Robin Blackburn’s monumental book The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery reproduces on the front of its dust jacket the extreme right-side portion of John Trumbull’s patriotic painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. A young American lieutenant, “wounded in the sword hand, and in the breast,” as Trumbull described the scene, turns in hesitation as he flees the American redoubt on Breed’s Hill, wondering if he should sacrifice his life in a vain attempt to save General Joseph Warren. Close by his side stands “a faithful negro,” actually a black combatant named Peter Salem, who holds in readiness a cocked flintlock musket. So at the outbreak of the American Revolution, a black rifleman stands shoulder to shoulder with a white American patriot holding a sword in his left hand and wearing a plumed hat.1
General Thomas Gage’s Redcoats were not the only European troops shipped out to quell a colonial revolt. During the week in June 1775 when the Americans inflicted over one thousand casualties on the British at Bunker Hill, Captain John Gabriel Stedman reported that a detachment of Dutch colonial troops in Suriname had, while wading through a deep marsh, been ambushed by the rebels they were pursuing. As we learn from the account Stedman later wrote, now published for the first time in an accurate edition, the news jolted Stedman’s professional marines, who had been sent over from Holland more than two years earlier, into a state of high alert.2
In Suriname, in contrast to the North American colonies, the rebels in this “First Boni War” (1765–1777) were all escaped black slaves or the descendants of fugitive slaves. Such people were called maroons thoughout the Caribbean islands and marronnage had been a chronic problem for Europeans from the time of their first settlements in the New World; communities of maroons appeared and often flourished in the wilderness from Río de la Plata to Virginia.3 Nowhere, however, were maroons more successful in defending their independence than in the Dutch colonies of Guiana, particularly in the colony of Suriname. Today the six tribes descended from these maroons, living primarily in the interior rain forests, make up over 10 percent of Suriname’s population.
In 1760 and 1762, after a century of struggle, the two major groups of Surinamese maroons—the Djuka and Saramaka—had won treaties from the Dutch colonists acknowledging their independence and even promising a regular supply of arms and supplies. But in the colony of Berbice, to the west of Suriname, the black slave population rose in a mass revolt in 1763, seizing control of much of the sugar colony until troops sent from Holland, Suriname, and other neighboring colonies finally crushed the rebels’ dreams of founding an independent black kingdom.
Although the Djuka and Saramaka of Suriname had pledged themselves to return fugitive slaves (as had Jamaican maroons in 1739), their inland communities were an inducement to slaves to desert. In the late 1760s and early 1770s new maroon groups in Suriname began to coalesce in the forests, close to the plantations on the banks of the Cottica and Commewijne rivers. As these rebels set plantations ablaze and massacred their white inhabitants, more black slaves took to the woods. White settlers fled in panic to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, and it soon appeared that the entire colonial economy was on the brink of collapse. As Stedman’s Narrative makes clear, “the revolted Negroe Slaves…may with truth be called the Terror of this Settlement if not the total loss of it—.” A New World Haiti might well have emerged in some form without benefit of French Revolutionary ideology.4 It was to prevent such an outcome that the Dutch States-General dispatched a corps of professional soldiers, later followed by reinforcements, to assist the jaded colonial troops.
The son of a Scots army officer and his Dutch wife, Stedman had grown up partly in Scotland and partly in Holland, joining at age sixteen the Scots Brigade that served the Dutch government. Proud of his physical strength and exploits at brawling, drinking, and wenching, Stedman was also an acute and intelligent observer who had a talent for drawing and an ardent interest in flora, fauna, and ethnography. His hot temper and the toughening exposure to frequent violence and death failed to blunt his unusual sensitivity to human or animal suffering. Fluent in English, Dutch, and French, he learned to speak Sranan, the creole language of Suriname’s slaves and many whites. Stedman was ideally prepared to write what Richard and Sally Price, its editors, accurately term “one of the richest, most vivid accounts ever written of a flourishing slave society.”
