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  • "The Total Subversion of All Rule":Countering Slavery in Colonial and Imperial Contexts
  • Crystal Eddins and Zach Sell

In his 1845 narrative, Frederick Douglass presents the centrality of subversion and counter-subversion within the structure of slavery.2 In a brutal instance of counter-subversive violence, Douglass describes an overseer's murder of an enslaved man named Demby. As Douglass writes, according to the overseer, Demby "had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves, —one which… would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation."3 The overseer noted that if an enslaved person escaped with his life in refusal of bondage and violence, other enslaved people would replicate this subversion collectively, ultimately resulting in a reversal of the plantation order: freedom of enslaved people and white enslavement. Douglass's account centered on enslavers' brutal violence in response to fears over the overthrow of the plantation order of terror—fears that were consistently realized during enslaved people's uprisings, rebellions and revolts across the Americas. From the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) to Cuba's La Escalera (1841) to Jamaica's Baptist War (1831), the nineteenth century would become a period characterized by the continuation of anti-slavery rebellions that were often simultaneously anti-colonial. These revolts occurred in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, which produced what one observer would fearfully describe as a "spirit of subversion and innovation."4 Yet unlike the overseer's fear of an inverted racial order, at the core of enslaved and formerly enslaved people's subversion of slavery stood demands for fundamentally different futures for Black freedom.5

Subversion encompasses the tactics deployed to realize this freedom that included not only grand counter-slavery offensives manifested in outright rebellion, but also the everyday acts of resistance and survival that sustained enslaved people and threatened the world of Atlantic slavery. The enslaved consistently found ways to reject plantation domination, and through that rejection they embodied liberatory consciousness and politics. From this perspective, we consider subversion to include a range of acts that, however individualized or illegible to traditional conceptualizations of resistance and rebellion, undermined the operation of slavery and colonial power. In this sense, subversion consists of individual acts of escape and theft to collective actions and uprisings to sociopolitical revolutions. Subversion includes enslaved people's everyday practices to protect themselves from the violence of plantation and colonial authority. Enslaved people's self-defense, including their sense of honor and dignity, was also expressed through the philosophies of freedom and anti-slavery in narratives, songs, prayers, dance, dress, kinship and practices of intimacy.6 Enslavers brutally surveilled and repressed these activities because of their possible connections to future Black freedoms. For this reason, subversion is at the heart of Atlantic world history, situated in the multitude of challenges to racial slavery and colonial occupation.

This special issue brings together scholarship that introduces new perspectives for considering the realities of colonial slavery and subversion across the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world, including Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and the United States. Together, the special issue examines histories that allow for to consideration of resistance practices that go beyond enslaved people's open rebellions.For example, enslaved women reclaimed their sexual labor from a system that exploited their wombs to reproduce the institution of slavery, and employed marital politics to leverage better conditions for themselves and their families. The accumulation of capital through plantation slavery was accompanied by and built upon the colonial dispossession of Indigenous lands and sovereignties. Yet, African descended people also utilized their knowledge of ecological systems to survive during their self-liberation efforts, oftentimes countering the harmful extractive practices that became the norm for colonial plantation regimes.7 The possibility and reality of subversion were at the core of enslavers' brutal repression and reaction to plantation slavery. Beneath any act of resistance existed the possibility of an entire subterranean structure of enslaved resistance that was uncontainable and destabilizing to plantation slavery and imperial rule.8 Any act could signal an oncoming rebellion or revolution. Plantation management functioned not only as a technique for extracting labor, but as an apparatus of terror for...