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Contentious Liberties

American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

Gale L. Kenny

Publication Year: 2010

The Oberlin College mission to Jamaica, begun in the 1830s, was an ambitious, and ultimately troubled, effort to use the example of emancipation in the British West Indies to advance the domestic agenda of American abolitionists. White Americans hoped to argue that American slaves, once freed, could be absorbed productively into the society that had previously enslaved them, but their “civilizing mission” did not go as anticipated. Gale L. Kenny’s illuminating study examines the differing ideas of freedom held by white evangelical abolitionists and freed people in Jamaica and explores the consequences of their encounter for both American and Jamaican history.

Kenny finds that white Americans—who went to Jamaica intending to assist with the transition from slavery to Christian practice and solid citizenship—were frustrated by liberated blacks’ unwillingness to conform to Victorian norms of gender, family, and religion. In tracing the history of the thirty-year mission, Kenny makes creative use of available sources to unpack assumptions on both sides of this American-Jamaican interaction, showing how liberated slaves in many cases were able not just to resist the imposition of white mores but to redefine the terms of the encounter.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900


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pp. i-vi


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-xi

I am most grateful for the encouragement, criticism, and ongoing support of John Boles, Allison Sneider, Ussama Makdisi, and Caroline Levander. Their very different perspectives enriched and guided this project from its inception. I would also like to thank the various groups who provided me with funding to conduct my research and to write, including the Rice History Department, the Andrew Mellon Foundation...

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pp. 1-13

On August 1, 1838, Americans looked south to the West Indies with great anticipation as they waited to see how Britain’s great experiment of emancipation would proceed. Five years before, Britain had passed the Abolition Act, and the first stages of the gradual abolition of colonial slavery took effect in August 1834. While Antigua proceeded to emancipate all...

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Part One

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pp. 15-20

After the Revolutionary War, New Englanders moved west to the Ohio River Valley, spreading across the lands ceded by Iroquois tribes in western New York as well as the Western Reserve, what would become Ohio in 1803. For many migrants, this settlement was seen as the latest stage in the fulfillment of a national destiny, and the settlement in Ohio drew comparisons to the Puritan settlement of New England...

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1. Revivals, Antislavery, and Christian Liberty

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pp. 21-45

In 1825 two events occurred that would change the physical and spiritual landscape of New York state: the completion of the Erie Canal and the evangelical revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The Erie Canal created an efficient means of transportation for farm produce, manufactured goods, and people. Small settlements became towns and cities, and commercial centers like Utica and Rochester attracted young men and...

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2. Slavery and Freedom in Jamaica

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pp. 46-68

Although New England and Jamaica shared a common heritage as British colonies, they were separated by a social and cultural gulf as well as geographical distance. As the forefathers of the American missionaries built up their city on a hill in Massachusetts, another Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, oversaw the British Navy’s capture of Jamaica from the Catholic Spanish in 1655. During its first decades as a British colony, Jamaica...

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Part Two

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pp. 69-74

The first Oberlin missionary to Jamaica came to the island in 1837, at the end of the apprenticeship period. After finishing seminary at Oberlin, the one-time Lane Rebel, David S. Ingraham, arrived in Jamaica with the intention of ministering to the island’s apprentices. Over the next several years, Ingraham moved back and forth between Jamaica and the...

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3. Religion and the Civilizing Mission

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pp. 75-99

A decade after the Oberlin ministers began their missionary work, the missionaries went to great pains to explain that while Jamaica had many mission churches, it had few authentic Christians. One missionary acknowledged that after emancipation in 1838 many freed people had been moved by the Holy Spirit to join churches, but after ten years...

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4. From Spiritual Liberty to Sexual License

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pp. 100-128

In May 1850, a black Jamaican named Thomas Livingston wrote to George Whipple, the foreign corresponding secretary of the American Missionary Association, to inform him of the changes that had recently taken place at the Eliot Station’s school. The forty-seven-year-old Livingston had become a shopkeeper after emancipation in 1838, and he...

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5. Cultivating Land, Cultivating Families

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pp. 129-148

During the upheavals of 1850, the Jamaica Mission’s participants experienced firsthand and in dramatic form the social disorder they feared might happen if freedom went unchecked. The profligate John Hyde and his followers had taught a sobering lesson about the need for vigilance when it came to family bonds and sexuality, and in the wake of the Hyde fiasco, the missionaries reinvigorated their efforts to uphold the Christian...

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Part Three

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pp. 149-155

In 1858, Lewis Tappan, the ama’s treasurer, voiced his growing frustration with the Jamaica Mission and its ministers. After conversing with a recently returned Mary Dean, Tappan met with an outgoing missionary to share his concerns about the field. The graying abolitionist confided to Bigelow Penfield, a twenty-four-year-old Oberlin graduate, about his dissatisfaction with “the course pursued by most of the missionaries,”...

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6. Civilizing Domesticity

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pp. 156-180

The Jamaica Mission is remarkable for the number of single women it employed in the decades before the Civil War. Twelve single women schoolteachers worked for the Jamaica Mission, while the much larger American Board, founded over thirty years before the ama, had only employed thirty single women by 1860.1 The ama’s Oberlin roots as well as its abolitionist politics made it more open to female missionaries...

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7. Revival, Rebellions, and Colonial Subordination

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pp. 181-205

Beginning a letter in October 1865, missionary Seth Wolcott regretted the lack of “good news!!” to convey to the ama. Instead all he had to offer was news that could only be called “sad, sader [sic],” and, Wolcott ominously wrote, “soon it will be sadest [sic].”1 He felt frustrated that...

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pp. 206-209

In the Jamaica Mission’s final years, the remaining ministers hoped that the United States might consider annexing Jamaica, as the annexation of nearby Santo Domingo had become a much-touted subject in the halls of Congress.1 If Jamaica were to remain in British control, wrote Charles Starbuck, “I should be faint-hearted enough. The English cannot...


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pp. 211-229


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pp. 231-246


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pp. 247-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780820341972
E-ISBN-10: 0820341975
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820333991
Print-ISBN-10: 0820333999

Page Count: 212
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900