After retiring from military service in his early forties, Stedman settled in England and began drafting an account of his experiences abroad based on his notebooks and the log he had kept of daily events. The Prices, during their years of research in Holland, England, Suriname, and the United States, discovered that Stanbury Thompson, an English antiquarian who had acquired Stedman’s diaries around 1940 from a London junk dealer and had sold them before his death in the late 1960s, had flagrantly distorted the text in his 1962 edition of Stedman’s Journal. In addition to locating the original manuscript diaries and arranging their sale to the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota, the Prices found fifteen of Stedman’s drawings and watercolor paintings, which as anthropologists they assure us are “ethnographically careful and accurate—considerably more so than many of the engravings modeled after [them].”
Stedman finished his long Narrative in 1790 and was later pleased when Joseph Johnson not only agreed to publish the book but engaged four engravers, including Francesco Bartolozzi and William Blake, to cut plates. Stedman established close ties with Blake, whose sixteen engravings included scenes of slave life that helped form the core of international abolitionist iconography for generations to come. What Stedman didn’t know was that in 1794 Johnson hired William Thomson, a professional editor and man of letters, to rewrite the entire manuscript. In 1795, when Stedman saw the “mard” and bowdlerized printed book, “full of lies and nonsense,” he exploded in anger and claimed to have burned two thousand copies. Although Johnson finally agreed to reinstate portions of Stedman’s text, the Prices conclude that the edition finally published in 1796 was an “unhappy compromise.”
It was the 1796 Narrative, however, that became a classic, was republished in twenty editions and translated into six languages. Eleven years ago, thanks to the alert eye of Professor Stuart B. Schwartz, a distinguished Latin American historian at the University of Minnesota, Richard Price found Stedman’s original 1790 manuscript at the James Ford Bell Library. So after the passage of two centuries, we now have a superbly edited critical edition of the book Stedman actually wrote.
The 1790 Narrative is mostly written in direct, earthy prose that evokes the emotional response of a young European captain to the naked breasts of “beautiful Negroe Maids,” to the clouds of ravenous “muskitos,” to the tremors of tropical fever, and to the delight of stripping off all his sweat-soaked clothing and diving daily into the cool depth of a Surinamese river, a therapeutic secret confided to Stedman by Cramaca, a wise old slave. Cramaca also convinced Stedman that the motion from vigorous swimming would protect him from alligators and piranhas, or “p—k biters,” as Stedman called them in his diary.5
Stedman’s first editor deleted such references to nudity as well as frequent passages expressing anger and contempt for Colonel Fourgeoud, Stedman’s commanding officer. He also diluted Stedman’s portrayal of Suriname as a cornucopia of sexual pleasure for European males, who could choose between casual one-night stands or acquiring a slave mistress who, in addition to providing sex, “preserves their linnens clean and decent, dresses their Victuals with Skill, carefully attends them/they being most excellent nurses/during the frequent illnesses to which Europeans are exposed in this Country.”6 Thomson could not eliminate references to Joanna, Stedman’s own beautiful mulatto mistress, but the 1796 edition gives no sense of Stedman’s loving admiration of Joanna’s dignity and superior talents, or of his belief in racial equality, repeatedly underscored by such affirmations as “in every respect I look on [the African Negro] as my brother,” or “I love the African Negroes, which I have showed on numberless occasions.”
