Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement

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Gelien Matthews, Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006 (xii + 197 pages).

Gelien Matthews brilliantly examined the impact of slave revolts in the British West Indies on the abolition movement. There is a focus on the slave uprisings in the colonies of Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823) and Jamaica (1831-1832). The author discerned that the abolitionists were acutely aware of the complementary role of slave revolts in strengthening their antislavery efforts.

The historiography on slavery could be separated into 2 schools of thought. The first arguing that economic factors including the unprofitability of slavery led to its demise. The second group of historians, of which Matthews belongs, is of the opinion that the rationale for slavery's abolition was due to the influential role of politics and religious/humanitarian persons and groups.

Undoubtedly, Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement dissects a tumultuous period of slave protests in the preemancipation era. Some of the antislavery personalities and groups highlighted in the book were William Wilberforce, Thomas Buxton, Thomas Clarkson and the Anti-Slavery Society. The author commended Clarkson for providing "...the abolitionists with a practical demonstration of how best to combine antislavery rhetoric and tactic to achieve their objectives" (p. 102).

Despite a brave fight there were shortcomings among the humanitarians and abolitionists. For instance, in Chapter 2 "Agitating the Question", Matthews argued, "What the abolitionists did not seem to understand was that in the last years of slavery, improved conditions did not make contented slaves" (p.40). In Chapter 4 "Loaded with Deadly Evidence" one of the revelations is the manner in which abolitionists used deaths of the enslaved, following the Demerara outbreak, "...to pressure Parliament and the public to rethink and take corrective action on the regime of slavery" (p. 118). However, there were many previous incidents which the abolitionists could have utilised as poignant illustrations in their anti-slavery campaigns.

Interestingly, the author elucidated that abolitionists felt the enslaved "would find motivation from outside the system if the impetus for change was not coming from within" (p. 139). It seemed obvious that the sheer brutality of slavery would have been sufficient "impetus" for widespread and continuous resistance, be it covert or active. A minor oversight of Matthews is ignoring the role of African religious beliefs of the enslaved which would have certainly influenced the outbreak and course of these uprisings. This shortcoming might have been as a result of abolitionists who underestimated or ignored the influence of religions as voodun (voodoo) among ringleaders and its ability to suddenly transform fearful or wavering slaves.

Matthews contended, "Slaves were attuned to and curious about discussions on the slavery question taking place in the colonies and across the Atlantic. …