Resistance and Collaboration: Political Strategies within the Afro-Carolinian Slave Community, 1700-1750

Article excerpt

Scholars of American slavery have attempted to draw some general conclusions about the strategies employed by the enslaved African Americans who encountered the restrictive and increasingly circumscribed world of American plantation societies. Beginning with Herbert Aptheker, some historians focused on armed revolts as one response to oppressive conditions on slave plantations. Aptheker perceived such responses as a manifestation of a nascent black radical political tradition that emerged as the white business class sought to rationalize a brutal economic system with notions of black inferiority as a major justification. (1) In the wake of Aptheker's acute analysis, others have chosen to simplify, and in essence individualize, the varied African American responses to the pressures of plantation life by constructing a rather narrow range of personality types to explain why they responded as they did. However, these studies did little to explain the nature of collective thought, action, or ideology that enslaved Africans fashioned within the context of plantation society. (2) More recently, as "African Diaspora Studies" have compelled us to take into account the complexity of culture and identity throughout the diaspora, researchers have begun to consider the possibility that the responses of enslaved African Americans were influenced by life in Africa before the experience of the Middle Passage. (3) While these studies certainly advanced our understanding of particular rebellions, these authors did not cast these events as representative of any particular phenomena that were present throughout the Americas. As political historian and theorist Cedric J. Robinson put it:

  These events were seen as geographically and historically bounded
  acts, episodes connected categorically by the similarity of their
  sociological elements (e.g., slave or colonial societies) but
  evidently unrelated in the sense of any emerging social movement
  inspired by historical experience and a social ideology. Such
  scholarship, of course, was either inspired or at least influenced by
  the ideological requirement that modern Western thought obliterate
  the African. (4)

In the 1970s two very influential studies were published that sought to provide some insights into the cultures of enslaved Africans that developed as plantation societies emerged. The first, published by Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, emphasized cultural variance among the Africans who arrived in the Americas as enslaved workers. They insisted that this "randomization" resulted in the development of "creolized" cultures. However, the acceptance of this argument has been called into question in recent analyses. Criticism of the "randomization" argument, and the concomitant cultural variance that the hypothesis implies, is now believed to have been overstated. (5) In the second study, Eugene Genovese argued that the slave rebellions in the 17th and most of the 18th century were "restorationist" or "isolationist" in character--not attempts to overthrow the plantation regime. (6) To Genovese, the turning point was the French Revolution, which provided the conditions and conceptual framework for the overthrow of slavery in Saint Domingue. Genovese's analysis of this particular era of black radical activity is hampered by his narrow understanding of the forces at work in American plantation societies. He failed to see that plantation elites possessed a capitalist ethos, and the "seigniorial" arrangements put in place were simply the means to specific economic ends. (7) His attempt to explain Africans' radical activity in the Americas was obscured by a Eurocentric worldview that prevented his placement of the African at the center of the African's own interpretation of New World realities. Genovese did not take into account the early manifestations of black radical ideology and the radical activity that occurred later. To him the early revolts reflected a "backward-looking ideology" and were "objectively dangerous to the development of the productive forces" in New World societies. …