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135 5 APOCALYPTIC WARNING This chapter explores the most dynamic lesson that British abolitionists extracted from the nineteenth-century slave rebellions in the British West Indies. It examines how abolitionists used rebellions to warn of the dangers they posed to the British Empire and to individuals with economic stakes in the colonies. While the basic message of warning remained the same, it was used to justify different objectives at different periods of the antislavery movement in Britain. The discussion moves from 1823, when the abolitionists embarked on a campaign for gradual emancipation, to 1834, when they were skeptical whether the adopted emancipation plan would secure peace and safety in the colonies. British abolitionists repeatedly referred to Samuel Johnson’s inflammatory toast. One version stated that in the hearing of a black servant Dr. Johnson raised his glass and declared, “A speedy insurrection of slaves in Jamaica and success to them!”1 As often as they chose to quote the doctor , however, antislavery advocates were hardly at liberty even to seem to champion the self-liberating attempts of the slaves. To do so not only was dangerous to the continued survival of the colonies but also would cause the abolitionists to appear hypocritical. They had made known their intolerance of all violent means of addressing the problem since the time of the slave-trade debates. They had advised that emancipation must not come by the slaves but that the masters themselves should be its willing authors. They had stated then that only an enemy or enemies of the slaves would resort to violence to secure immediate and premature emancipation .2 It was easy for their opponents to construe as malicious any abolitionist effort to turn to advantage the issue of servile war. It did not seem to matter that this was exactly what the slaving interest did in their attempt to forestall the antislavery initiative. 1. Edinburgh Review 39, no. 77 (October 1823): 119. 2. Ibid., 126; Wilberforce and Wilberforce (1838), 5:240. British abolitionists, in spite of intense opposition, found it pragmatic to employ the slave violence argument. Harboring no sense of selfcondemnation , they reasoned that operating as if the problem did not exist would only exacerbate the danger. It was their duty to warn the slaving interests and the British government of the dangers inherent in slavery while fervently expressing the hope that both or either of these parties would take measures to prevent the abolitionists’ dreadful foreboding from materializing. Almost as soon as the abolitionists embarked on the mission of attacking the system of slavery itself as it existed in the British West Indian colonies, they began referring to the dangers of servile war. By 1823, Thomas Fowell Buxton, the new leader of the antislavery movement, and his predecessor William Wilberforce voiced the issue. These were only early reflections, however, and were put forward at a time when rebellion but was not a pressing issue on abolitionists’ minds. It had been seven years since the Barbados revolt, and the rising in Demerara would not occur for a few months. However, in the aftermath of the Demerara rebellion , several abolitionists took up with greater fervency the question of the dangers of slavery. None was more outstanding in his concentrated treatment of the subject in this period than Wilberforce. His coverage of the theme of rebellion in British abolitionism was seminal and furnished a clear general overview of the topic. In the mid-1820s, the slave rebellion argument in antislavery ideology was taken up in more detail by Thomas Clarkson and by the Anti-Slavery Society. Most of this discussion was published in the Edinburgh Review and in the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter, later called the Anti-Slavery Reporter. Throughout the 1820s, however, the abolitionists were committed only to amelioration or the mitigation and gradual abolition of slavery. Consequently, while they did shape and present the dynamic vision inherent in the slave rebellion argument, the abolitionists suffocated its strength by requesting mere pastoral measures of slave reform. It was not until the 1830s that the abolitionists were finally persuaded of the failure of amelioration. They grew more convinced that the only solution to the slavery problem was complete and immediate emancipation. When slaves in Jamaica rose against their masters in 1831– 1832 in what was the largest rebellion of the century in the British West Indies, they strengthened the abolitionist commitment to immediate eman136 CARIBBEAN SLAVE REVOLTS AND THE BRITISH ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT cipation. Thus, the abolitionists used the...


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