Slave Rebellion and Sacred Property: Baptist Mission Building and the Formation of a Modern Slave Political Personality

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 2:10 PM
Salon 3 (Palmer House Hilton)
Chris Todd, University of Chicago
Scholars of slave rebellions in the nineteenth-century Caribbean have long argued over their etiology and the fact that their aims were seemingly more complex than prior rebellions. For some, the outbreak and character of these rebellions came as a result of the nebulous ideological currents unleashed by the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. For others, the rebellions resulted from structural shifts and constraints endemic to specific islands themselves. Neither perspective fully accounts for the evolution from previous rebellions, however. This paper focuses on Jamaica's 1831 Baptist War, the last and most destructive slave rebellion in the British Caribbean, in order to make sense of the transformation in enslaved peoples' political motivations during the Age of Revolutions. During the Baptist War, enslaved laborers led a strike by sitting down and refusing to work until they were given 'half pay.' I argue that participation in the building and maintenance of Baptist congregations through tithing gave enslaved people a tangible explanation of the value of property and ownership over material, spiritual and communal aspects of their lives. This ownership, shaped by the slaves’ experience in giving money to build and maintain church communities, in turn transformed their subjectivity and politics in ways that lent an enlightened shape to their protests. This represents a key component in understanding the forces that revolutionized slaves in this period. By focusing on the process by which slaves gave money to help purchase land and build chapels and Sunday schools in early eighteenth-century Jamaica, scholars of the rebellions after Haiti's uprising and during the Caribbean Age of Revolutions will be able to better account for their distinctiveness.