Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Women and the Abolition Campaign in the African Atlantic

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Women and the Abolition Campaign in the African Atlantic

Article excerpt

I thank the organizers for allowing me to participate in this lecture series, thereby contributing to the on-going interrogation of the question of how the "indigestible fishbone of slavery", in Robert Lowell's formu- lation,1 should be remembered and taught in this bicentennial year. I have chosen to speak on the subject, "Women and the Abolition Campaign in the African Atlantic", as a way of reminding Caribbean publics, in the throes of marking the bicentennial of the abolition of the British transatlantic trade in Africans, that the passing of the Abolition Act owed much to the activism of women, enslaved and free, who employed diverse strategies to agitate for the ending of what was arguably the greatest crime against humanity. I also wish to explore the ways in which the partial ending of the trade, starting in 1805 (the selfcongratulatory stance of the British and the existence of Bicentennial Committees across the African Atlantic notwithstanding), acted as a catalyst for women's continued activism up to 1834. The 1805 and 1807 Order-in-Council and Abolition Act, respectively, not only created the loophole by which the trade could continue for at least another year (with sixteen slavers arriving in Jamaica alone after 25 March 1807), but also left slavery intact. By looking at post-1805 activism, I will be seeking to establish a link between 1805 and 1807, and the emancipation struggle - which is especially relevant as we approach 1 August and Emancipation Day celebrations in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) region.

For the benefit of those who employ a traditional definition of "abolitionist" to centre British intellectuals, parliamentarians and humanitarians who led the campaign in Britain after 1783, thereby excluding enslaved people's activism, let me hasten to explain from the outset that enslaved people did not separate the movement to end the transatlantic trade in Africans from the movement to end the slavery regime. The lecture will therefore include, in the discussion of the abolition campaign, black women's anti-slavery activities. For in the context of the wider Atlantic, these communities of enslaved women were, arguably, the slavery systems' fiercest foes. In this regard, I reject the notion that "it is critical to distinguish between the broad phrase 'anti-slavery movement' and the specific intellectual and political crusade of the abolitionists who took the matter to Parliament".2 Indeed, by introducing activism into the discourse of abolition, though with no intention to enter the debate about the ranking of contributing factors, I recognize Eric Williams's and Kamau Brathwaite's insistence that there should be no purely humanitarian explanation of the abolition of the trade, for it was by no means the result of a "disinterested action undertaken in the interests of morality".3 By also discussing the activism of women in Britain, the lecture will, with heavy reliance on Clare Midgely's Women against Slavery, introduce a degree of gender differentiation into the study of British abolitionism.4

My final introductory point is that we need to explain the concept of "abolition campaign". Now, the trend has traditionally been to focus on British parliamentarians and their negotiations within Parliament. But from Eric Williams to James Walvin, to Lucille Mathurin Mair, to Hilary Beckles and beyond, historians have been showing that one cannot ignore the popular pressure exerted over many decades outside Parliament. If slavery depended for its survival on an adequate supply of captives; trouble-free capture, sale and transport to the Caribbean; political stability of slave regimes; pro-slavery ideological dominance; firm control of the enslaved population in the Americas; and the natural increase of the enslaved population after 1805, and if there were those who ensured that such stability did not exist, then we have to credit such activists with participating in the abolition movement. The contribution of popular pressure to change a pro-slavery to an antislavery environment cannot be simply dismissed, but it must factor into the discourse of abolition. …

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