- Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement
In this new book, Gelien Matthews seeks to expand the observation of Hilary Beckles, Mary Turner, James Walvin and others that slave rebellions in the British Caribbean colonies fed off metropolitan antislavery campaigns, arguing that the reverse was equally true. Her thesis is that while the antislavery movement sharpened the tool of resistance for enslaved workers in the Caribbean, the slave rebellions in the colonies also helped to hone the antislavery campaign at home. It was slave rebellions, Matthews contends, which pushed abolitionists beyond the view that slaves were not fit for freedom, a position first outlined by Wilberforce in 1804, to the demand for full emancipation. [End Page 125]
At the time of the Demerara revolt in 1816, antislavery activists still articulated a highly defensive position to distance themselves from the violence. Matthews shows how they began to incorporate slave rebellion into the antislavery argument. By the time of the Mordant Bay Rebellion antislavery activists had become sufficiently emboldened to move beyond amelioration and demand emancipation. Little by little, they came to see rebellion as an undeniable manifestation of an intrinsic humanity. Undeniably, slaves' recognition of the value of freedom was partly a response to the failure of the British government to keep their promises to ameliorate the terrible conditions of chattel slavery.
A growing understanding that the increasingly creolised and Christian enslaved population of the Caribbean could be active agents in their own emancipation had by 1831 led abolitionists to the conclusion that slaves were indeed fit for freedom and if it was not given to them they would seize it through violent means. The slave uprising in Jamaica in 1832 confirmed their predictions, thereby giving abolitionist leaders Thomas Buxton and James Stephen the sharp-edged weapon they needed to push a reluctant parliament toward emancipation. By 1832, even the most cautious abolitionists were convinced that slave rebellion was just retribution upon a guilty nation for upholding the sin of slavery. It was the terrible prospect of a servile war that convinced the reluctant Zachary Macaulay that emancipation could no longer be delayed. Yet Matthews makes it clear that the abolitionist response to slave rebellion was always vacillating and ambivalent. During the period between the Demerara revolt and the abolition of slavery in 1834, Matthews writes, "abolitionists exploited the slave rebellion argument even through they subordinated its dynamic potential to serve only the objectives they were willing to embrace at any given time" (p. 178).
While these insights are not insignificant, I could not see how Matthews' addition to the historiography was sufficient to sustain a whole monograph. The book reads like the Ph.D. thesis that it clearly once was. Unfortunately the publisher has republished the thesis without requiring it to be reworked, so the book presents a series of chapters that do not flow one from the other, making the same point time and time again. Also, surprisingly, the book offers only a very perfunctory gesture to the extensive historiography of the impact of slave rebellion and the ambiguities of abolitionism. She has the obligatory introductory chapter which dutifully surveys the established key texts on abolition and the Caribbean by Eric Williams, Michael Craton, Hilary Beckles, Mary Turner, James Walvin, and Clare Midgely, but very rarely does she refer to relevant recent scholarship. For example, I was disappointed that she did not engage with the interrogation of the moral complexities of abolitionism by scholars such as Christopher L. Brown and Michael J. Turner. The absence of an index is another limitation.