- Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas by Aline Helg
Ever since C. L. R. James published The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London, 1938), a study of the Haitian Revolution that toppled the world’s richest slave-based sugar plantation economy in French Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1804, historians have not been able to ignore the contribution of enslaved Africans in the Americas to their own emancipation in the succeeding century. A plethora of studies of African agency has shed new light on the Saint-Domingue revolt; on other revolts by enslaved and free Africans elsewhere in the Americas before, during, and after Haiti’s time; on maroon communities established by runaway slaves; on self-purchase and other manumission processes exploited by slaves; and on other methods that slaves adopted to assert some measure of control over their lives. These studies have provided insights both into the workings of slave-plantation societies and into the subaltern activities of the enslaved people that helped to shape the course of emancipation and abolitionism —a story largely and commonly told from a white metropolitan perspective rather than from an African one.
In the book under review (an English translation of a French- language book published in 2016), Helg draws heavily from the vast literature about African agency that has appeared since James wrote. It would be a mistake, however, to see her study as a compendium of recent writings. On the contrary, what she offers is a long-term, hemispheric-wide, comparative analysis of efforts by enslaved people to recover their freedom. It begins with an uprising in 1537 of slaves in Mexico City and concludes with Britain’s abolition of slavery throughout its American colonies in 1838. Geographically, it ranges from Rio de la Plata in the south to New York and Canada in the north, but it focuses principally on Brazil, Spanish mainland South America, and the Caribbean—areas that absorbed most of the slaves taken from Africa. As this synopsis suggests, Helg deals solely with Africans’ efforts to escape slavery in the Americas, ignoring their resistance to enslavement in earlier stages of transatlantic slavery. [End Page 174]
Within her chosen framework, Helf offers an analysis centered around several themes, the most important of which are the growth of maroon communities, the incidence of slave revolts, and the measures taken to suppress them. She also reflects, however, on other strategies that Africans used to assert independence, such as self-purchase and service as soldiers for colonial or imperial powers. In exploring the contribution of such strategies, Helg skillfully blends detailed accounts of specific revolts and other activities—many of them, as she openly acknowledges, written from the ruling classes’ perspective—with an appreciation of the opportunities for Africans to push for freedom, afforded to them by three conditions: (1) rivalries among European colonial powers, (2) differences in religious jurisdictions, and (3) the geographical limitations to European rule in the Americas.
Although slave revolts have captured much historical attention, Helg argues that reports of such events and of their threat to white rule were typically exaggerated in all but a few cases, notable among which was Saint-Domingue. That one and a few others apart, the sheer brutality with which such revolts were suppressed was more reflective of white paranoia than any real existential threat, making revolt the “most perilous path to freedom” (82). For Helg, therefore, enslaved Africans’ most consistently effective strategy for achieving emancipation outside Haiti lay in marronage, which allowed numerous communities of former slaves, some of them amounting to several thousand members, to emerge and co-exist independently of the slave plantation system. Marronage served as a constant reminder to plantation owners of the unquenchable thirst that all Africans still under their control had for freedom.
The historical canvas on which Helg works is impressively large and rich, often excruciatingly so. It allows her to suggest valuable insights into the relative efficiency...