Thomson’s most significant revisions, the Prices believe, pertain to Stedman’s views on race, slavery, and moral justice. The 1796 edition was published when British troops had suffered appalling casualties in order to preserve plantation slavery in the Windward Islands and were struggling to restore the institution in Saint Domingue, where black rebels and the French government had tried to abolish it. Stedman, as a retired army officer and conservative royalist, surely had sympathy for the British Caribbean troops and may well have approved the attempt to transform his Narrative into a proslavery tract. By the mid-1790s even the most conservative abolitionists were being denounced as covert Jacobins.7
In 1792 Stedman refused to sign one of the immensely popular petitions against the slave trade. Even in the 1790 manuscript he urges the reader to consider the “Proof” presented in an obdurate proslavery work by James Tobin, a wealthy planter who had written a blistering response to the Reverend James Ramsay, perhaps the most cautious and conservative of British abolitionists. Indeed, throughout the 1790 edition Stedman repeats the standard proslavery arguments that were voiced in Parliament and marshaled in pamphlets commissioned by the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants. Britain’s tropical colonies, he wrote, could not be cultivated without the labor of African slaves; the colonies would inevitably be lost if Parliament interfered by adopting “rash” measures, a lesson supposedly proved by the recent American War of Independence; many of the West Indian slaves were treated with indulgence and enjoyed such diversions as fishing, swimming, dancing, making baskets and musical instruments, and socializing with their friends and families; they were infinitely happier and more secure than European soldiers, sailors, paupers, and prostitutes, or for that matter the millions in Europe who “annually expire under the name of Liberty, loaded with the pangs of want & disease, and crushed under the galling chains of oppression.” 8
But these proslavery passages seem perfunctory and lifeless, as if dutifully inserted to prove Stedman’s “Manly” impartiality to potential subscribers and the readers of travel literature. Far from counterbalancing Stedman’s descriptions of appalling torture, brutality, and slaveholder debauchery, unforgettably illustrated by Blake’s engravings, the proslavery arguments could lend strength to the belief that Stedman was an objective eyewitness, untainted by effeminate abolitionist sentimentality. As Stedman first glimpsed Surinamese society, after stepping ashore, he saw
a most miserable Young Woman in Chains simply covered with a Rag round her Loins, which was like her Skin cut and carved by the lash of the Whip in a most Shocking Manner. Her Crime was in not having fulfilled her Task to which she was by appearance unable. Her punishment to receive 200 Lashes and for months to drag a Chain of several Yards in length the one end of which was Lock’d to her ancle and to the other End of which was a weight of 3 Score pounds or upwards. She was a beautiful Negroe Maid.
The first image, which Stedman sketched for pictorial evidence, paled by comparison as he went on to witness blacks being mutilated, dismembered, and slowly burned to death. Confirming Voltaire’s famous description of Surinamese slavery in Candide, Stedman echoed the judgment of Candide’s dismembered black informant by estimating that in the slave colonies “in 20 Years two millions of People are murdered to Provide us with Coffee & Sugar.” Stedman expressed particular outrage over the white “overgrown Widows, Stale Beauties, and overaged Maids” who out of jealousy disfigured, tortured, or killed young slave women. When Stedman tried to stop the merciless flogging of a beautiful slave girl who had refused to submit “to the loathsome Embraces” of an overseer, he learned that such interference always called for the redoubling of the punishment, and walked away imploring “the curse of Heaven to be poured down upon the whole relentless fraternity [of overseers].” Two years later he succeeded in rescuing “a Negro boy and a Girl Suspended from a high beam…in the most Agonising Tortures, and with theyr Shoulders half out of Joint,” and swore “to Demolish the Overseer for inflicting this New mode of torture Without he Promis’d to forgive them which Miraculously did—.”
The 1790 Narrative rivals the most radical abolitionist literature in its scathing portrayal of a slave society. As Stedman saw, the root of the problem lay in the corrupting temptations of unlimited power. There was no law or impartial authority that could prevent whites from killing slaves with impunity, from cutting off their ears or slitting their noses “from private Peek,” or smashing out their “Teeth for Tasting the Sugar Cane Cultivated by themselves.” It was no wonder, Stedman wrote, that slaves seized every chance to assemble armies of rebels in the forest “to Seek Revenge & Liberty.” Stedman not only expressed frequent admiration for blacks, including a magnificent swimmer named Philander, “the Finest Man without Exception that Ever I saw in all my Life,” but took pride in looking like a mulatto after cutting his hair short, having his skin darkened by the tropical sun, and his bare feet toughened by years of marching through the forests. During his seven agonizing campaigns against the rebels, Stedman also tried to learn from their “Masterly Manoeuvers” and built “a High Palace on 12 Stakes in imitation of Bonys [Boni] the Prince of the Rebels.”
In many ways Stedman exemplified the preracist and pre-abolitionist mentality of a sensitive, outgoing man of the world who knew that life was filled with pain and death and who took slavery as much for granted as the disease and suffering he and his fellow soldiers experienced in the rain forests of Suriname. Though outraged by the extraordinary excesses of the plantation system, he was content in the end to propose modest political and legal reforms and to intersperse descriptions of exotic “Quadrupedes–Birds–Fishes–Reptiles, trees, Shrubs–Fruits & Roots” with recollections of sadistic brutality.
