Antecedents to the Age of Revolutions: Free People of Color, Social Mobility, and Resistance in the Late Colonial Caribbean

AHA Session 214
Conference on Latin American History 63
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Michigan State University
Manuel Barcia, University of Leeds

Session Abstract

In 1791 the full weight of the Age of Revolutions fell upon the Caribbean with the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution. This eruption of slave insurgency, rights discourses, and anti-colonialism generated a wave of popular dissent that washed over each shore in the region, triggering a flood of notable conspiracies, revolts, and imperial conflicts. This trend was linked to the French Revolution's anti-regism and social leveling, yet historiographical emphases on these themes and their impacts have obfuscated critical developments with the Caribbean’s free populations of color and their gradations of freedom that preceded and shaped this crescendo. To contribute to the ever growing and improving research on the Age of Revolutions in the Caribbean this panel seeks to explore the empowerment and subjection, upward mobility and regulation, and confrontation and pacification of the racially marginalized as processes that prefaced later open resistance.

This panel features perspectives from the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch Caribbean to explore both regional trends and differences and offer complementary analyses.  Newman investigates how British abolitionism fueled Jamaican debates about the extent of British citizenship in a slave colony in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Planters defended their British rights while denying them to free persons of African descent. Due to disproportions of race and power Britain’s most valuable colony became quite vulnerable. Free Jamaicans of African ancestry invoked rights as British subjects, and as abolitionism grew white Jamaicans worried that their imperial position was unstable. Taber shows how Saint-Domingue’s economic boom from the 1770s-1780s created opportunities for free people of color to accumulate wages, land, slaves, and livestock, and use the legal system to free family and friends. They played vital economic roles and articulated the value of their own labor, forming multiracial social networks and working with planters and slaves to improve their prospects. Their lives unveil Saint-Domingue’s social and economic dynamics at the pinnacle of its opulence. Yingling examines Spanish racial policies in Santo Domingo in the 1780s. As authorities sought social and political stability toward economic revitalization they targeted autonomous people of color, including those with economic means for violating racial hierarchies and influencing slave intransigence, along with maroons near Saint-Domingue. Spanish colonialism envisioned assimilation by self-regulation, yet angst over these policies inclined marginalized Dominicans to engage opportunities of the revolutionary era. Rupert questions the role of immigrants of African descent from the Dutch island of Curaçao in the large Coro insurrection of May 1795. Coro has been relatively understudied in literature on slave revolts in this period, despite vigorous Venezuelan debate about local and external factors. Yet participants were bound deeply, as people of African descent were part of inter-colonial networks of contraband trade and marronage that had linked the areas for over a century, and this paper situates the Coro rebellion in this wider context.  With experts Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and Manuel Barcia, who will respectively chair and comment, this panel should interest scholars on Latin America and the Caribbean, Atlantic Revolutions, and race in the Americas.

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