Today we welcome a guest post from Aline Helg, author of Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas, just published this month by UNC Press.
Commanding a vast historiography of slavery and emancipation, Helg reveals as never before how significant numbers of enslaved Africans across the entire Western Hemisphere managed to free themselves hundreds of years before the formation of white-run abolitionist movements. Her sweeping view of resistance and struggle covers more than three centuries, from early colonization to the American and Haitian revolutions, Spanish American independence, and abolition in the British Caribbean. Helg not only underscores the agency of those who managed to become “free people of color” before abolitionism took hold but also assesses in detail the specific strategies they created and utilized.
Slave No More is available in both print and ebook editions.
Beyond the image of the “male slave rebel”
Slave insurrections have long been the privileged focus of historians of slavery in the Americas. The reasons for that choice are multiple. Revolts powerfully demonstrate that far from being submissive, enslaved peoples fought, risked—and often lost—their lives to gain freedom. Revolts are spectacular and bloody, they have their heroes and victims, and they can be forcefully narrated. Revolts are “visible” because they produced abundant documents on which historians can draw. And slave revolts seemed a natural focus of research to historians seeking to explain contemporary social movements: it is no accident that the first studies of slave revolts emerged in the 1930s and multiplied after 1960, when the Americas were shaken by Marxist revolutions, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and a new wave of independence.
C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) was a wake-up call in this process, as it brought to the forefront the longest, largest and exceptionally successful Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). After 1960, scholars of slavery attempted to classify and hierarchize slaves’ resistance to their condition, beginning with accommodation (considered to be passive and nonheroic) and culminating with armed revolt. They distinguished violent from nonviolent resistance (often contradictorily referring to the latter as “passive resistance”). For most historians, violent forms of resistance consisted in marronage, suicide, murder, conspiracy, and revolt. In contrast, recourse to legal rights and the courts, self-purchase, cultural practices, and religion were categorized as nonviolent resistance. From this hierarchization, the triumphant image of the male rebel slave emerged and became the reigning model. Some historians, focalized on that image, conflated conspiracy or even the suspicion of a plot with revolt, and hypothesized that if certain rebellions had not been rapidly contained and other plots denounced just before they were carried out, they could have become revolts as widespread as the Haitian Revolution.