Stedman’s perceptions of slavery were influenced by one crucial phenomenon that has been disconcerting for modern historians, especially those of the left. From Stedman’s account it is clear that Suriname could never have survived without the aid of black soldiers who were carefully selected from the slave population and offered their freedom. Stedman called them “rangers,” likening them to the rangers who fought the Cherokee in North America. Where the white troops were continually baffled and cut off from their supplies by the rebels, the black rangers knew the techniques of bush fighting and guerrilla warfare; in 1772 they had even discovered the secret underwater paths of communication to the main rebel base, thereby enabling the whites to capture it. “It will ever be my Opinion,” Stedman wrote, “that one of these free negroes, was Preferable to half a Dozen White men in the Woods of Guiana, which Seemed their natural Element.”
Stedman was astonished by the bravery of these black troops, by “theyr fidelity to the Europeans,” and by their “implacable bitterness against the rebels,” whom they mutilated or killed on the spot. The bitterness was mutual, since the rebels viewed the rangers as “Traytors—and betrayers of theyr Countrymen.” In one instance, at least, the rebels were beaten back by plantation slaves who had been armed at the last minute by their master. While it should be emphasized that planters could never count on such performance and that Stedman often speaks of plots and insurrections, the fact remains that in the 1790s the British relied increasingly on “slaves in Red Coats” in their attempts to conquer Saint Domingue and defend their own slave colonies. Without the aid of such black power, including informers who revealed impending uprisings, it seems probable that the West Indian slaveholder regimes would have been overthrown during the last third of the eighteenth century.9
If Robin Blackburn fails to give this question the attention it deserves, it is one of the few weaknesses of his vast, complex, and powerful narrative that describes and accounts for the abolition of colonial slavery from the American Revolution to the revolutions of 1848. Blackburn, who edits the New Left Review in London, is the first historian since Eric Williams to present a comprehensive interpretation that connects the destruction of slave systems to the American and French revolutions, to the colonial revolts against imperial authority, and to the triumph of industrial capitalism in Britain. But Blackburn, profiting from and admirably synthesizing the vast scholarship produced since the publication of Williams’s influential book Capitalism and Slavery (1944), is far less rigid and doctrinaire than Williams, much more attuned to the workings of politics. Unlike Williams, he includes slavery throughout the Western hemisphere (though he curiously fails to mention Canada).
In many respects Blackburn succeeds in his aim to move beyond the works of Williams, Eugene D. Genovese, and the present reviewer “to construct a Marxist narrative of the actual liberation struggles in the different areas of the Americas and to establish to what extent anti-slavery, either in intention or result, transcended the bourgeois democratic or capitalist dynamic.” We can leave it to self-professed Marxians to debate just what is Marxist in his narrative. Blackburn emphatically rejects economic determinism and in fact shows relatively little interest in the economics of slavery or the development of new consumer markets. He repeatedly stresses the contingency of events, the unpredictable confluence of military, political, and ideological developments, and the irreducible importance of individual choice.10 “The overthrow of slavery,” he writes when discussing the impact of the French Revolution in Saint Domingue, “required conscious and dedicated protagonists as well as favourable conditions.” He may well give too much attention to “elite” leaders to satisfy those who favor history “from the bottom up,” though in Saint Domingue the black elite were less dedicated than the black masses.
All this said, no one can mistake Blackburn’s sympathies or his casting of good guys and bad guys. In Saint Domingue, patriot “bands” clash with royalist “gangs.” For him, the French Jacobins, who generally opposed interference with the Atlantic slave trade, are far more admirable than the American revolutionaries who outlawed slave imports and in 1777 adopted the first constitution in history (Vermont’s) that prohibited slavery outright. Plebeian abolitionists are somehow more authentic than bourgeois abolitionists, especially those bourgeois motivated by Christian benevolence. Like C. L. R. James, the Marxist author of Black Jacobins, a major study of the Haitian revolution, Blackburn would like to convey “a marvellous sense of the eruption of the masses in history,” and at one point he concludes that
part of the grandeur of the great French Revolution is that it came to sponsor slave emancipation in the Americas; and part of the grandeur of the great Revolution in St. Domingue/Haiti is that it successfully defended the gains of the French Revolution against France itself…. Haiti was not the first independent American state but it was the first to guarantee civic liberty to all inhabitants.
