- Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies by Claudius K. Fergus
Claudius Fergus sets out in this book to vindicate the position that slave uprisings, and slave resistance more broadly, put crucial pressure on both colonial masters and metropolitan policy makers, leading, in the British case, to both the 1807 Abolition and 1833 Emancipation acts. Fergus contends that the laws ending slavery were really policies of “social control,” and were always enacted out of anxiety about, even fear of, the enslaved. Hence, neither the Abolition act nor the Emancipation act was a moral act intended to recognize the humanity of, or indeed to liberate, slaves. Rather, each policy emerged as antislavery activists and planters converged on an optimal plan for controlling and exploiting African workers.
For Fergus, the 1807 Abolition act represents a historical agreement that “amelioration,” and especially the creolization, of slavery was the safest way forward. Edward Long, the outspokenly racist and proslavery Jamaican planter, had argued in the 1770s that the dangers of slavery came not from assimilated creole slaves, but from fresh native Africans. Fergus contends that abolitionists were convinced of Long’s view; once a later generation of planters, typified by Bryan Edwards, began to promote amelioration and creolization, there was little difference between the two sides. Haiti convinced both sides of the urgent need for change. While other scholars, notably João Marques, [End Page 344] have recently questioned the link between uprisings and abolition, pointing out that abolition languished during the Haitian Revolution, Fergus reminds us that the 1807 Abolition act was passed almost directly in the wake of the Haitian declaration of independence from France.
But despite what his title, and his central concerns, might seem to imply, Fergus does not focus on slave rebellions, uprising, or resistance, nor does he present “revolutionary emancipation” as a mentality of the enslaved—or for that matter of the metropolitan administrators of colonial policy. Rather, he looks very closely at the theory and mechanics that underlay the British colonial administration in the West Indies, particularly in the years between the Abolition and Emancipation acts. Although Fergus never directly declares it, his agenda appears to be to fill the gap between the work of historians like Herbert Aptheker and Richard Hart, who document slave uprisings and argue for their crucial importance, and those like Seymour Drescher and Christopher L. Brown who focus on the metropolitan politics of antislavery. Further, Fergus seems to be rebutting the skepticism evinced toward the role of slaves themselves in emancipation and its politics in the collection Who Abolished Slavery, focusing on the work of João Marques, although he mentions it only in passing.
The first half of Fergus’s book is an engaging, often polemical synthesis of extant scholarship. The highlight here is chapter 5, “The Haitian Revolution and Other Emancipation Wars,” which gives attention to the black fighters, their decisions, and their culture. The second half of the book (chapters 6-12), Fergus’s original research contribution, is a detailed history of the colonial administration’s attitudes toward slavery in Trinidad as the colony moved from Spanish to British rule, especially between abolition and emancipation. However, two of the chapters, 7 and 8, are so caught up in the details of British administration and policy in Trinidad that one loses the connection to the central argument.
In the story Fergus tells, the Emancipation act of 1833, too, came about on the terms that the planters, not the abolitionists, put forward. But again, Fergus argues that the two sides were never as far apart as that might imply. He reminds us that the prominent abolition leaders, especially William Wilberforce, long insisted that they never intended emancipation. His argument is diffuse, and very detailed, but he insists that once the myth of Creole passivity was destroyed by the realities of early nineteenth-century uprisings, the anticipated solutions to the threats of slavery embedded in the Abolition act—creolization and amelioration—came to...