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3 THE OTHER SIDE OF SLAVE REVOLTS The attempt to satisfactorily interpret the nineteenth-century slave rebellions in the British West Indies presents the historian with great difficulties . Generally uneducated, slave rebels were unable to leave records articulating their own perception of rebellion. The slave records that do exist, largely in the form of court-martial testimonies, are scarcely reliable . Elizabeth Johnson accurately captures the epistemological disadvantages of working with sources “obtained under conditions of duress. For the slaves involved testimonies were often extracted through torture and almost always with the understanding that survival depended upon the statements they made to the judges.”1 Planters dominated contemporaneous writings about slave revolts, and their skewed interpretations have led Hilary Beckles to charge that such proslavery writings were “negrophobic descriptions and commentaries . . . based on racist notions of angry and savage blacks in vengeful and mindless lust for blood and white women.”2 Presenting the slaves’ personal struggle in a more positive light, Eugene Genovese postulates that slaves did not always react in a primitive manner to the hostile conditions of their enslavement when they revolted . The pattern of their recurrent resistance shifted over the years from a basic attempt to destroy their masters and escape enslavement to a conscious revolutionary struggle aimed at overthrowing the slavery system altogether.3 Michael Craton, whose studies on slave resistance focus on the English colonies, argues that historians subscribing to Genovese’s analysis have overstated the case. The essence of Craton’s position is that by the nineteenth century the largely creolized British West Indian slave 58 1. Elizabeth Johnson, “The Historiography of Slave Rebellion: Cuba in a Hemispheric Perspective,” Journal of Caribbean History 31, nos. 1 and 2 (1977): 103. 2. Hilary Beckles, “Caribbean Anti-Slavery: The Self-Liberation Ethos of Enslaved Blacks,” in Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World, ed. Verene Shepherd and Hilary Beckles (Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2001), 871. 3. Genovese (1979), chap. 1. populations sharply perceived strengths and weaknesses in the local colonial status quo. Thus they could make reasonable predictions about the most opportune times to take up arms against their masters and demand their freedom.4 Contemporaneous writings and current scholarship have presented a variety of interpretations of the nature of slave resistance. There still exists a failure to articulate satisfactorily the context within which the leaders of the British antislavery movement located slave rebellions. British abolitionists, however, did offer considerable commentary on the major nineteenth-century slave rebellions in the British West Indies. Abolitionists ’ characterization of slave revolts, while not quite as radical as Genovese ’s mature revolutionary interpretation, favorably depicted the protest actions of rebel slaves. Abolitionists read the admittedly faulty records and presented their version of the attributes that constituted a slave rebellion , a version that challenged the accounts of their opponents. This chapter examines the manner in which abolitionists depicted the rebellions of nineteenth-century slaves in the British West Indies. the st. domingue bogey When news of the 1816 Barbados slave revolt reached the British public and Parliament, it seemed that the planters could not but prevail in their goal of silencing the slavery reformers. The revolt appeared to justify predictions that discussion of the slavery question and attempts to reform colonial plantation society would inevitably end in disaster. To the planters, Barbados 1816 was the realization of their fears that the horror of the 1791 St. Domingue slave revolt had come to the British West Indies. St. Domingue had won notoriety among the British for being a place where vengeful and savage black slaves massacred their masters, razed their property, and spread crippling anxiety among the white population. Reports of events in the former French territory often depicted “garish images of rebellion . . . white captives hung from trees with hooks through their chains; men sawn in half; children impaled; women raped on the corpse of their husbands and fathers; hundreds of plantations ablaze.”5 4. Craton (1982), 14. 5. David Geggus, Slavery, War and Revolution: The British Occupation of St Domingue, 1793–1798 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 88. THE OTHER SIDE OF SLAVE REVOLTS 59 Historian W. F. Finalson records that Allison’s History of Europe was regularly quoted in recreating the horror of St. Domingue. Twenty thousand Negroes broke into the city, and, with the torch in one hand and the sword in the other, spread slaughter and devastation around. The Europeans found themselves surrounded by the vengeance which had been accumulating for centuries in the African heart. Neither age nor sex was...


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