As these samples indicate, Blackburn’s rhetoric is sometimes haunted by a Marxist scenario of what should have happened. Remarkably, this ghost from the past seldom impedes Blackburn’s quest to understand what did happen. Indeed, his flexibility, open-mindedness, and balanced judgments are characteristic of the best recent “Marxist” writing on slavery. It may not be coincidental, at a moment when Marxism is being subjected to intense self-scrutiny around the world, that Blackburn views the British antislavery movement as an instrument for progressive adaptation that eventually rendered the capitalist “ship of state more seaworthy in a storm.”
Blackburn’s highly readable narrative presents the political and social setting of the gradual emancipation acts in the northern United States, the violent overthrow of slavery in Haiti, the less decisive undermining of the institution during the Latin American wars of independence, the outlawing of the slave trade in 1808 by Britain and the United States, Britain’s legislative emancipation in 1834 of some 800,000 colonial slaves, and the final eradication of slavery in the French and Danish colonies during the revolutions of 1848. It is welcome news that Blackburn is preparing two companion volumes, The West and the Rise of Slavery and Nemesis of the Slave Power, the latter concentrating on the final struggle for emancipation in the three societies in which black slavery gained strength during the first half of the nineteenth century: the southern United States, Cuba, and Brazil (in Suriname and the other Dutch New World colonies, slavery persisted until 1863 but was of marginal economic importance).
The present volume, while containing informative chapters on the French and Haitian revolutions, Latin America, and the French restoration of slavery in the early nineteenth century, quite rightly centers on Britain. For it was Hanoverian Britain, the world’s leading slave-trading nation, that executed a dramatic volteface that led to costly efforts to eradicate the entire Atlantic slave trade and encourage abolitionist movements throughout the world. Most students of the question agree that Britain’s conversion to antislavery ideology was related in some way to the Industrial Revolution, the need to legitimize and honor wage labor, and the bitter struggles over various demands for domestic reform. But as Seymour Drescher and David Eltis have recently argued, Britain’s antislavery policies actually ran counter to the nation’s economic self-interest.11
Blackburn agrees, in his central conclusion, “that slavery was not overthrown for economic reasons but where it became politically untenable.” His rejection of economic causation extends to the historically naive theory that the spread of capitalism and market values cultivated new habits of thought, such as “thinking causally,” which gave efficacy to the Golden Rule and made possible new and enlarged conceptions of moral responsibility, exemplified in abolitionism and other humanitarian movements.12 Blackburn’s narrative, so rich in significant detail, demonstrates the fallacy of divorcing an abstract “humanitarian sensibility” either from the political and class struggles within the British metropolis or from the militant actions of the colonial planters, the free blacks, and the slaves themselves.
Moreover, as Blackburn observes, abolitionists found it extremely difficult to win over merchants and manufacturers involved in trades that employed slaves precisely because
markets set up a structure which appeared to erase individual responsibility for the pattern of resultant action. Very often bankers and trustees would have been negligent of their clients’ interests if they had not seized profitable openings available to them in the slave-related sector.
Although Blackburn tends to underestimate the religious sources of both white and black activism, he recognizes that the radical Agency Committee of the British abolitionists instructed its lecturers “to make clear that the central objection to slavery was humanitarian and religious,” and that the movement “derived strength from its association with the critique of the operation of pure market forces, rather than their celebration.”
Blackburn captures the dynamic tension between antislavery as a means of demonstrating the liberality of a privileged class or political regime and antislavery as a vehicle for challenging all hierarchical establishments. In the late eighteenth-century world of political upheaval and intrusive commercialization, antislavery and patriotism served
as secular correlates to [the evangelical religious] search for new meanings and a more stable and satisfying order, alike in the public and private spheres. The challenge to empire was accompanied and preceded by a generalised malaise, what might be called the “legitimation crisis.”
By 1806, as the British government strained to maintain support for a seemingly interminable war and to stave off moves for major domestic reforms, various leaders began to see abolition of the slave trade as “the only reform measure which was simultaneously widely popular, agreed between leading members of the government and within the realm of the ‘art of the possible.”‘ The final passage of abolition, according to Blackburn,
dignified and elevated Britain’s resistance to Napoleon and bid for global hegemony. The self-confidence of the ruling class was boosted and at least some of the ground-swell of democratic patriotism evident in 1804–6 harnessed to the war effort…. The passage of abolition offered symbolic satisfaction to middle-class reform while preserving unchanged the substance of oligarchic power…. Just as abolitionist legislation helped the oligarchy to assert its right to rule and deflect middle-class agitation for reform, so in the industrial districts middle-class abolitionism helped manufacturers to outface menacing combinations, cement ties with other respectable persons and assert their social conscience. The Luddites sought to halt or deflect capitalist industrialisation by threats of violence; the abolitionists proclaimed the need to pacify market relations and base them on a minimum respect for personal inviolability and autonomy.
