the Free People of Color in the island’s capital city, Bridgetown. They came to celebrate the arrival of “full” emancipation and the end of apprenticeship—the period...

PART ONE: SLAVES, SUBJECTS, AND CITIZENS: People of African Descent in Barbadian Slave Society

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1. Defining Freedom in the Interstices of Slave Society

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pp. 23-56

In the two centuries between the establishment of the earliest British Caribbean colonial settlements and emancipation in 1834–1838, the slavery-based societies of the Caribbean evolved into intricate networks of relationships within and across legal and racial boundaries. The rural and urban spheres were intertwined and equally important aspects of slavery’s development, a relationship that...

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2. Race and Politics in an Age of Insurrection

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pp. 57-86

In 1789 the French Revolution exploded onto the political scene of the Atlantic world. In Saint Domingue, the only successful antislavery revolution in Caribbean history began in 1791 and drew on traditions of African and Afro-creole slave resistance, the wealth, education, and determination of the largest free population of color in the Caribbean and the democratic ideals of the French Revolution...

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3. Racial Segregation and Public Life during the Amelioration Era

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pp. 87-113

In 1823 the British government adopted a policy of pursuing the “amelioration” of slavery as, in theory, part of the process of slavery’s “gradual extinction.” Amelioration consisted of a range of legal and social reforms whose objective was the improvement of the “moral” and physical condition of slaves and free people of African descent. This reform process was intended as a compromise that...

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4. New Publics: Afro-Barbadian Oppositional Politics

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pp. 114-138

In the final decade of slavery, various strands of antielitist and largely plebian Afro-Barbadian populism emerged, primarily through street protests, mass meetings and, perhaps most dramatically, organized physical occupations of segregated whites-only public spaces. This populist trend grew as much out of resentment at the Afro-Barbadian elite’s proslavery views and claims to represent the...


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5. Discipline and (Dis)Order: Apprenticeship and the Meaning of Freedom

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pp. 141-173

On May 14, 1833, Edward Stanley, the new secretary of state for the colonies, presented the slave emancipation bill to the imperial Parliament, and three months later the bill became law, scheduled to take effect on August 1, 1834. The Barbadian legislature was among the last colonial governments to pass a version of the bill in April 1834. With the exception of Antigua, the...

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6. Men of Property, Character, and Education: The Afro-Barbadian Bourgeois Public Sphere

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pp. 174-195

With the coming of emancipation, desegregation seemed a more realistic goal than it ever had during slavery. For the first time, during apprenticeship, elite Afro-Barbadian men publicly embraced emancipation as the moment of their freedom and former slaves as their “brethren,” in some cases out of a sincere commitment to emancipation and, in others, as a convenient strategy...

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7. Between Africa and the Empire: Diasporic Consciousness in Postemancipation Society

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pp. 196-222

After emancipation, elite Afro-Barbadians began to articulate publicly a politics of collectivity, which was based on a sense of themselves as members of a transatlantic African diaspora as well as equal subjects to whites within the British Empire. They adopted the emancipation of slaves as an event that also set them loose from bondage and sought a new political role for themselves...


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8. The Emigration Debate and Postemancipation Politics

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pp. 225-255

In September 1840, during a speech at a dinner in his honor, Samuel Jackman Prescod asked those in attendance to refl ect on an issue that had been central to the Afro-Barbadian civil rights struggle. “Why should it be called liberality, and so much credit assumed for the act,” he asked, “when a black or coloured man [is] appointed to fill a public situation[?]”1 Prescod’s bitterness reflected the reality...

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9. Hard Times and African Dreams

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pp. 256-282

In 1843, during the first elections for the Barbados House of Assembly under the 1842 franchise law, an aspiring politician named John Inniss sued William Clarke, the police magistrate of the district of rural St. Michael, for electoral fraud and lost. Inniss, a white Barbadian, was challenging the incumbents, both planters, for the district’s two legislative seats and was running as part of a slate of “liberal"...

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EPILOGUE: The Living Past

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pp. 283-289

This study is an effort to grapple with the complexities of Afro-Caribbean people’s relationship with the process of slave emancipation and to think historically about contemporary political discourses and the modern public sphere in the postcolonial Caribbean. The analysis signposts the wider implications of the study of slavery and emancipation and the place of race, nation, nationalism...


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pp. 291-308


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pp. 309-322

E-ISBN-13: 9780807134269
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807133262

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World