Enslaved People’s Politics, Imperial Rule, and Amelioration in the Caribbean

AHA Session 121
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbus Circle (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Sasha Turner, Quinnipiac University
The Audience

Session Abstract

Scholars of slavery have recently begun to pay greater attention to amelioration, a late 18th and early 19th century political movement on both sides of the Atlantic to improve the working and living conditions of enslaved people. In many cases, its advocates saw amelioration as an alternative to abolition - a way to create a "more humane" system that avoided the worst cruelties of slavery - and perhaps, more importantly, safeguarded against rebellion or revolt. More rarely, but with similar logic, amelioration was advocated by gradual abolitionists, seeing these policies as part of a long-term project to "civilize" enslaved people and prepare them for freedom. Ameliorative efforts sometimes operated on an individual level, as planters and other slaveholders made adjustments to their own treatment of enslaved people, but also resulted in colonial and imperial government-initiated reforms and new programs by missionary societies, schools, and other non-governmental organizations. Ameliorative measures and ideas also influenced, sometimes directly, more often indirectly, the political demands and strategies of enslaved people, both in seeking freedom and in shaping their strategies of survival. However, the emphasis of this research has hitherto been primarily on the activities of slaveholders and governments of slave societies; with few exceptions, scholars have placed limited attention on enslaved people's politics and agency in the backdrop to this question.

This panel brings together several scholars of Caribbean slavery to engage in a deeper conversation about this phenomenon specifically as it addresses the the intersection of amelioration and the politics of enslaved people. Nicholas Crawford’s paper examines contestations between enslaved people and planters over provision grounds and the impact of these struggles for colonial and imperial policies on informal marketing, property ownership, and gradual emancipation. Gelien Matthews's paper argues that enslaved people's freedom came not just from law but also from war - and suggests the importance of revolts in small islands (in this case, emphasizing Trinidad and Tobago) in shifting this dynamic need be understood more carefully. Bertie Mandleblatt’s paper situates British debates over amelioration in the French revolutionary politics of the 1790s – both in the metropole and in the Caribbean - , and explores the British perspective during this period of presumed French successes and failures. Michael Becker’s paper examines the complexities of amelioration’s impact on colonial legal systems through a close study of the efforts of an enslaved mother and daughter to hold their owner (who was also head legal authority in the parish) accountable for maltreatment. By approaching the question of amelioration with enslaved people's politics at the forefront, the panel adds breadth and depth to our understanding of amelioration and empire.

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