- Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation by Natasha Lightfoot
Antigua has always held a unique place in the history of the Caribbean and in the history of Atlantic slavery more generally. In few places in the Leeward Islands or in the greater Caribbean, was slavery so dominant and pervasive. Antigua was also the only British colony in the Caribbean to move directly from slavery to freedom, when Antigua’s legislature emancipated the island’s slaves in 1834. Natasha Lightfoot’s book Troubling Freedom details the history of Antigua and its unique position within the British Empire, both before and after emancipation. As historians of slavery undoubtedly know, emancipation created a whole new set of issues with which the British Parliament was unprepared and ill-equipped to deal. While emancipation [End Page 298] guaranteed the bodily freedom of the enslaved people of Antigua, emancipated blacks became even more embedded in the colonial regime, and now were accountable to a state that disenfranchised them, both politically and customarily. In Antigua, both blacks and whites struggled to understand freedom on their own terms, and both engaged in a political struggle to assert their specific definition of the term. With emancipation, blacks were legally free but were still forced to engage in actions to secure their material and financial well-being.
Lightfoot centers her study around the quotidian actions of enslaved and formerly enslaved blacks, whom she terms freedpeople, from actions to secure better labor and working conditions, to negotiating with their masters for the freedom to attend and participate in the island’s Sunday market, to attempts by the Moravian church to regulate the cultural and sexual lives of the black community, and freedpeople’s reactions against that. Long before formal black political and economic institutions were formed, “everyday life in postslavery Antigua was the laboratory for black working people’s politics” (p. 4). Lightfoot presents an unromanticized portrait of Antigua and of the island’s black population. A real strength of the book is her depiction of the many uncomfortable aspects that historians often overlook when portraying slave or free black communities because of the uneasiness it engenders in those who study it. Lightfoot humanizes everyday enslaved and freedpeople by portraying them as human beings who were forced to find meaning within a colonial system not of their making and the often contradictory and violent ways they went about to secure their own liberty. The black community in Antigua, both in slavery and in freedom, was neither unified nor idyllic, and Lightfoot is right to portray them as people sometimes working against the interests of other members of their community in their efforts to expand freedom’s meaning.
Lightfoot, associate professor of history at Columbia University, builds on the work of a multitude of other scholars who have contributed to the historiography of abolition and newly freedpeople’s experiences in navigating that system. Historians of the Caribbean such as Rebecca Scott and Thomas Holt, to works by Steven Hahn and Eric Foner on Reconstruction in the United States provide a crucial framework for her study.1 While labor and politics is one focus of this [End Page 299] work, Lightfoot is more concerned with the everyday struggles of freedpeople, and joins a recent trend of scholars, like Melanie Newton, Roseanne Adderley, among others, who emphasize the daily struggle of freedpeople who worked to extend the narrow and incomplete freedom granted to them by the British Government.2
Her first chapter serves the purpose of orienting the reader into the social, cultural, and legal context of Antigua and its sister island of Barbuda in the period directly preceding emancipation. Much of the difficulties that followed emancipation can be traced to the limits of the island’s scarce land resources and geography. Slaves formed what she terms a “rival geography and alternative social milieu” (p. 55), where slaves expanded the spatial limits of their freedom, which helped to differentiate the island from others in the British Caribbean. The 1831 Sunday Market Rebellion is...