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  • Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies by Claudius K. Fergus
  • Douglas R. Egerton (bio)
Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies. By Claudius K. Fergus. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Pp. 271. Cloth, $45.00.)

During the mid-1980s, as residents of the Caribbean prepared to celebrate the sesquicentennial of British emancipation, academics renewed their debate over the thorny question of antislavery causation. Although Eric Williams’s 1944 Capitalism and Slavery had come under increasing fire from scholars who challenged his thesis that shifting economic investments had doomed sugar slavery, most Caribbean-based historians resisted the emerging consensus that humanitarian motives lay behind gradual manumission. Clearly influenced by this still-ongoing debate, Claudius Fergus, a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies, here advances a fresh solution. By moving the center of the debate out of the halls of Parliament and London’s mercantile houses into the sugar fields, Fergus argues that a series of black insurgencies—from Tacky’s War [End Page 446] through the Haitian revolt and culminating in the 1831 Baptist War in Jamaica—convinced political authorities that imperial security required an end to the Atlantic traffic in humans, and finally to the eradication of slavery itself. Although Fergus generally eschews the sort of tables and figures that Williams’s critics compiled, his theory of hidden costs is generally persuasive and adds a new wrinkle to the old debate.

While some historians, most notably Seymour Drescher in his 1977 Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, have maintained that Caribbean slavery had not entered into a period of economic decline in the late eighteenth century, Fergus consulted pamphlets and correspondence and committee reports to reveal just how alarmed individual planters were by the destruction of property and the costly fatalities created by Tacky’s 1760 revolt and the Berbice uprising three years later. In response to such upheavals, writers such as planter Edward Long advocated the creolization of his island’s labor force, based on the flawed theory that Caribbean-born slaves were more docile than Africans. Although the Haitian uprising of 1791, not unlike most servile insurrections in the age of revolution, was led by atypical bondmen, the revolt led to renewed debates in Parliament that endorsed Long’s assertions “that the holding of large populations of native Africans in slavery was a potential time bomb and recipe for economic ruin” (89). After Toussaint Louverture invaded the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, fears that the revolution might spread, Fergus suggests, helped persuade Parliament to move against the slave trade and experiment with amelioration in the new British colony of Trinidad.

With the reform policies of the 1820s, Parliament established a system of protectors, who were not allowed to be masters or proprietors. Under this system, slaves no longer required their owners’ permission to marry, and London created a series of banks in which bondmen who hired their time might deposit their wages. This reform, Fergus observes, was based on “enlightened proprietary paternalism,” as it was designed to mold slaves into individuals who behaved in ways that Parliament designated as proper, including observing the daily ritual of Christian prayers (158). As a result, slaves in Trinidad abandoned the plantations, where flogging remained legal, and flocked to the towns in hopes of building quasi-free lives. In this context, Fergus takes Eugene Genovese to task for insisting that bondmen in Trinidad, in comparison with those in Barbados and Jamaica, were patiently awaiting emancipation. Genovese, however, was talking about major rebellions, whereas Fergus is instead writing about day-to-day “resistance” (168). Basic demographics, of course, explain the distinction. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there were only seventeen thousand slaves in Trinidad, which the Spanish had previously used as a [End Page 447] commercial entrepôt rather than a sugar colony. At the same time, there were over three hundred thousand slaves in Jamaica, a figure that emboldened potential insurgents and allowed for collective rebelliousness.

The once-powerful West Indian lobby was already losing the fight against further reforms when Jamaican bondmen rose in December 1831 and burned hundreds of estates. As the...


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