The Arts Forum offers an occasional page of related topics intended to sensitize students and the general readership to neglected areas of our social history and our rich and diverse cultural traditions.
Ameena Gafoor is the founder of The Arts Forum and founding editor of The Arts Journal, a peer-reviewed critical Journal devoted to fresh perspectives on the history, literatures, arts and cultural traditions of Guyana and the Caribbean. Her post-graduate work has been on the little-known novels of Roy A.K. Heath (1926-2008).
A Tribute to Roy Heath appeared in Kaieteur News, Sunday 18 May, 2008.
by Professor Selwyn H. H. Carrington,
Howard University, Washington, U.S.A.
THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 3 Numbers 1 & 2 (March 2007):
The Dominant Narrative Deplumed: Revisiting Abolition of the British Slave Trade.
Guest editor: Dr. Rita Pemberton.
This special issue of The Arts Journal commemorates the bicentenary of the ending of the trans-Atlantic Trade in captive Africans in the British West Indies in March 1807. As the editor points out, there was need to examine the perception of the victims in the literature.
The issue attempts to bring a fresh perspective that is outside the regular scope of examining the circumstances, events and causes leading up to Abolition. This focus has formed a significant part of the historiography on the subject ever since Eric Williams wrote Capitalism and Slavery over sixty years ago.
Consequently, the approach adopted by the editor to provide literature which examines the lives and conditions of the enslaved through four different phases adds greatly to our understanding of how enslaved African people have been viewed in the literature.
The first writings the reader encounters in the issue are the very interesting narrative pieces about the experiences of enslaved people as produced by transcribers. Nicole N. Aljoe refers to the joint work of these narratives as important to our understanding of the “culture of slavery, revealing the participation of the voice of the enslaved within the discourse of abolitionism” (p.13). Hence she accepts Le Jeune’s view of the plural voice of the enslaved person and the transcriber as “a ‘hetero-biography’ that is important in the collaborative construction of several voices working to create a single document”.
Verene A. Shepherd also suggests that the narratives of enslaved people are important works even though they are produced by the enslaved under the influence of the writer. Looking at their influence as far as they apply to Jamaica, she claims that they add to the historiography and, at the same time, allow researchers to examine issues and draw conclusions that may not normally have been possible. In the present situation writers and interested parties are trying to recreate the voices and the roles of the enslaved. Professor Shepherd’s examination of the narrative makes one of these steps.
Taking a similar stance, Maureen Warner-Lewis examines the narratives of Archibald John Monteath (Monteith) as related by missionaries after the ending of slavery. Warner-Lewis sees value in the narratives as ways of achieving genealogical information about African captures and, at times, as in the case of Monteath, as attempts to regain their freedom.
The next group of contributors — Editha Jacobs, Jean Antoine-Dunne and Bruce Paddington, Kenwyn Crichlow and Christian Campbell — represent images of how blacks saw themselves at different times during slavery and the post-emancipation period:
Editha Jacobs argues that the images of black people were juxtaposed with those of whites and manipulated to project the dominance of white persons (p.67). She notes that the choice of painting done by artists to represent black people were those that produced rich, black and velvety tones which gave them texture and contrasts to be found in the “mezzotint and stipple” methods. These methods enhanced advertising and were adopted by John Wilkes who “pioneered the ‘commercialization of politics’”.
Jean Antoine-Dunne and Bruce Paddington focus on the revolutionary thrusts of the Abolitionists movement and argue that film is one of the powerful mediums of communication, in addition to being a popular art form, providing messages that influence “the perception of people and cultures”. The Caribbean region has been associated with films from the nineteenth century until today, yet it does not have its own industry. Antoine-Dunne and Paddington rightly argue that films are used to tell the history of a people and as such they serve important functions in deconstructing the perceived centrality of humanitarianism as the major force in ending slavery (p. 83).
Kenwyn Crichlow, in “Blackened Figures”, discusses the paintings of Carlisle Harris (in the collection of the artist). It is important to note, as Crichlow points out, that Harris was educated at Howard University, Washington, DC, which was associated with the Civil Rights movement and was also “the location of several exhibitions of socially conscious Black artists whose works demonstrated the influence of identity politics on artists”. It is therefore not surprising that Harris’ art should be a symbol in representing “the powerful forces of African history and culture in the Caribbean” (p. 101).
The last piece in this group is Christian Campbell’s poem “On the Plane from London to Paris”. In this poem Campbell recalls the historic link of Scotland with the islands and its place in the enslavement of Africans. As happened with the victims of the African trade, the Scottish Campbells dispersed themselves throughout the region, and went on to impose their name and culture on several colonies. The poet’s visit to Paris, as an escape, did nothing to change the effect of the Caribbean past on his outlook.
