Plus jamais esclaves! De l’insoumission à la révolte, le grand récit d’une émancipation, 1492–1838 by Aline Helg
More than three decades ago, Robin Blackburn urged historians to move beyond what he characterized as “two ready-made but deceptive approaches to emancipation.”2 Rather than attributing the overthrow of colonial slavery to the altruism of metropolitan abolitionists or to the armed resistance of the enslaved, Blackburn instead surveyed how political and military struggles in the period after 1776 created opportunities to end slavery in different parts of the Americas. But how was freedom achieved in the nearly three centuries before the institution of slavery began coming under attack, and how did these earlier emancipations influence subsequent abolition attempts? In Plus jamais esclaves!, Aline Helg shows that enslaved people in mainland North and South America and the Caribbean began liberating themselves centuries before the rise of the abolition movements. Displaying an impressive command of English-, French-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-language historiography, Helg’s study of emancipation in comparative perspective surveys the period from 1492 until the end of apprenticeship in the British West Indies in 1838. Her engagement with a wealth of secondary works allows her to argue that not only were enslaved people throughout the Americas the primary agents of their own emancipation during this entire period, but they almost always achieved freedom through nonviolent means.
Helg divides the body of her book into four parts. After an overview that deftly summarizes scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese American colonies, part 2 surveys how enslaved people “succeeded in building an emancipation project for themselves . . . well before the age of revolutions” (112).3 Instead of focusing on the transatlantic abolitionist programs often credited with ending slavery, Helg highlights a number of localized strategies that enslaved people began using to free themselves almost as soon as American slavery originated: marronnage, or running away; legal manumission through self-purchase or a master’s dispensation or as compensation [End Page 341] for military service; and revolt. Arguing that white authorities’ widespread and voluble fears of slave rebellion led subsequent scholars to overemphasize the frequency and scale of enslaved uprisings in the colonial Americas, Helg asserts that manumission and particularly marronnage—which she characterizes as “the most logical and radical rejection of the captivity of slavery” (364)—were far more important paths to freedom.4 In an era when it seemed impossible “to constitute an alternative society in the same territory as a plantation colony” (146) and when any rebellion—whether real or the product of paranoia—was met with brutal reprisal, enslaved people instead sought to secure individual liberty for themselves or their children.5 Although their actions did not attack the institution of slavery, they succeeded in establishing recognized paths to freedom on which enslaved people would continue to follow well into the age of revolutions.
That Helg devotes a full chapter to each of these emancipatory strategies creates a strong framework for the rest of her analysis. In the remaining sections, Helg argues that although factors such as geography, religious sentiment, and intraimperial or interimperial conflict could widen or narrow opportunities for marronnage, manumission, and rebellion, enslaved people continued to rely on these well-established methods for securing freedom throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The four chapters that compose part 3 cover the period from the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) until the Spanish American wars of independence and reveal how these opportunities changed, even as the instruments of securing freedom remained the same. The rise of natural rights philosophy, coupled with imperial attempts to exert greater economic and political control over colonial subjects after 1763, sparked what Helg dubs an “era of independences” (25).6 Following historians who argue that the upheavals of the American and French Revolutions led to a questioning of established hierarchies, Helg agrees that the institution of slavery came under attack for the first time during this period.7 She argues, however, that though enslaved people exploited the fissures between colonists and crown in order to pursue freedom, they largely did so through established means, rather than relying on the ideologies or plans of abolitionists. In the decades after 1763, enslaved people “were able to resort like never before to the various strategies tested earlier” (204), as warfare offered opportunities for manumission [End Page 342] through military service while instability increased opportunities to run away.8
In addition to insisting that the emancipatory strategies she identifies emerged well before the age of revolutions, Helg revises the prevailing historiography in several other ways. In her analysis, even the overthrow of slavery in Saint Domingue—which historians usually cite as the sole successful example of abolition by means of armed insurgency—should be attributed in part to well-established nonviolent practices. While acknowledging the important role of African survivors of the transatlantic slave trade in launching the uprising in Saint Domingue, Helg highlights how “marronnage and military engagement in exchange for the promise of liberty, this time developed on a very large scale” (188–89), also contributed to the birth of the second independent nation in the Americas.9 Helg also explores whether historians justifiably attribute rebellions in other parts of the Americas to the emulation of Haiti, deftly analyzing an impressive range of insurgencies that rocked the French, British, and Dutch Caribbean, Venezuela, and the United States from 1790 to 1811.10 She finds that only one, which occurred in Curaçao in 1795, was both populated and led by enslaved people who cited events in Saint Domingue as their inspiration. Instead, Helg argues that “slaves had a sophisticated understanding of the context in which they lived” and only turned to violence when “they perceived important fault lines in the colonial and slave system that dominated them” (256).11 And even when upheaval enhanced opportunity for armed revolt—such as during the Spanish American wars of independence that serve as the backdrop for chapter 8—Helg shows that slaves were more likely to pursue freedom by running away or enlisting in the military than by engaging in rebellion. These strategies continued to provide more assured paths to liberty because, as Helg’s earlier research on Simón Bolívar makes clear, the creole elite’s reluctance to “place the institution of slavery at the center of debate” (261) allowed it to persist in many Latin American republics as late as the 1850s.12 [End Page 343]
