Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

New World Slavery and the Natural Rights Debate

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

New World Slavery and the Natural Rights Debate

Article excerpt

One of the more intriguing debates in the field of slave resistance in the Americas is whether or not slave rebellion had a different character after the Haitian Revolution than before. Scholars such as Monica Schuler, Michael Craton, Ira Berlin, and Eugene Genovese have all argued to some extent that slave revolts before Haiti tended to be organized along ethnic lines, while revolts after the revolution tended to be led by slave leaders articulating the Enlightenment claim of natural rights, or the "rights of man". We should not, however, make the mistake of interpreting this phenomenon to mean that slaves discovered more of a justification to revolt after Haiti. As Jean-Phillippe Garran Coulon has observed, "slaves were always in a permanent state of war with their masters."1 Indeed, ideological debates gave slaves only more rhetorical ammunition with which to continue the battle. For his part, Craton also argues that the Haitian Revolution and the circulation of the natural- rights philosophy did not so much provide a motivation for slave rebellion, as these developments were "utilized" by savvy slave leaders when it "suited their purposes".2 Perhaps it would be useful then to consider that the natural-rights debate gave slaves the discursive milieu of the law to express frustrations that were long-suffering.

This study explores the nature of these "natural-rights revolutions", the communication networks through which they were articulated, and the possibility that New World slave rebellion served as a furnace in which a new sense of Atlantic World citizenship was forged amongst both a multicultural and multinational class of the marginalized and the recalcitrant. This position would serve as a plank in the broader argument that the natural-rights movement amongst rebel slaves was the foundational paradigm for the intellectual development of subsequent New World civil-rights ideologies.

Perhaps what allowed Saint-Domingue's revolution to occur was a function of political and social fissures in the power structure of their white oppressors, as explored by David Geggus and Laurent Dubois. Dubois explores the possibility that the news of the French Revolution, increased literacy between island slaves and creoles, and the environment of a discourse of liberty helped the enslaved to take note of an avenue of escape in that political superstructure, and they were proactive and savvy enough to exploit it.3 The slave communication networks that allowed that discourse to be constructed eventually allowed for the formation of diasporic consciousnesses amongst New World enslaved communities, and provided a mode of identity formation in the colonial environment during which political and personal allegiances were cemented. Guyana's 1763 Berbice Rebellion, against a Dutch administration, and the 1823 Demerara Rebellion against a British one, provide interesting illustrations of this phenomenon. In 1763, the Dutch slave rebel Cuffy had two simple demands: He wanted half the colony and freedom for its enslaved. The rebel slaves were by then occupying threefourths of the colony and the colonial government was in full retreat, migrating downriver from safe camp to safe camp. Cuffy's demands, however, were generally bereft of any legal reasoning in the Western sense - he said that his fellow enslaved had been mistreated, and he was trying to make a deal given the fact that he was negotiating from a position of power (albeit temporarily). The legal position from which Cuffy was reasoning was likely the quite common African perspective that the only way to "own" land was to put work into it, and make it produce something. The enslaved had certainly done their share, along the way forming ethnically aligned slave communities bonded together primarily due to a mutual language. This was an instance in which African and European values clashed due to dissimilar legal vocabularies. In 1823, it is well-documented that slave leaders passed on a great deal of information to their constituencies about the rights afforded them by King George IV, and tended to assert their autonomy along lines of legalistic rights that should be afforded to all humans. …

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