Degrees of Freedom in the Caribbean: Archaeological Explorations of Transitions from Slavery

By Armstrong, Douglas V. | Antiquity, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Degrees of Freedom in the Caribbean: Archaeological Explorations of Transitions from Slavery


Armstrong, Douglas V., Antiquity


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Introduction

The core of this paper was presented as a plenary lecture at the 2007 TAG conference in York, and was designed to provoke contemplation of the 200th anniversary of the cessation of the British and United States slave trade in 1807. The objective was to encourage thought regarding the shift to freedom represented by this legal step, which was aimed at moving towards the elimination of slavery in the Americas. A number of questions were raised, including: what are the implications in the archaeological record of this and subsequent events as related to emancipation, freedom and the formal codification of inalienable rights for mankind? Certainly, stopping the slave trade did not stop slavery, nor did subsequent emancipation bring about complete freedom for those who were formally enslaved. What is the archaeological record of this transition to freedom and how is it expressed?

My study first defines the key attributes that we may associate with enslavement, and then reports, in summary form, two campaigns of investigation in the Caribbean (Figure 1). It will be seen that archaeological evidence points to episodes of social change which depend on local conditions of ownership: emancipation does not coincide directly with the decrees of freedom, but rather to an irregular transition representing variable 'degrees of freedom'.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The historical trajectory of emancipation

In Jamaica and other British colonies, the documented shift to freedom was gradual. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 and Africans were resettled, not only in Africa, but on less valued lands on islands such as Tortola. However, formal sanctions for the cessation of the slave trade did not grant emancipation for the enslaved, nor was it entirely effective in stopping the slave trade, particularly beyond those areas directly controlled by the British. Steps toward amelioration began in 1817, apprenticeship in 1834 and formal emancipation in 1838. While the dates associated with the trajectory towards freedom in the British Caribbean are well known, the temporal contexts of emancipation in the Americas are quite diverse. In the Danish West Indies emancipation did not occur until 1848 and for Spanish colonies like Puerto Rico it was 1873 and for Cuba 1886. In the United States emancipation occurred at various rimes in different states. For instance, full emancipation in New York was legislated in 1827. However, it was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that the elimination of slavery was sanctioned under US Federal law, and it was two years later when this law was fully enforced at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. To complicate matters, French colonial holdings in the Caribbean each have a unique history and Guadeloupe went through a period of at least theoretical emancipation during the French Revolution only to see slavery return during the Napoleonic Era. Although a war waged by enslaved Haitians led to a new rebellion and the retention of the status of emancipation in 1803, emancipation did not come until 1848 for the French Caribbean colonies as a whole.

In specific instances wars were waged by the enslaved directly against those who held them in bondage. On St. John in the Danish West Indies, a group of enslaved Africans rebelled and gained control of much of the island for nearly a year in 1733 and 1734. More than a century later, in 1848, the threat of rebellion on St. Croix brought a unique capitulation and a sweeping unilateral decree of emancipation from Danish West Indian governor Peter Von Scholten, an act that was only later confirmed by the Danish crown (Lawaetz 1999). In Jamaica, Tacky's 1760-61 war against plantation owners, and hence colonial rule, involved several hundred who declared their freedom and rebelled against the colonial state. Such wars and rebellions brought hard-fought, but often short-term freedoms to those who resisted slavery.

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