From The Wall Street Journal:
Just after Christmas in 1831, the British Empire’s wealthiest island exploded. “Five weeks of burning, looting, crop destruction, courts-martial, on-the-spot executions, severed heads mounted atop poles, and outright human hunting for sport . . . shook slaveholding Jamaica to its foundations.” So writes Tom Zoellner, a professor at Chapman University, in “Island on Fire,” a pounding narrative of events that led to the end of slavery in the British colonies. “Soon the hills were on fire, each spiky leaf of sugar like a small torch or match head. Millions of yellow, flaming pinpricks spread in all directions in the velvety Caribbean night.”
Hundreds of slaves, having been pushed beyond endurance, attacked hated overseers and their masters’ property. “We have worked enough already, and will work no more,” striking laborers told a pair of plantation owners. “The life we live is too bad; it is the life of a dog.” In all, 145 estate houses were destroyed and many others severely damaged. Mr. Zoellner’s vigorous, fast-paced account brings to life a varied gallery of participants, black, white and “colored”— the then-standard designation for quasi-free people of mixed race.
Among these figures are Richard Barrett, one of the island’s richest sugar growers and a relative of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who passed for a moderate in the island’s reactionary society; the remarkable, precariously positioned “colored” newspaper editor Edward Jordon, who had only gained full civil rights the previous year; and the revolt’s tragic central figure, an enslaved Baptist deacon named Samuel Sharpe. An apparently gifted speaker, Sharpe preached the equality of man based on the teachings of the Bible. He also believed inaccurate rumors that the king had already declared slaves free but that their masters were keeping the news a secret. In response, Sharpe surreptitiously planned a peaceful work stoppage. He may have ultimately hoped for the establishment of an independent republic similar to the one that had come into being a generation earlier in Haiti. Whatever his intentions, the stoppage quickly spiraled beyond his control and into full rebellion.
The uprising was soon over, having been weakened by its poor organization and thwarted by the failure of the island’s 300,000 slaves to rise en masse. It was also overwhelmed by the firepower of British troops. Few whites were killed, but the colonial elite’s confidence in its ability to defend itself was deeply shaken. Hundreds of enslaved men and women were killed in battle or summarily executed, some simply because they had attended a Baptist meeting. The exact number is unknown.
The revolt failed to improve conditions for the enslaved in Jamaica, but it crucially wounded the institution of slavery itself. Mr. Zoellner acknowledges that it was only one factor in the ending of slavery, along with surging abolitionism in Britain, an increasingly muscular reform movement in Parliament, and the falling price of sugar, the islands only export crop. But the revolt, he says, “sent an unambiguous message to London that slavery was no longer sustainable—not economically, not militarily, and not morally.”
The challenge to slavery in Jamaica and the rest of Britain’s Caribbean possessions had been a long time coming. As Trevor Burnard, a professor at the University of Hull, amply shows in his expansive and scholarly “Jamaica in the Age of Revolution,” colonial Jamaica was characterized by extreme systemic violence against enslaved people. It was also ruled over by a dissolute planter class obsessed with short-term profits that made it cheaper to work slaves to death and buy new ones than to sustain them into their later, less productive years.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal
PG has read more than one article about slavery that has described the practice as a “uniquely American” or “peculiar” institution found only or almost-only in the United States.
This is, of course, not correct. Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome each had large numbers of slaves. A great many Christians were enslaved during the Ottoman invasions of Europe. White slaves were common in Europe from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages. China formally abolished slavery in 1909.
Serfs in feudal Europe were not personal property that could be bought and sold, but, rather, they were attached to land. If a landowner sold a piece of land, the serfs living on the land went with it and were obligated to give a substantial portion of the fruits of their labors to the landowner and could be compelled to cultivate other land of their owner that was not occupied by serfs.
Russian serfdom was even more rigid.
From JSTOR Daily:
[Peter[ Kolchin writes that the Russian nobles “invented many of the same kinds of racial arguments to defend serfdom that American slave-owners used to justify” slavery. Some nobles went so far as to say they had white bones, while the serfs had black bones. Kolchin calls this an “essentially racial argument in defense of serfdom, even though no racial distinction divided lord and peasant.”
Then there was the aristocratic paternalism of the arguments that bondage was a humane institution in comparison to the precariousness of the free labor market. Both Russians and Americans argued that their systems of bondage resulted in a superior society.
Kolchin quotes American slave-advocates who argued that the race of slaves was actually immaterial. Absent Africans, these defenders of American slavery said whites would do just as well as blacks. Because planters needed the support of non-slaveholding whites, however, such arguments never dominated the defense of slavery.
Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily
PG intends none of this be any sort of excuse for or defense of slavery in any form or fashion. It is always and everywhere a despicable evil. However, unfortunately, while it has been an American evil, it has also been a British, Russian, Chinese, Arabian, etc., etc., evil