The final part of Helg’s book examines enslaved people’s strategies for self-liberation in the early nineteenth century, particularly in Britain’s remaining American colonies, as first the slave trade and then slavery itself came under attack from religious and political leaders and former slaves. Once again, she is primarily concerned with how the accrued impact of individual self-liberation shaped wider possibilities for freedom. Despite planters’ concerted efforts to maintain slavery, an increase in marronnage and self-purchase resulted in growing populations of free people of African descent throughout the Americas. With the notable exception of the southern United States, where “being of African ancestry almost always meant being a slave” (308), the increasing size and demographic weight of free populations of African descent weakened the equation of blackness with bondage.13 Communities of free people of color also provided spaces in which enslaved people could blend in or find friends or family members to help finance their manumission.
Although Helg repeatedly criticizes what she sees as a historiographical tendency to “celebrate . . . [revolt] as the emancipatory strategy par excellence” (377), she does acknowledge the role of insurgency in hastening the end of slavery in the British West Indies.14 In her final chapter, she argues that the public campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade spurred “politicians and activists . . . to consider slaves and their descendants, whether free or enslaved, as part of the British Empire” (346).15 Acutely aware of the mounting tension between these metropolitan actors and the West Indian planters who held them in bondage, enslaved people seized the opportunity to launch uprisings in Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823), and Jamaica (1831). In Helg’s view, it was not the revolts themselves that brought an end to slavery in the British West Indies; as she points out, roughly contemporaneous uprisings in Brazil, Martinique, and the United States failed to weaken the institution. Instead, the brutal punishments visited on insurgents in the British West Indies horrified the metropolitan public and galvanized the abolitionist movement, and “in a mutually reinforcing dynamic, slaves and abolitionists brought an end to British slavery” (327).16
Though Helg’s analysis of the means and opportunities by which enslaved people secured their freedom is exemplary, her insistence that “slaves . . . always had to count on themselves above all” (384) can at times lead her to assimilate complicated historical moments into one of the emancipatory strategies she identifies. Her characterization of the apprenticeship [End Page 344] system in the British West Indies, which was in force from 1834 to 1838, is one such example; Helg casts apprenticeship not as a transitional period on the path from slavery to freedom but as a means by which “all these men, women, and children. . . . paid for their general emancipation” (384).17 Yet it is difficult to conceive of an emancipatory scheme administered by the British government as another iteration, albeit on a much larger scale, of the individual acts of self-purchase Helg so carefully reconstructs elsewhere in her book. Nor is it clear why she chooses to conclude her study with the premature end of British apprenticeship in 1838, given her brief acknowledgment that slavery persisted or even grew for decades in the United States, Brazil, Spanish and French Caribbean colonies, and several South American republics. An analysis of whether and how the localized acts of marronnage, military service, and manumission Helg so painstakingly identifies coalesced to influence the institution’s demise elsewhere in the Americas would have been a particularly welcome rejoinder to “the diverse national histories of countries [that] have long attributed the end of slavery . . . to whites” (384).18 Though one can certainly understand the decision not to incorporate the voluminous scholarship on the U.S. Civil War into a book that already encompasses more than three hundred years of history, a French-language analysis of the 1848 abolition of slavery in France’s Caribbean colonies would have been beneficial. As Helg rightly notes, French “historiography on slaves as autonomous actors was slower to emerge” (20), and consolidating her findings into an analysis privileging the role of enslaved people in Guadeloupe and Martinique in securing their own liberty would have challenged interpretations that focus primarily on Victor Schœlcher and his metropolitan followers.19
Although French readers may be disappointed that Helg’s sweeping analysis does not extend to 1848, they should nonetheless embrace the publication of an accessible and authoritative French-language overview of slavery and emancipation in hemispheric perspective. After writing two books that relied on extensive work in Cuban, Colombian, and Spanish archives, Helg is also uniquely qualified to introduce historians of Anglo- and French [End Page 345] Atlantic slavery to the growing body of scholarship on Latin America.20 Her considerable linguistic abilities and immersion in multiple historiographies allow her to produce an in-depth analysis of self-emancipation across imperial and national boundaries, and Plus jamais esclaves! should be of great interest to specialists and general readers alike. One can only hope that the Spanish- and recent English-language translations will allow others to access this impressive and much-needed work of scholarly synthesis and to test some of its claims in other geographic and temporal contexts such as the United States, Brazil, or Spain’s Caribbean sugar colonies.21 [End Page 346]
1. The English-language translation of this book was released after the process of reviewing the original French was already under way. See Aline Helg, Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas, trans. Lara Vergnaud (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2019).
2. Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848 (New York, 1988), 530.
3. “bien avant l’ère des révolutions et des indépendances, des esclaves réussissaient à se construire un projet d’émancipation pour eux-mêmes.”
4. “la fuite et le marronnage représentèrent le mode de rejet le plus logique et le plus radical de la captivité qu’était l’esclavage.”
5. “de constituer une société alternative sur le territoire même d’une colonie de plantation.”
6. “ère des indépendances.”
7. Among the most influential works on which Helg draws to advance this argument are Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery; Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2006); Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004).
8. “les esclaves avaient pu recourir comme jamais aux diverses stratégies expérimentées auparavant.”
9. “ce furent à nouveau les stratégies émancipatrices utilisées par les esclaves depuis le XVIe siècle, telles que le marronnage et l’engagement militaire contre la promesse de la liberté, cette fois développées sur une très grande échelle.”
10. On the influence of the Haitian Revolution, see among others David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Columbia, S.C., 2001); David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering, eds., The World of the Haitian Revolution (Bloomington, Ind., 2009).
11. “les esclaves avaient une connaissance fine du contexte dans lequel ils vivaient. S’ils se soulevaient, c’était en général parce qu’ils percevaient des failles importantes dans le système colonial et esclavagiste qui les dominait.”
12. “elles ne mirent pas l’institution de l’esclavage au centre des débats.” See also Aline Helg, “Simón Bolívar’s Republic: A Bulwark against the ‘Tyranny’ of the Majority,” Revista de Sociologia e Política 20, no. 42 (June 2012): 21–37.
13. “dans le Bas-Sud, être d’ascendance africaine signifiait presque toujours être esclave.”
14. “célébrée par l’historiographie comme la stratégie émancipatrice par excellence.”
15. “l’interdiction de la traite négrière . . . changeait les perspectives des politiciens et des activistes: désormais ils devaient considérer les esclaves et leurs descendants, serviles ou libres, comme faisant partie de l’Empire britannique.”
16. “dans une dynamique de renforcement mutuel, esclaves et abolitionnistes mirent fin à l’esclavage britannique.”
17. “les esclaves de ces régions durent toujours compter avant tout sur eux-mêmes”; “tous ces hommes, ces femmes et ces enfants avaient acheté leur liberté par d’innombrables heures de travail comme esclaves puis comme ‘apprentis’. Ils avaient largement payé leur émancipation générale.”
18. “Même si les diverses histoires nationales de ces pays ont longtemps attribué la fin de l’esclavage américain, entre 1848 et 1888, aux Blancs.”
19. “Quant à l’Amérique esclavagiste française, une historiographie portant sur les esclaves comme acteurs autonomes fut plus lente à émerger.” The only book-length study of France’s second abolition of slavery yet published in English is Lawrence C. Jennings, French Anti-Slavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802–1848 (Cambridge, 2000). French-language scholarship on the subject is also scarce but includes Nelly Schmidt, Victor Schœlcher et l’abolition de l’esclavage (Paris, 1994); Fabienne Federini, L’abolition de l’esclavage de 1848: Une lecture de Victor Schoelcher (Paris, 1998).
20. Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995); Helg, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770–1835 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004).
21. Aline Helg, ¡Nunca más esclavos! Una historia comparada de los esclavos que se liberaron en las Américas, trans. Julia Garciá Aranzazu (Bogota, 2018); Helg, Slave No More.