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1 1 INTRODUCTION This book analyzes four aspects of the British antislavery discourse on the slave rebellions that erupted in the British West Indies in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Chapter 2 focuses on the abolitionists’ denial that antislavery agitation prompted slave revolts and their attempts to understand revolt from the slaves’ perspectives. Chapter 3 discusses how British abolitionists interpreted and described the suppression of these revolts, portraying slaves as both victims of slavery and agents of antislavery. Chapter 4 shows how abolitionists validated slave rebels as instruments advancing the antislavery campaign, for the slaves’ suffering following crushed rebellions revealed some of the corruption of colonial society. Finally, chapter 5 shows how abolitionists presented continual servile warfare as a threat to the survival of the plantation empire and how they used slave revolts as a rationale for extensive imperial intervention in a slave colonial system that made revolt almost inevitable. Each chapter furnishes a fresh abolitionist perspective on the significance of various aspects of the slave revolts in Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823), and Jamaica (1831–1832). While there are repeated references to these revolts, a measure of repetition is unavoidable in a study of this nature. This approach provides a clear identification of the nature and composition of a discourse that has for too long been shielded from history and makes it possible to illustrate that the abolitionists were sharp in perceiving the diverse significance of the slaves’ revolts to their antislavery struggle. The book’s methodology also produces a sense of the progression over time of the abolitionists’ intellectual handling of the slave rebellion issue. This strand of their debate spanned roughly from 1816 to 1832 and moved from a defensive posture to an aggressive justification for demanding slave emancipation. Eric Williams provided one of the earliest indications that the historiography of British West Indian slavery is faulty in its discussion of the British antislavery movement. Williams has commented that “most writ- ers on the period of slavery have ignored the slaves.”1 He, however, does not explore in depth the role that the slaves played, but his brief observations have added fuel to the current controversy among historians regarding the appropriateness of widening the discussion of the British antislavery movement to include slave rebellions. The most telling of Williams’s comments on this subject is, “In 1833 . . . the alternatives were clear: emancipation from above, or emancipation from below. But emancipation .”2 Williams’s interpretation of the thesis of “emancipation from below” has its shortcomings. It gives credit to the fact that slaves were active agents of their own emancipation but ignores the crucial point that abolitionists were the ones who converted servile warfare into antislavery propaganda. The thesis needs to be expanded to explore how the actions of rebel slaves impacted upon and interacted with the intellectual battle that abolitionists waged against slavery in the British West Indies. Historian Michael Craton has written extensively on slave resistance and esteems slave revolts as a dynamic force in the local plantation scene. He confidently asserts that “one of my basic assumptions is that the slave system was shaped largely by the slaves. But one must not underestimate the complexity of that shaping.”3 While Craton postulates that slaves shaped the slave system in the colonies, he cannot reconcile himself to the notion that the rebel slaves helped shape abolitionist commentary on slavery in Britain. Craton objects to Williams’s suggestion that emancipation may very well have come from below: “It would be perverse to claim that slaves actually achieved their own emancipation by resistance.”4 Craton claims that “slave rebellions were counter productive to the anti-slavery cause.”5 With each fresh outbreak up to 1823, “no one dared to defend in public the action of the slaves.”6 Craton also highlights antislavery’s 2 CARIBBEAN SLAVE REVOLTS AND THE BRITISH ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT 1. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 197. 2. Ibid., 208. 3. Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (London: Cornell University Press, 1982), 14. 4. Ibid., 242, 295. 5. Michael Craton, Empire, Enslavement and Freedom in the Caribbean (Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 1997), 309. 6. Michael Craton, “Emancipation from Below? The Role of the British West Indian Slaves in the Emancipation Movement, 1816–1834,” in Out of Slavery: Abolition and After , ed. Jack Hayward (London: Frank Cass and Co., 1985), 119. abhorrence of revolutionary methods when he observes that...


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