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Late Slavery and Emancipation in the Greater Caribbean

From: Caribbean Studies
Volume 41, Number 1, January-June 2013
pp. 181-194 | 10.1353/crb.2013.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The profession of academic history is going through one of its periodic reorientations, although it is doing so more gradually and with less blood on the floor than in the past. When the “new” social history displaced traditional political and economic history in the 1970s and when the cultural and linguistic turn of the 1980s became manifested in different kinds of history written in the 1990s, controversy over new ways of doing history was intense. The controversy is less now but the change in focus is just as significant as in more heralded redirections. The hegemony of cultural history—so prominent in the last twenty years—and the dominance of historical explorations of identity, be it racial, gendered or class-inflected, has been supplanted, if gently, by a renewed emphasis on institutions, especially those related to the making of empires and nations, and by an abiding concern with borders, boundaries and movement in, between and over such boundaries. To an extent that must seem surprising to people used to history written according to the tenets of cultural anthropology and literary criticism, as was fashionable until the last decade, historians are increasingly fascinated in this new century by how people in various periods of the past became globally connected and once again concerned with old questions of modernity (when did the world become modern and what did that mean?) and sovereignty (how did authority work, especially in complex societies and in places with a multiplicity of competing structures of power). Perhaps nowhere is this turn towards politics, towards materiality, and towards historical geography been stronger than in accounts of the early modern period, leading into the mid-nineteenth century.

All of these changes should make the study of the Caribbean more important. It is the region of the world, par excellence, where empires have collided and where colonialism and the movement and mixtures of people have most shaped historical development. It was the region where until the mid-nineteenth century European empires fought out their battles, almost by proxy, and where the making of new peoples, new societies and new economic products, notably sugar, made it the cutting edge of generative change, both cultural and political. The Caribbean was a disturbing, sometimes frightening, world but it was indubitably modern, inherently global, and an area where ideas of sovereignty and authority were tested and challenged as in perhaps no other region of the world. In the Enlightenment, in particular, the West Indies were an object of much fascination among philosophes, men and women both attracted and also repelled by the Caribbean’s fabulous wealth and capacity to act as a transformative crucible in which new and undoubtedly modern ways of selfhood and relating to people were being established. As Abbé Raynal of encyclopedia fame commented in the mid-eighteenth century, “the labours of the colonists settled in these long-scorned islands are the sole basis of the African trade, extend the fisheries and cultivation of North America, provide advantageous outlets for the manufacture of Asia, double perhaps triple the activity of the whole of Europe. They can be regarded as the principal cause of the rapid movement which stirs the universe.”1

To an extent, the new changes in historiographical fashion have been good news for the development of the historiography of the Caribbean during the period of slavery. The region is more visible than it has been for some time, with a number of important works being published in recent years, often by historians whose primary interest has been in other areas of the world rather than the Caribbean, on aspects of Caribbean history. It would be tedious to list them all but Jeremy Popkin’s outstanding recent book on the start of the Haitian Revolution might stand in for a number of other works. Popkin is a historian of ancien regime and revolutionary France who has become convinced, as a growing number of French historians are beginning to be convinced, that the Haitian Revolution was not a sideshow to the bigger European revolutionary conflict but may have been the real event. He does not go as far as other scholars, who see in the birth of Haiti an alternative history...

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