- Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation by Natasha Lightfoot
Natasha Lightfoot's book on the history of Antigua is an important addition to the flourishing scholarship on the disputed meanings of freedom in the postemancipation societies of the Atlantic World. The book centres its analysis on the contrast between formerly enslaved people's high expectations toward freedom and the rough realities they faced after the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. In discussing the colonial peripherality of Antigua in contrast with other British colonies in the Caribbean, Troubling Freedom shows how the island's slaves, and its freedpersons after abolition, continually looked to the colonial authority and law expecting recognition of their rights and protection against exploitation by their white masters or employers, with very little success. [End Page 387]
The protests over the outlawing of slaves' Sunday market in 1831, discussed in chapter two, introduces the reader to one of the book's central concerns: the protagonism of enslaved and freed women in the public sphere. Although the sugar plantation was the "prevailing scenery" of freedpeople's lives (43), the author is principally concerned with their presence in the more urban context of Saint John's (even if she discusses how the boundaries between urban and rural spaces were often blurred in Antigua). The Sunday market's importance for slaves exemplifies the centrality of public spaces as sources not only of material but also social, political and symbolic resources, and the conflicts around the market make their way to the centre of Lightfoot's narrative. The author reads the freedpersons' engagement in illicit activities and acts of violence, in all their ambiguities, in this chapter and throughout the book, as part of their larger repertoire of political agency.
In the third chapter, Lightfoot discusses the peculiarities of Antigua's abolition process (one of the few British slaveholding colonies where slave owners rejected "apprenticeship") in tandem with the economic and legal innovations that accompanied labour "freedom" and its inherent contradictions. Particularly interesting is her analysis of the consequences of the 1834 "Contract Act" and the limitations it imposed on freed workers' mobility and conditions of negotiation, applying the concept of a moral economy to understand how freed workers set limits on their own exploitation. Here, the author introduces another one of the keynotes of the book: the confrontation between the post-abolition expectations of the small class of white landowners, who sought to impose a free labour regime that was nearly indistinguishable from slavery, and the very high expectations of the freed.
The following chapter focuses on how freedpersons' expectations were reflected in their material culture and new patterns of consumption. Throughout the 1840's, Lightfoot shows, freed Blacks were able to advance their material and symbolic interests, to the dismay of their white counterparts who reacted by renewing their racialized discourse, and mocking freedpeoples' expectations for respectability. This furthers Lightfoot's explanation of religion as a mediator for some of freedpeoples' expectations of social recognition and material safety, but also in controlling and disciplining their everyday lives. The Christian church and its institutionalized model of male dominated, monogamous marriage confronted the traditional family structures sustained by freedpersons, an arrangement that bore a particularly powerful effect on women. In delving into records of expulsions from the Moravian church in Antigua, Troubling Freedom also explores gender and class tensions within the freed community, addressing how gendered, domestic violence also constituted an important part of their lives. [End Page 388]
Chapters six and seven discuss the reversal of the social progress that the Black population had enjoyed in Antigua during the 1840s. The expansion of the forces of the free market in the Atlantic depressed the sugar economy in the British Caribbean, and with the simultaneous introduction of poor white workers and other immigrants to Antigua, this strongly undermined wages and the livelihoods of freedmen and women. One of the reactions to this process was the 1858 uprising, discussed in detail in...