"In the time of war no French Negroes ever run away from their Masters”: British Discourses of Slave Religion and Loyalty Following the Seven Years' War

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:20 AM
Room 308 (Hynes Convention Center)
Maria Alessandra Bollettino , Framingham State University
An extensive series of slave insurrections involving more than one thousand people of African descent roiled Jamaica for a year and a half beginning in 1760, just as the Caribbean had become a central theater of the Seven Years’ War.  Jamaica’s enslaved blacks seized upon the prospect of impending French attack and the resulting distraction of their owners and diffusion of the island’s defensive forces among the coast and plantations to rebel.  Obeah beliefs and rituals cemented the rebels’ solidarity and performances of battlefield bravery and stoic resistance under torture attested to their martial skill and spiritual resolve.  In their mass suicides toward the close of the revolt, many rebel slaves claimed a warrior’s honor and evidenced an abject refusal to return to a state of enslavement.

In the wake of the Seven Years’ War, Britons questioned why the mere threat of foreign assault had inspired hundreds of Jamaica’s slaves to revolt, while the British invasions of French Guadeloupe and Martinique had failed to provoke widespread unrest among those islands’ enslaved inhabitants.  Indeed, enslaved soldiers had proven instrumental in the defense of both Guadeloupe and Martinique.  Many Britons attributed the apparent “loyalty” of French slaves and the evident “disloyalty” of their own in part to their spiritual beliefs.  Some Britons surmised that whereas their shared Catholicism had ensured French slaves’ fidelity to their owners, obeah had furnished Jamaica’s rebel slaves with both spiritual leaders and a sacred cause as they sought to overthrow their masters.  This paper examines British evaluations of the role that religious beliefs had played in inspiring slave loyalty (and disloyalty) during the Seven Years’ War and elucidates the connections between the experience of insecurity and insurrection during the conflict and the calls for slavery’s reform and the Christianization of slaves in its wake.