No slavery can be abolished without a double emancipation, and the master will benefit by freedom more than the freed-man  – Thomas Huxley

This Tuesday, August 1st, is Emancipation Day! Slavery was abolished 183 years ago. 183 years! But yet, oftentimes, I wonder what has happened to the promise of that seminal event.
Studying Caribbean History back at Queen’s, we spent a lot of time learning about conditions on the sugar plantations during slavery and after Emancipation. It was a descent into horror. It was an eye opener to learn about the slave trade and about the terror of the Middle Passage which, when contraposed against the societies from which the slaves were snatched, becomes an object lesson of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
I was surprised (but vindicated that I chose to write History at CSEC!) when, in my first year in med school, one of the required classes (they’re all “required” incidentally) was “Caribbean Civilisation”. Quite a lot of my new friends found the going quite strenuous and unfamiliar, but to me it was quite familiar territory — but with a twist.
The professor, Dr John Campbell, chose as his foundational text a book he’d written: Beyond Massa.
The book dealt with the running of the sugar plantation Golden Grove in eastern Jamaica during the years 1770-1834. The setting and timeframe are both significant since, at the time, Jamaica was the most profitable British colony in the Caribbean, and yet there were pressures developing in England for the abolition of slavery, the “peculiar institution” from which the wealth from sugar was generated.
Most intriguingly, Campbell used as his primary source of data the correspondence from the manager of the plantation, Simon Taylor, and the absentee owner, Chaloner Arcedeckne. These letters are on the Web… and they are fascinating. But what made the work interesting was his use of ideas from the contemporary Human Resource Model (HRM) of managing workers. Slavery was more nuanced than I had been taught.
He placed emphasis on the social interactions between the enslaved and the managers, rather than the now conventional historiographical focus on the economic aspects of plantation society.
He emphasised that there was a two-way negotiated space where the enslaved people had more ‘agency’ than previous studies had accredited to them: they were subjects, and not just objects.
The study also contended that the differences between the West African form of slavery, from which the slaves were brought, and Caribbean chattel slavery were crucial in the new dyadic master-slave relationship. In the West African form, the slave was still considered a person, while under the chattel slavery system, the slave was completely dehumanised and considered “property”. And it is because the enslaved people were accustomed to this more benign concept of slavery that HRM techniques could work. There could be opportunities for bargaining and negotiation.
Taking the logic to its denouement, the author posits a third and controversial thesis – that the enslaved people did not want to end slavery itself, they simply “wanted to change the tone of British West Indian slavery”.
The historiography on the institution of West Indian slavery was initially dominated by British writers, who focused on the “civilising” mission of the enterprise for the African slaves, who were not considered fully human. This is in our high school textbooks.
This perspective was challenged by historians such as Eric Williams, who later became the first PM of TT. He proposed a more Marxian economic-based approach, which stressed the role of slavery in laying the material foundation of Britain’s industrial revolution. This is now being supported by modern scholars who are relooking at what Marx called “primitive accumulation”. We don’t hear much of this.
Now Campbell offers another perspective. It’s worth checking out.
As our Caribbean prophet Bob Marley sang, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”
Happy Emancipation Day!