But these conservative, legitimizing functions of the antislavery movement by no means stifled domestic protest or movements for radical reform, which in fact drew upon the techniques abolitionists used to call mass meetings, obtain hundreds of thousands of petition signatures, interrogate political candidates, and arouse and inform armies of disfranchised artisans, farmers, and women. Blackburn quite rightly stresses the ambiguous and changing character of the British antislavery cause. As “the least controversial reform” in an age of sharp class conflict, it attracted the crucial support of Lords Grenville, Grey, Derby, and other enlightened members of the oligarchy along with middle-class evangelicals and plebeian radicals like Robert Wedderburn, the son of a Jamaican slave woman, who preached to crowds in a large Soho hayloft chapel, calling for a republican revolution in England and a mass insurrection of West Indian slaves.
Except for some inconsistent rhetoric, Blackburn recognizes the contributions slaves and free blacks made to their own emancipation without succumbing to the romantic view that the black masses finally intimidated British policy makers, forcing them to choose emancipation as the only alternative to revolution. As Stedman’s Narrative makes clear, the victories of black rebels in Suriname and Berbice failed to shake the resolve of the slaveholding Dutch.13 Even the traumatic lesson of the Haitian revolution did not deter the French from restoring slavery in Guadeloupe and shipping at least 125,000 new slaves to their Caribbean colonies after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Despite major slave revolts in Barbados in 1816, in Demerara in 1823, and in Jamaica in 1831, Blackburn concludes that for British rulers this slave resistance was not by itself “a decisive consideration.”
Thanks to the restraint of the slaves, who hoped to strengthen the hand of their antislavery friends in Britain, these nineteenth-century revolts resulted in few white casualties. In Stedman’s time the Guianese rebels had killed and terrorized whites throughout the interior. But in Demerara, one of the Dutch Guianese colonies later annexed by the British, thousands of rebels apparently inflicted only one casualty upon the governor’s outnumbered forces, and were content to demand “Our right” and to plead for their own lands and three days a week to work for themselves. For this insubordination some 250 slaves were killed and many more flogged or imprisoned.
In the great Jamaican revolt of 1831 slaves burned cane fields and destroyed hundreds of buildings but killed few whites. Some 540 slaves were either executed or killed in the fighting by black and white colonial troops. As Blackburn points out, “the very revulsion prompted by the idea of slavery can lead to an over-simplified view of how easy it was to end it…. The odds were stacked against slave resistance…. Unifying the oppressed was extraordinarily difficult.” If Britain had been willing to pay the political and economic costs, the West Indian garrisons could easily have been reinforced and slave resistance could have been contained, as it had been during the previous two centuries.
This conclusion should not distract attention from the decisive impact on British public opinion of slave resistance and free black demands for equal rights. While much is still to be learned about the convergence of events that led to British emancipation, Blackburn goes beyond previous historians in illuminating the cumulative effect of diverse forces and the way antislavery became intermingled with other social and political contests. In the last analysis, the connection between capitalism and antislavery was indirect, in the sense that antislavery sentiment was promoted, however erratically, by the class conflicts and governmental structures that industrial capitalism produced.
Blackburn explicitly rejects the view that abolitionism was an instrument of capitalist “social control.” He acknowledges that “abolitionism as an ideology was capable of directly articulating a fairly comprehensive projection of bourgeois ideals and capitalist disciplines.” Yet in various countries the movement tended to alienate industrialists and business leaders and attract bourgeois reformers who had, he writes, “a generous and even utopian side to them.” Major abolitionist leaders, such as Joseph Sturge in England, Victor Schoelcher in France, and (though not mentioned by Blackburn) Wendell Phillips in the United States, “remained eminently bourgeois without ever being in the mainstream or even specifically pro-capitalist.” The one point missing in this otherwise accurate analysis is the central importance of religious commitment, at least among the British and American foes of slavery, blacks as well as whites.
