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Small Axe 7.2 (2003) 137-149
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White Baptists in Nineteenth Century Jamaica
Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, Catherine Hall. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. ISBN 0-226-31334-4
Catherine Hall's study is concerned with the imperial mind, with the crucible in which the imperial mind was created (in this case Birmingham), and how that imperial mind worked toward "civilizing" the nonwhite subjects of the British Empire. It is a perspective that serves to inform about the motivation behind missionary action in the Caribbean. Sketches of the missionaries and their families provide an insight into the strong family-orientation, middle-class and sexist values of missionaries.
British Baptist missionaries emerging out of Birmingham went to the Caribbean to Christianize the enslaved. Hall joins Robert Stewart, Shirley Gordon, Mary Turner, Gad Heuman and Swithin Wilmot, among others, in analyzing the work and consequences of the efforts of nonconformist missionaries in Jamaica and the Caribbean. 1 These works collectively relate how the Baptist missionaries, in particular, defied the Jamaican plantocracy in order to bring religious enlightenment to the enslaved, and even [End Page 137] faced persecution. (In most accounts, the Anglican Church is described as the church of the slaveholder with a marked indifference to the slaves' spiritual welfare.) These studies demonstrate the success of Baptists, after Emancipation, in initiating, at least, the active participation of the freed population in the political system, and their involvement in establishing free villages for the emancipated.
The post-Emancipation period in Jamaican history going up to the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 has also been the subject of continuous inquiry, culminating in the brutal massacre ordered by Governor John Eyre in October 1865. The details of the Commission of Inquiry into the massacre have been examined in, for example, Gad Heuman's TheKillingTime. Also well known is the fact that Governor Eyre had many supporters, not only among the Jamaican elite but among intellectual luminaries in England, ranging from Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson to Thomas Carlyle. Shirley Gordon's Our Cause for His Glory: Christianisation and Emancipation in Jamaica is not listed in the bibliography but shows how Native Baptists adapted the African religious tradition and the European Christian tradition to create an Afro-Jamaican religious expression that proved a source of discomfiture to the British Baptist missionaries.
Hall, therefore, takes us through a lot of familiar ground, and in great detail. The obvious value of Hall's study is that much of the data known about the period 1830 to 1867 has been compressed into one rather large volume. But this factor is not the primary purpose or merit of the study. Hall's book, while incorporating a significant amount of known data, takes a rather larger perspective, so that the book is as much about Jamaican history as it is about imperial ideas and history, the history of industrial Birmingham, of Baptists and Quakers, and within the parameters of imperial history it is a detailed study of the functioning of cultural imperialism, which assumes a tabula rasa—"the heathen nations of the present day . . . are a mighty wilderness of mind, a great desert in the moral world, an immense extent, as it were, of sand and swamp." 2
Since so many Baptist missionaries came out of the city of Birmingham, the author dedicates a good bit of time and space on the social and economic history of the British city. Birmingham had the sort of public opinion that philanthropically favored the foundation of an antislavery society, from 1826. What is significant, however, is that the [End Page 138] missionary and the antislavery public overlapped extensively (p. 310). This leads us to believe that the missionaries who emerged from Birmingham would be both antislavery and pro-conversion, and would help to explain why the Baptist Missionary Society itself imposed some restraint on their missionaries—that is, encouraging them to stay clear of the slavery issue in the Caribbean. Their antislavery opinions came out in particular after the Sam Sharpe rebellion...