Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies 0801412528, 9780801412523

incidents of unrest were not isolated phenomena but part of a continuum of resistance deeply rooted in the Amerindian an

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Testing the Chains Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies

Michael C rat on

ISBN D-flDm-12S2-fl

Testing the Chains Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies Michael Craton “Resistance not acquiescence is the core of history.” Herbert Aptheker’s revolutionary call for a history written from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressors serves as the starting point for Michael Craton’s bold and far-reaching study of slav¬ ery in the British West Indies. Analyzing the history of resistance to slavery in the West Indies from the earliest contacts of white colonists with the Amerindians to the abolition of British slavery in 1 838, Craton shows the extent to which slaves shaped their own society and contributed to their own eventual eman¬ cipation. He makes clear that incidents of unrest were not isolated phenomena but part of a continuum of resistance deeply rooted in the Amerindian and African traditions. Slave resistance was endemic in the planta¬ tion system, Craton asserts, and in an intro¬ duction he briefly describes colonial slave society. He then reevaluates forms of re¬ sistance short of open rebellion on the planta¬ tions. In the core of the book Craton discusses in depth the major slave plots and uprisings, characterizing the revolts as being essentially of three kinds: those involving maroons and those led by unassimilated Africans, both in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and those led by creole members of the slave elite between the ending of the British slave trade in 1 808 and the emancipation of British slaves in 1838. In an epilogue he examines out¬ breaks of unrest among former slaves in Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados after eman¬ cipation. Throughout he tests the applicability of modern theories of revolution to different manifestations ol resistance. (continued on back flap)

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A History of the Bahamas A Jamaican Plantation: The History of Worthy Park, 1670-1970 (with James Walvin) Sinews of Empire: A Short History of British Slavery Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica

TESTING THE CHAINS Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies By MICHAEL CRATON

Cornell University Press ITHACA AND


Copyright © 1982 by Cornell University Press All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in a review, this book, or parts thereof, must not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address Cornell University Press, 124 Roberts Place, Ithaca, New York 14850. First published 1982 by Cornell University Press. Published in the United Kingdom by Cornell University Press Ltd., Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London WiX 4HQ.

International Standard Book Number 0-8014-1252-8 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 82-71600 Printed in the United States of America Librarians: Library of Congress cataloging information appears on the last page of the book

The paper in this book is acid-free and meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

To Walter Rodney (1942-1980), who died for his belief in History








The Plantation World and Slave Resistance Short of Rebellion 1. The Plantation at Work


2. Backra and Negar


3. Making a Life of Their Own


4. Quashie as Hero




Maroon Resistance, 1600— 7775 5. Marronage: The General Context


6. The Jamaican Maroons: Origins, 1600-1700


7. Cudjoe’s War and Its Aftermath, 1700-1775




African Slaves 8. The African Phase


g. Barbados, 1645-1701





10. Antigua Echoes Barbados, 1687-1737


11. Jamaica, 1760: Tacky’s Revolt


12. New Colonies, Traditional Resistance, 1763-1802




Slave Resistance in the Age of Revolution, iyyy—i8iy 13. An Inescapable Context?