Blackburn, whose treatment of United States history is rather superficial, gives little attention to race. And he is no doubt right when he concludes that “the blockages and delays encountered by British and French abolition stemmed more from the solidarity of the propertied classes than from racial solidarity.” In the United States, however, historians have often begun with the central issue of “race relations” and have then approached slavery and antislavery as subsidiary parts of this larger field. This description applies to the work of the eminent Stanford historian George M. Fredrickson, who moved from a brilliant chapter on “The Meaning of Emancipation,” in The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (1964), to write The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (1971) and White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (1981).
In The Arrogance of Race Fredrickson has assembled seventeen essays that diverge sharply from Blackburn’s work in tone, method, and assumptions, to say nothing of style. This is not to imply that Fredrickson is in any way parochial, since he has been a pioneer in comparative history and devotes one essay in this volume to an analysis of white responses to slave emancipation in the American South, Jamaica, and the Cape of Good Hope. In his introduction and in the two essays published here for the first time, Fredrickson acknowledges his great intellectual debt to Max Weber, who has long provided him with a “pluralistic, multicausal approach as a point of departure for historical analysis,” in contrast to “a Marxist class determinism or an idealist cultural determinism.” Since Blackburn has also adopted a pluralistic, multicausal approach, one must still ask how the concept of race fits in with Fredrickson’s laudable goals.
Having been attacked by neo-Marxians for elevating race above class, Fredrickson shows that he has always opposed the attempts by some historians
to find the origins of American racism in a cluster of deeply rooted or primordial [antiblack] sentiments brought from Europe by the early colonists and to play down the impact of the social and economic circumstances associated with the rise of plantation slavery.
He has insisted, however, that “racism, although the child of slavery, not only outlived its parent but grew stronger and more independent after slavery’s demise.”
Fredrickson has an admirable ability to move from abstract theory to specific historical events, allowing each level of analysis to illuminate the other. His essays in The Arrogance of Race always show a sophisticated grasp of social theory as he moves from the limitations of planter-class paternalism to Lincoln’s views of racial equality; from the historiographical legacy of C. Vann Woodward to the connections between colonialism and racism within “the full spectrum of multiracial societies resulting from the expansion of Europe and the development of a world capitalist economy.” Written with clarity and elegance, this collection reconfirms Fredrickson’s reputation as our leading authority on racism, antiracism, and the racial attitudes of whites.
Despite the strengths of Fredrickson’s approach, the meaning of race itself remains curiously elusive. To what extent is race an ideological construction? How do we account for a man like Stedman, who for years fought black rebels and defended slavery and yet condemned racism as a moral insult to humanity? How could a black Jamaican-born tailor like Robert Wedderburn attract such an enthusiastic following among London’s most oppressed and poverty-stricken whites, when in contemporary American cities a similar class of whites rejoiced in burning and looting black homes, schools, and churches? Why did definitions of blacks, mulattoes, quadroons—the very concept of “race”—differ so dramatically from one slaveholding region to another? Or for that matter, why did the recent riot in Nanjing become the occasion for such soul-searching by Chinese and Westerners over racism in China, a country far removed from any heritage of black plantation slavery? Are the concepts of race and class to be given equal ontological weight, as Fredrickson implies when he calls for an “interactionist approach” that refrains from giving theoretical priority to either category?
These are not questions one would expect to see resolved in a collection of essays concerned with biographical case studies, the historiography of southern race relations, and the promise of the comparative method. Whatever ambiguities still adhere to the historical construct “race,” Fredrickson has led the way in lucidly tracing and analyzing the history of racism in America. And about the reality, iniquity, and persistence of American racism there can be no doubt.
