Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

Synopsis

The Oberlin College mission to Jamaica, begun in the 1830s, was an ambitious, and ultimately troubled, effort to use the example of emancipation in the British West Indies to advance the domestic agenda of American abolitionists. White Americans hoped to argue that American slaves, once freed, could be absorbed productively into the society that had previously enslaved them, but their "civilizing mission" did not go as anticipated. Gale L. Kenny's illuminating study examines the differing ideas of freedom held by white evangelical abolitionists and freed people in Jamaica and explores the consequences of their encounter for both American and Jamaican history.

Kenny finds that white Americans--who went to Jamaica intending to assist with the transition from slavery to Christian practice and solid citizenship--were frustrated by liberated blacks' unwillingness to conform to Victorian norms of gender, family, and religion. In tracing the history of the thirty-year mission, Kenny makes creative use of available sources to unpack assumptions on both sides of this American-Jamaican interaction, showing how liberated slaves in many cases were able not just to resist the imposition of white mores but to redefine the terms of the encounter.

Excerpt

On August 1, 1838, Americans looked south to the West Indies with great anticipation as they waited to see how Britain’s great experiment of emancipation would proceed. Five years before, Britain had passed the Abolition Act, and the first stages of the gradual abolition of colonial slavery took effect in August 1834. While Antigua proceeded to emancipate all slaves, Jamaica and Barbados reclassified most enslaved people as apprentices. American and British abolitionists alike had condemned the apprenticeship system as a useless half-measure, and Parliament eventually agreed, bringing apprenticeship to an early end in 1838. For many observers, full emancipation began a test of free-labor ideology and the efficacy of the civilizing mission: would ex-slaves work for wages? Would black people adopt “civilized”—that is, English—Christianity? Over the ensuing years, scholars, politicians, philanthropists, and journalists presented their views on the subject. With its declining sugar exports, increasing indebtedness . . .

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