14. The First Afro-Caribbean Slave Plot in Jamaica: Hanover, 1776


15. The Storm Breaks: Grenada and St. Vincent, 1795


16. The Pacification of the Windward Islands, 1796—1797


17. The Final Maroon War in Jamaica, 1795—1796


18. The Subjugation of Dominica and Trinidad, 1791 — 1814




Slave Rebellions and Emancipation, 1816—1832 19. Creolization and Resistance


20. Bussa’s Rebellion: Barbados, 1816


21. The Demerara Revolt, 1823


22. The Baptist War: The Jamaican Rebellion of 1831-1832




Chronology of Resistance, 1638—183 7






Credits and Sources for Photos




Maps and Illustrations


1 2

The British West Indies


The Lesser Antilles: Five nations compete, 1605-1660



A typical slave plantation



Jamaica: Topography



Jamaica: The maroon phase, 1655-1775



Barbados in 1681, by Richard Ford



Antigua in 1739, by Herman Moll



Jamaica: Tacky’s revolt, St. Mary’s Parish, 1760



Dominica, 1763-1814



St. Vincent, 1763-1797



Tobago, 1770-1801



Jamaica: The Hanover slave plot, 1776



Grenada: Fedon’s rebellion, 1795-1797



St. Lucia, 1796



Barbados: Bussa’s rebellion, 1816



East Coast, Demerara, 1823



Jamaica: The Baptist War, 1831-1832



Sugar mill and slave quarters, Montpelier, Jamaica


Plantation overseer and slave driver, Antigua




Maps and Illustrations

Jamaican maroon refuges: Blue Mountains and Cockpit Country


Order of march against maroons, Guyana, 1775


Cudjoe’s Treaty, Jamaica, 1739


Ritual decapitation: Ashanti and Guyana


Subversive rebel message, Barbados, 1683


Alleged plan for a slave takeover, Barbados, 1692


“A Rebel Negro,” by Bartolozzi, 1796


Dominican Maroons Negotiating Treaty, by Brunias, c. 1786


Free black ranger and black regular soldier


The Haitian revolution, as depicted by a German artist


White troops out after maroons, by William Blake


Maroon ambush, Dromilly estate, Jamaica, 1795


Leonard Parkinson, last Jamaican maroon rebel, 1796


Ideal guerrilla country, Dominica


Kalinda, or stick dance, Dominica, by Brunias


Skirmish near Mahaica Fort, Demerara, 1823


White militia on parade, Georgetown, Guyana


Battle at Bachelor’s Adventure, Demerara, 1823


Rebel attack on Montpelier estate, Jamaica, 1831


Black Regiment versus Colonel Grignon’s militia, Montpelier, 1831


Rebel attack on Reading Wharf, Jamaica, December 1831


Free peasants at market, Falmouth, Jamaica, c. 1840




who believe history to be the story of man’s rise to civilization tend to define civilization to include the acceptance by all classes of their place within the socioeconomic system. The history that results, even when it appears in a liberal guise, is essen¬ tially that of accommodation and acceptance. This is the “bourgeois” style that was fundamentally challenged by C. L. R. James in his Marxist interpretation of the Haitian slave revolution and by Herbert Aptheker in his pioneer study of American negro slave revolts. “The slaves worked on the land,” wrote James in 1938, “and like revolu¬ tionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors.” Likewise, Aptheker demolished the “magnolia and moonlight” myths of the southern United States and the idea that slave revolts were occasional aberrations, concluding in 1943 that “discontent and rebelliousness were not only exceedingly common, but, indeed, characteristic of American negro slaves.”1 Subsequently, at a slavery conference in 1976, he went far beyond this position to assert that “resistance, not acquiescence, is the core of history.”2 Aptheker’s clarion call in 1976 and James’s thrilling account of the struggle led by Toussaint l’Ouverture were primary inspirations for this book, which seeks to achieve for the slaves of the British West Indies what James and Aptheker did for the slaves in Haiti and the United States. Coming a generation later, the present volume is bound in some respects to go even further. Yet in others it stops far short of the pioneer populists’ pure Marxism. The fight against en¬ slavement was clearly part of that perennial and universal class con¬ flict consigned by traditional historiography to history’s underside. But having decided that slave resistance was structurally endemic and istorians