The other three articles by Heather Cateau, Claudius Fergus and John F. Campbell reexamine the old perspective about slave emancipation and raise questions about the authenticity of the traditional historiographical views:
Heather Cateau looks at estate management, showing the need for change given the several possibilities regarding abolition of the African trade. One of the interesting statements Cateau makes is that “the process of emancipation had indeed begun in 1780s; however this was not just because of developments in Britain, but because of changes implemented in the Caribbean”. Thus, she opens up an area of immense importance in our understanding of the operations of the plantation system and the role of local developments in the abolition process. Of much interest to the reader, Cateau has also appended information on the prices of enslaved people.
Claudius Fergus has done an interesting study on the role of the legislation in the acquisition of Trinidad, the reasons for the British to delay the implementation of the abolition of the African trade from 1796 to 1807 and the decision to abolish the African trade in light of the acquisition of Trinidad.
John Campbell’s contribution focuses on what he calls “Abolition and Exaggeration”. He evaluates historians’ interpretation of humanitarianism as the reason for the abolition of the trade in captive Africans as exaggeration and he contends that their role was minimal. Instead, he argues that increased importance must be placed on “questions of agency” (139). Campbell interprets the Abolition Act as a wartime measure intended to place great strain on it competitors, especially the French (141).
The next two papers deal exclusively with the impact of the Abolition of the African trade in captives on British Guiana (Guyana), a colony acquired by the British in 1802 and formally ceded by the Dutch in 1814:
Winston McGowan’s work is basically an examination of the conditions of labour in the three colonies of Berbice and Demerara-Essequibo. McGowan argues that there were large supplies to the colony during the years 1796-1805 when Britain made the first attempt to restrict the trade to those colonies by Order-in-Council of 1805. He also looks at the steps planters took to restructure the management of their estates and to acquire more enslaved persons. The theme of management of West Indian estates is a vital area of research that warrants further examination and discussion in the context of the Caribbean.
Aubrey Thompson’s work adds support to McGowan’s. He deals with the problems of the ending of the trade of captive Africans and the role of the planters in finding alternative sources. He also notes that with the ending of the trade, the missionaries began to play a greater role in Guyana; however, many planters opposed the establishment of chapels and the work of the missionaries fearing that their “activity would turn Demerara into a second Haiti” (166). Those historians in this issue of The Arts Journal who have made the link between Haiti and the ending of the trade have set the stage for the expansion of this area of investigation into the historiography on the abolition of the trade in captured Africans in the Caribbean.
The final trilogy of papers by Melisse Thomas-Bailey Ellis, Michael F. Toussaint and Marcia Burrowes, deal mainly with the post-emancipation Caribbean:
Melisse Ellis looks at the impact of British policies on the formerly enslaved and argues that although many historians have supported the cause of the white man they have done so because “race consciousness ideologies made the continued trafficking and enslavement of their brothers and sisters of African origin intolerable to them” (181).
Michael F. Toussaint picks up the argument to show that a trade in people of African descent between Trinidad and Venezuela continued after 1838 through the practice of kidnapping Trinidadians and employing them in Venezuela as ‘manumiisos and aprendizajes’. The British government did its part to stamp out enslavement of Africans as it was concerned with its competitors having an advantage and not because of any particular love for blacks.
It is appropriate to conclude the collection with a study on abolition and its aftermath: Marcia Burrowes examines the 1888 commemoration of the full and final abolition of slavery in Barbados and recounts the differing positions of the officials and conscious citizens at the time. It is evident that there were mixed feelings on the island among many whites and coloured people. The article outlines the exchange of letters to newspapers sympathetic to the varying positions with respect to the Jubilee commemoration and highlights how black Barbadians, with support from other ethnic groups, commemorated the event. Hence official attempts to deny the population their right to commemorate an event they considered important were rejected as black Barbadians asserted their identity and offered an alternative discourse on the question of the abolition of slavery.
Overall, this special issue of The Arts Journal provides a good study of the issues involved in the abolition debate, from the causes for this action to its impact on the persons for whom it was initiated. The time has come for a full debate on the reasons for the abolition of the trade in captured Africans that moves beyond simply a continuation of the humanitarian argument demonstrated in many of the events commemorating this event. A modern-day focus on the role of the humanitarians in the Abolition of the trade can only be another effort on the part of European capitalists and imperialists to try to convince African descendants that the white man freed them and they themselves played a small role in this activity.
The Abolition issue of The Arts Journal has raised issues beyond this simplistic argument and provides important alternative perspective on this issue.
The Arts Journal must be praised for beginning the process of rethinking western enslavement and facilitating Caribbean writers to play an important role in the debate. It is hoped that, in keeping with this trend, the Journal would devote an issue to the St. Domingue Revolution and its role in the abolition of the trade in captured Africans.
Please Note: Limited copies of the Abolition issue of The Arts Journal are available at all leading bookshops or from the editor (227 6825).
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