March 30, 1989
Trumbull, who had watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance, painted this scene in London in 1786. It now hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery. As Hugh Honour points out in his magnificent new work, The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. IV: From the American Revolution to World War I, Part I: Slaves and Liberators (Harvard University Press, 1989), Trumbull’s painting bore strong thematic and stylistic resemblances to John Singleton Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson, in which a beplumed black soldier, fighting with the British who are resisting a French invasion of the Channel Island of Jersey, aims in Copley’s words “his musquet at the French officer by whom his master was slain” (pp. 41–44). The two paintings, intended for American and British audiences respectively, reflect the fact that blacks fought on both sides in the American Revolution, many escaping by this means from slavery (for further illustrations and historical information, see Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770–1800, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973). ↩
Stedman later mentions the “Havock” of the Battle of Bunker Hill (p. 558) and encounters Tory refugees in Suriname, as well as American seamen who denounced Lord North and swore they would be willing to die in defense of American liberties. ↩
The English word “maroon” and the French marron derived from the Spanish cimarrón, which first referred to domestic cattle that roamed off into the hills of Hispaniola. See Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), and Gad Heuman, ed., “Out of the House of Bondage: Runaways, Resistance and Marronage in Africa and the New World,” Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Comparative Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 (December 1985). For fascinating accounts and illustrations of the persistence of maroon culture in modern Suriname, see Richard Price, First-Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), and Richard Price and Sally Price, Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest (University of California Press, 1980). ↩
In effect, Palmares, the mocambo or “African state” in Brazil, fits this description. This large community of fugitive slaves resisted conquest through most of the seventeenth century. Unlike Haiti, of course, it did not have a formal constitution based on principles of the Euro-American Enlightenment. ↩
In the 1790 Narrative Stedman avoids this term but refers to piranhas snapping off “the fingers and breasts of women and private Parts of Men.” This passage was deleted from the 1796 edition and Thompson deleted the more graphic phrase from his edition of the Journal. ↩
The Prices point out that Stedman himself censored the impersonal, commercial sexual exchanges recorded in his diary. He did make it clear, however, that European men were drained to exhaustion by their frequent relations with remarkably athletic black and mulatto women. ↩
In an endnote the Prices carefully consider and then reject the possibility that Stedman’s views on slavery may have hardened after 1790 and that he himself may have been responsible for some of the changes in the 1796 edition that they attribute to William Thomson, who had accepted commissions to write proslavery tracts at the time he was revising Stedman’s manuscript. Their reasoning is partly convincing, but to this reviewer they fail to give sufficient weight to the proslavery passages in the 1790 manuscript and to the probable effects on a professional soldier and patriot of the “Black Jacobins” of Saint Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Grenada, who were killing thousands of Stedman’s comrades. ↩
For an informative description and analysis of proslavery ideology in Britain and the northern United States, which drew on the counterrevolutionary reaction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840 (University of Georgia Press, 1988). ↩
See especially Roger Norman Buckley, Slaves in Red Coats: The British West India Regiments, 1795–1815 (Yale University Press, 1979), and David Geggus, Slavery, War and Revolution: The British Occupation of Saint Domingue, 1793–1798 (Oxford University Press, 1981). This conclusion applies mainly to colonies populated by overwhelming black majorities. At the end of the eighteenth century Cuba and Puerto Rico had only begun to develop plantation economies. ↩
Blackburn appears to find determinism in my own Slavery and Human Progress, which implies that “the unfolding of events is already pre-programmed” and which risks “trapping us in a closed history where the imperative of progress cannot be escaped”; that was certainly not the message I intended to convey, though such idealistic determinism can be seen in many of the nineteenth-century writers I discussed. ↩
See my review in this journal, March 31, 1988. ↩
This dubious thesis, which is reduced to ruins by Blackburn’s narrative and explicit attack, can be found in Thomas L. Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 1,” American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 2 (April 1985), pp. 339–361; “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 2,” American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3 (June 1985), pp. 547–566. Critiques by John Ashworth and the present reviewer appear, along with a lengthy reply by Haskell, in the same journal, Vol. 92, No. 4 (October 1987), pp. 797–878. ↩
Blackburn discusses Stedman’s 1796 Narrative in an endnote and quotes from Stedman the remarkable statement of a defiant rebel who in 1757 described to a representative of the government the slaves who had been abused and finally driven to the woods, “who by their sweat earn your subsistence, without whose hands your colony must drop to nothing, and to whom at last, in this disgraceful manner, you are glad to come and sue for friendship.” Blackburn also refers to the black rangers recruited by the British and to black maroon leaders in Saint Domingue who practiced voodoo and cooperated with the British. He makes no effort to explain this betrayal of black solidarity. ↩