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2 AGITATING THE QUESTION This chapter examines the circumstances that cleared the path for the emergence of the British abolitionists’ slave rebellion discourse. The slaves’ decision to rebel just when abolitionists had begun to attack the institution of slavery itself unlocked an offensive and defensive pro- and antislavery debate that centered on slave revolts. The rebellion of the slaves fed accusations that abolitionist agitation prompted colonial servile warfare . Abolitionists, in turn, opened their commentary on slave rebellions by structuring a series of defensive arguments. This chapter looks at the three periods over which these defensive arguments were spread. First, the chapter considers the self-exculpatory positions that the abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce, took in the aftermath of the Barbados slave rebellion of 1816. Then the chapter traces the abolitionist attitudes to slave revolts that were presented by Thomas Fowell Buxton in the preamble of his House of Commons speech on slavery on May 15, 1823. Finally, the chapter examines the defense that the abolitionists put forward after slaves in Demerara in August 1823 confronted their masters with arms in a bid for freedom. The abolitionist response to rebellion following the Jamaican slave revolt of 1831–1832 is not considered here. By 1830, while planters persisted in accusing abolitionists of instigating servile violence, the abolitionists no longer felt pressured into providing a defense for the inflammatory effect of their agitation of the slavery question . on the defensive Throughout the month of June 1816, the Times of London covered the Barbados slave rising in the form of reports from the governor, Sir James Leith, extracts from letters, editorials, and excerpts from the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette. Proslavery items dominated the coverage . The abolitionists were severely attacked and were described as 28 “men with diabolical motives.”1 Planters insisted that antislavery activities in Britain were responsible for the rebels who were “Negroes of the worst disposition.”2 Slavery supporters claimed that “the cause of the revolt in Barbados boils down to the early and fatal effects of the Registry Bill.”3 In another London Times article of the same date, critics of abolitionists asserted that the Registry Bill threatened “the peace and safety of the colonies” and was tantamount to “an impolitic interference by the home government between the local legislatures and the slaves.”4 These articles presented the connection between slave revolts and the British antislavery movement from a negative and damaging perspective. The abolitionists’ early responses were clearly self-defensive. William Wilberforce, still leading the humanitarian attack against slavery in Parliament by 1816, was the first to issue statements on the revolt and respond to the allegations of proslavery advocates. Wilberforce made a strenuous effort to disassociate the antislavery struggle in Britain from the counterproductive activities of the slaves in the colonies. Wilberforce declared that he “did not wish to agitate the subject or to enter fully into the state of the island.”5 In an unmistakably self-exculpatory manner, he declared that “whatever happened had no reference to himself or his friends, he had no share in creating the explosion that had been felt; he washed his hands clean of the blood that was spilt.”6 Notwithstanding the finality of the tone with which Wilberforce attempted to dismiss the perceived connection between British antislavery and colonial slave revolts, this was not the end of his reflections on the Barbados revolt. Wilberforce was haunted by the need to satisfactorily respond to the taunt that “they [the abolitionists] will never be able to persuade one man besides themselves of a statement so glaringly untrue . . . They may gloss it over to themselves as they do to others; but there will be a moment when that still, small voice; which is an inhabitant of every bosom, will be heard, and will tell 1. Comment by Sir Charles Brisbane, St. Vincent, in the London Times, June 20, 1816. 2. Account in the London Times, June 4, 1816, based on a private letter dated April 22, 1816, and on extracts from Barbados newspapers. 3. Ibid. 4. Ibid. 5. London Times, June 19, 1816. 6. Ibid. AGITATING THE QUESTION 29 them; this [revolt] has been your work.”7 The West India interest and their supporters rejected Wilberforce’s disclaimer, although it was backed by arguments against the connections that slavery supporters drew between the abolitionist-sponsored slave registration scheme and the revolt. Wilberforce insisted that the abolitionist scheme of slave registration could not have been responsible for instigating rebellion among the slaves. He...


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