that white writers have more often than not distorted the account, one is still left with the need to analyze the degrees of resistance open to slaves and the variations in revolts from place to place and from time to time. Doing so involves delimiting the indistinct boundary between resistance and accommodation, or between true political resistance and apparent accommodation. One must decide not just why at a given time some slaves rebelled, while others did not, but—most diffi¬ cult and contentious of all—why, at every stage, some actually collabo¬ rated with the dominant class, while others risked all to rebel. Histo¬ rians who seek to restore an independent ideology to the AfroAmerican slaves must acknowledge that such an ideology was surely more complex than the simple reactive ethos suggested by Aptheker and James. Above all, the ideology of resistance to slavery in the Americas was not simply an extension of an external ideology, any more than AfroAmerican resistance was simply a phase in a progressive scenario dreamed up by certain Eurocentric historians. Yet the very idea that slave resistance was not an isolated phenomenon but part of a con¬ tinuum is an aid to understanding. West Indian slaves inherited and melded traditions of resistance both from the Amerindians, whom they largely replaced, and from their own African forebears. They also bequeathed a tradition to their Afro-Caribbean descendants, who formed a downtrodden black majority even after formal slavery had ended. The Amerindian and African backgrounds form the sub¬ stance of my Introduction; what happened to the former slaves after slavery ended is the subject of the book’s brief Epilogue. In considering actual slave revolts, I started with a rather oversim¬ ple formulation predicating a tripartite, sequential model of slave revolts and a set of four “conducive situations.” I divided revolts into those of the maroon type, those led by unassimilated Africans, and the late slave rebellions led by creole (colony-born) members of the slave elite. My preliminary analysis borrowed from many different theories of popular rebellion and suggested that resistance might flare into revolt under conditions of extreme oppression, where unassimilable elements were found in the subject population, where the forces of control were weakened, or where slave expectations became frustrated.3 At the general level this analysis still has its merits, chief being its concentration on intrinsic forces and the playing down of abstract and extraneous influences, including all the ideologies of the Age of Revo¬ lution (1775-1815) that loom so large in many accounts. Yet as I wrote I found it necessary to refine and expand my initial analysis



considerably. The three-phase model was overly neat and needed overhauling, at least in its simple sequentiality, and the allegedly causal elements required much greater articulation, if not outright rejection where they were directly contradictory. The French and Haitian revolutions called for rather more emphasis than they had previously been given, although I was unable to go as far as Eugene Genovese’s argument that they marked a decisive watershed between simple rebellions and true revolution.4 On a narrower scale, besides, it was necessary to distinguish more clearly between mere plots and actual revolts, or rather, between different types of plot. All plots that came to nothing were clearly of a lesser level of political achievement than a prolonged revolt or a mass running away. But some plots were simply aborted revolts, at least potentially similar, while others were barely embryonic, mere mutterings of discontent, even figments of the masters’ fears, rather than real threats to the regime. One of my basic assumptions is that the slave system was shaped largely by the slaves. But one must not understate the complexity of the shaping. The first, and shortest, of this book’s five parts analyzes plantation slave society and reevaluates forms of resistance short of rebellion with the slaves’ influence on the system in mind. I attempt to go beyond the simple analysis of day-to-day resistance first proposed by Raymond and Alice Bauer in 1942 and the rising scale of non¬ cooperation proposed by Kenneth Stampp in 1956 to adopt many of the refinements made by George Frederickson and Christopher Lasch in a seminal article in 1967.3 Not only can slave antagonism toward imposed labor and the master class (feelings like those of all subordinated people) be divided into simple noncooperation and true political resistance, but slave attitudes can be seen as resulting from choice and calculation. Different decisions could make the same slaves under different conditions appear cringingly docile, simply content, annoyingly troublesome, or implacably rebellious. By emphasizing the effects of change, my view dismisses the simple dichotomies be¬ tween accommodation and resistance, accommodators and resisters, and sheds light on the issue of whether slaves were more likely to rebel if driven on tight reins or on loose. But I stop short of the conclusion of Frederickson and Lasch that stability and a sense of belonging on the part of the slaves were the slaveowners’ chief allies and that change itself was most dangerous to them. Part One is an extended prolegomenon. The core of the book is, naturally, a consideration of actual slave plots and revolts. Though I confine myself to the British West Indies, which never comprised more than a third of the Garibbean region or included more than a



