- Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas by Aline Helg
In this ambitious monograph Aline Helg, professor of history at the University of Geneva, offers a comprehensive, nearly exhaustive, overview of slave manumission in the Americas before 1838. Spanning the full breadth of the Americas, Helg looks at the various strategies of emancipation that enslaved people used to escape bondage from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. An impressive and commanding overview of the historiography of comparative slavery and freedom over the past few decades, Slaves No More encompasses literature in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese to render a portrait of emancipation before abolition movements took off in large scale. Throughout, Helg foregrounds the strategies enslaved people used to find freedom, often with very little help from abolitionists, at a time when slavery was expanding. Writing a book of this scale and scope is an impressive accomplishment that showcases the importance of writing histories that are unbound by imperial geographies or national chronologies.
Over ten chapters Helg traces the four major pathways to emancipation that dominated strategies of resistance over these centuries: flight and maroonage, emancipation by legal process, military service, and revolt and insurrection. Each chapter offers a topical overview of these strategies that touches on nearly every corner of the Americas to draw out broad continuities across imperial boundaries. Her study of maroonage breathes new life into the older notion that at the margins of plantation societies, formerly enslaved people could find spaces of freedom. By tracing the dogged, if not always successful, attempts to run for freedom, Helg shows how "an America of vast frontier regions and hinterlands inhabited by the descendants of fugitive slaves" helped to give birth to societies without chattel bondage (274). She also reveals how fugitive slaves commonly ran across international lines, or sailed to islands claimed by foreign empires. While the history of international flight to places like Puerto Rico is well known, owing to the sanctuary policy the Spanish Empire adopted, the overall scale and pervasive nature of international maroonage is a revelation to this reader, and it comes into focus given Helg's approach. These kinds of insights extend to the other [End Page 603] major themes of the text, showing how legal manumission was not the benevolent act of the master but "the result of a social process" (64). By looking broadly at individual legal emancipations, she shows that enslaved people sought not just the escape from bondage in a narrow sense, but they were pressing for "a natural right" (81).
In the later chapters of the book, Helg looks at the Age of Revolutions (1763–1804) and the rise of broad-scale abolition movements that challenged slavery in the Americas. Helg details how revolutionary warfare offered new possibilities for escaping bondage, either through military service with the British during the U.S. independence movement, or during Latin American independence wars in the early nineteenth century. Untold numbers of enslaved people also ran for freedom during the upheaval of war. In these ways, enslaved people were "full fledged actors in the tensions and war that led to the Independence of the United States" and other American republics (139). Helg succeeds in integrating the Haitian Revolution seamlessly into these chapters, showing it as a key episode in the wider era, not an event separate and apart from American history. After a detailed treatment of the rebellion in Haiti, she looks at various other insurrections in its aftermath, highlighting revolts spanning from Louisiana to Curaçao. Yet she also stresses that most of the insurrection conspiracies in this period were overreactions from paranoid masters, and the few that did go forward did very little to hasten the decline of slavery (176). By highlighting the rarity of open revolt, she shows that enslaved people were shrewd political operators, who knew the futility of insurrection. Even with the limits of revolt in the foreground, the final half of the book convincingly shows that slavery...