quarter of the total of Afro-American slaves, this work cannot hope to be definitive. Such an enterprise would require several volumes. The present book describes all major revolts and nearly all serious plots and supplies a comprehensive list in a chronology at the end. Yet 1 have, inevitably, been selective. My choice was determined not by the admitted patchiness of source materials but by a conscious decision to give due prominence to the salient outbreaks while otherwise select¬ ing examples that would most vividly illustrate themes and variations. Constraints of space also led me to concentrate on the true plantation colonies, excluding, for example, details of the many plots and smallscale outbreaks that occurred in the nonplantation colonies of Ber¬ muda and British Honduras and unrest short of armed rebellion in the "marginal” colonies of The Bahamas, Tortola, and Antigua that occurred at the same time as serious revolts elsewhere late in the slavery period.6 Following my original formulation, Parts Two, Three, and Five deal successively with maroons (especially the Jamaican), with Af¬ rican-led revolts, and with the revolts that rose to a climax in the formative period between the ending of the British slave trade in 1808 and the freeing of the British slaves in 1838. Part Four provides the rather more extended treatment I now think necessary of the transitional period that coincided with the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. These four core sections emphasize the interre¬ lation, rather than the separation, of types and phases of revolt. They illustrate how the maroons continued to provide an admired example for rebellious slaves even after most maroon groups had come to terms with the slaveholding class and show that the pull of Mother Africa remained strong even after the umbilical cord had been cut in 1808. These sections also show that creole and elite slaves were promi¬ nent in slave unrest far earlier than has previously been thought: the two groups dominated the Jamaican slave plot of 1776 and were of critical importance in the Antiguan slave plot forty years earlier. In¬ deed, in Barbados, the first of the British sugar colonies, Governor Willoughby as early as 1668 said, in effect, We can control the Af¬ ricans by mixing the tribes, but what will happen when all our slaves are creoles?7 The discoveries that I have made all contribute to the devaluation of outside influences upon slave attitudes and behavior. Slave revolts, particularly their leadership, were seldom as blind and insensate as the master class averred. At every stage there was far more planning and calculation than any whites recognized. Just as Caribs consciously played the English off against the French, and maroons cannily played off white smallholders and ranchers against



the owners of the capital and labor-intensive large plantations,8 so within the plantations slaves secretly preserved their private integrity, exploiting the planters’ fear of rebellion with constant threats, which cost the slaves less than actual revolt. Anansi, the spider-trickster of West African and Afro-Caribbean folklore, was as significant a hero to the slaves as were the real-life heroes Cudjoe, Nanny, and tacky. Slave leaders were quite capable of utilizing the ideologies of the Age of Revolution when it suited them and were able to use the support of sympathetic liberals without subscribing to liberal ideas in more than a superficial way. The slaves even molded and used Christianity in ways beyond the imagination of earnest and self-deluded mission¬ aries. What, then, motivated slaves? And what was their ideology.'' In brief, slaves always resisted slavery and the plantation system, rebel¬ ling where they could or had to. Their aim was that of all unfree people—that is, of the vast majority throughout history—freedom to make, or to re-create, a life of their own in the circumstances in which they found themselves. This desire, simple and informal though it was, amounted to a popular ideology even more important than that which justified and explained the slaves’ subjugation. The four situations conducive to slave rebellions that I originally identified possibly mislead as much as they inform. They do not ad¬ dress themselves as much to the causes as to the occasions or forms of slave revolts. Because they ignored the underlying ideology—or cul¬ ture—of resistance they were bound to seem contradictory and thus to perpetuate in the analysis the ignorance and puzzlement of con¬ temporary whites. Surely, some slaves—like all subject peoples— might rebel when they were treated too harshly; some slaves might rebel more readily than the others, and some might look especially for opportunities offered by the temporary weakness of the masters, while others might rebel only when their slow, insensible gains were threatened. Yet none of these conditions was necessarily conducive to uprising. In their arrogant assumption of cultural superiority and superior power, whites were lulled or confused by those slaves who worked well under severe conditions, by those slaves thought to be implacable who actually collaborated, by the numbers of slaves who volunteered for colonial defense or to fight against rebels, and above all by the slaves who appeared content with the gains they had achieved, or had been granted, in the last and creolizing phase of formal slavery. At the very least one should reformulate the four conducive situa¬ tions, turning them around so as to see them not from the white masters’ viewpoint but from that of the Afro-Caribbean slaves. A



more satisfying summary might conclude that oppression on the part of the masters was particularly likely where unassimilable elements were found but that violence nearly always provoked counterviolence and that the forces of control had to be constantly on the alert, for even where the planters accommodated the creolizing tendencies of their slaves, the planters did not tame the slaves or deflect forever their will to freedom. When I look back over servile resistance in the British West Indies, two overall interpretations seem possible. In one sense there was clearly a continuum of active slave resistance, which connected the Amerindians’ defense of their heritage and the Africans’ resistance in Africa to shipboard “mutinies” on the Middle Passage, resistance in the plantations short of rebellion, maroon activity, African-type re¬ bellions, and the more sophisticated late Afro-Caribbean revolts. In another sense, one might argue that all these forms of resistance worked inexorably toward a climax that resulted in slave emancipa¬ tion when the time was ripe. Of the two interpretations, the latter can be plausibly argued, but I prefer the former, because whether or not the slaves were instrumen¬ tal in the passage of the emancipation acts of 1834 and 1838, the notion that an unequivocal victory was achieved at this time is an exaggeration, if not a dangerous myth. Only if one were gifted with Marxist optimism could one conclude that history did, and does, go forward, that the former slaves formed a class of independent com¬ modity producers in the essential intermediate phase, and that the Revolution is around the corner, if not quite here. Certainly Amerin¬ dian. maroon, and slave resistance has already entered the official mythology of independent countries throughout the Caribbean re¬ gion, along with worthy campaigns to bring dignity and respect to Afro-Caribbean peasants and their culture. It is somewhat doubtful that the spirit represented by the splendid statue Le marron inconnu in front of Duvalier’s palace in Port-au-Prince is quite the same as that expressed in the designation of Cuffy, Nanny the Maroon, Samuel Sharpe, and Julien Fedon as Heroes of Guyana, Jamaica, and Gre¬ nada or in the official attitude of the Cuban regime to Hatuey the Arawak and Esteban Montejo the runaway slave. But what the follow¬ ing chapters can do for such heroes, and for the masses they led and symbolize, is to disentangle myths from reality, whether the myths are those of former masters or those of former slaves. Michael Craton Waterloo, Ontario



of superiority, conquest, and cultivation have distorted the history of European involvement in America. The sim¬ ilarities and, indeed, direct connections between Amerindian re¬ sistance to European colonialism and slave resistance have hitherto been slighted as part of that process. From the point of view of the colonized rather than the colonizer, the earliest relationship between the Amerindians and the Spaniards set a pattern that was to be repli¬ cated throughout the course of European colonialism—with other Europeans, with other Amerindians, and with African slaves and in¬ dentured Asians. Some “Indians” collaborated for hoped-for advan¬ tages, appeared to collaborate, or actually did so for a time; some fled from the Spaniards in the forlorn hope that they could preserve their way of life in isolation; and some, through realistic calculation, pride, disappointment, or desperation, offered armed resistance. Amerindian behavior was, of course, far more complex than this simple description, varying within as well as between groups and changing over time. The forces that brought people together could subsequently tear them apart, and attitudes regarded as antithetical could sometimes prove complementary. Miscegenation was inevita¬ ble, given the shortage of women among the newcomers and the Amerindians’ relaxed attitude toward sexuality, and some Chris¬ tianization was bound to occur, given the missionary zeal of the Ca¬ tholics and the curiosity of the natives. Yet the attractions of mis¬ cegenation were soon replaced by enmity in the disadvantaged males, by social dislocation, and by a mestizo class that the second generation of Spaniards and the Amerindian survivors alike despised. Catholic Christianity offered the parlous attractions of partial assimilation, and yths




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