(A review of David Granger’s The Emancipation Movement: The pursuit of dignity and liberty.)
Historical events are never the outcome of any single factor or circumstance. Rather, they could have their origins in incidents and movements which took place long before those events occurred. Understanding historical occurrences, therefore, requires examining these various movements and events.
David Granger’s The Emancipation Movement: The pursuit of dignity and liberty examines the various events which culminated in 1838 in the Emancipation of enslaved Africans in the British West Indies. His scholarly publication is bound to reignite the debate over the importance which should be accorded to each of these events.
Granger examines the Emancipation Movement in four chronological phases – resistance, rebellions and revolts; the industrial revolution and emergence of laissez-faire capitalism; the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans in 1807; and the introduction of amelioration measures in the decade prior to Emancipation. The relative importance of each phase continues to be debated.
Granger argues, from the outset, that the Emancipation Movement was a continuous struggle by enslaved Africans, aimed at dismantling the system of enslavement through acts of rebellion, resistance, runaways and marronage. This idea, however, does not enjoy universal acceptance. African resistance was not always aimed at dismantling the system of human enslavement. It also involved attempts at escaping the system.
Michael Craton (in the General History of the Caribbean), for example, makes a case for distinguishing between rebellions aimed at destroying and replacing the slave-plantation system; rejecting such a system without aiming for its destruction; and undermining the system from within.
Winston McGowan, (in the Survey of Guyanese History), in turn, classifies resistance to enslavement as two basic types – passive and active. Passive resistance, he notes, involved deliberately misinterpreting orders, ridicule and satire and acts of sabotage such as malingering, doing sub-standard work, damage to property and absenteeism. Active resistance, on the other hand, made use of homicide, physical violence and open revolt.
Guyana had several serious slave revolts, the most significant being in 1763 and the last, sixty years later in 1823. Both of these revolts were unsuccessful in their original objectives. Despite Granger’s reference to numerous other revolts – in Berbice in 1733-34, 1749, 1752, 1762 and 1763-64; in Essequibo in 1732, 1772 and 1834; and in Demerara in 1795; 1804, 1807 and 1823 –these, collectively, hardly constitute a pattern of impactful active resistance over the more than 200 years of African enslavement in the West Indies.
They do highlight, however, the fact that the enslaved Africans did not passively accept their lot. This is not to suggest that African resistance had little influence on the eventual decision to abolish African enslavement. The Demerara Revolt of 1823 definitely galvanized public attention inside and outside of the British Parliament and helped to revive the Abolitionist movement which had been in the forefront of demands for Emancipation.
Granger’s The Emancipation Movement: The pursuit of dignity and liberty records the important economic role which the evolution from mercantilism to laissez-faire capitalism played in the demise of enslavement in the West Indies. The book argues that, by the end of the 18th century, a new form of capitalism that was based largely on manufacturing and commerce had emerged. This new form of capitalism promoted the idea that Britain could attain greater wealth by buying cheaper sugar from other territories than propping up the high-cost, low-volume and inefficient, slave-grown sugar from the West Indies and the Guianas.
The Industrial Revolution transformed British capitalism emphasizing the profitability of free trade over protectionism and free labour over mercantilism. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade, however, still continued and British West Indies sugar production remained profitable, despite the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
Granger recognizes, but de-emphasizes, the role of abolitionists in the eventual decision to end African enslavement in the British West Indies and the Guianas. He chooses to situate these efforts within the broader public opinion in support of abolition in Western Europe. He traces this humanitarian movement to the ideas of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the Evangelism both of which triggered intolerance towards enslavement.
The anti-slavery movement was a product of changing economic and political conditions and circumstances in Europe and was instrumental in the eventual dismantling of enslavement. Abolitionists were influential in the passage of legislation regulating the number of enslaved Africans that could be transported on ships as early as 1788. Yet, strangely, Granger devotes only a single paragraph to this movement which others have viewed as having a decisive role in the eventual decision to abolish human enslavement.
Granger concludes by noting that the movement for African emancipation was “far from simple and straightforward. It arose out of the complex circumstances of the early 19th century, involved people on both sides of the Atlantic and was ramified with economic, humanitarian and political ideas.”
The treatment of such complex circumstances, would normally require a more comprehensive examination than his book would allow. David Granger, however, has achieved a balanced and concise examination of the factors which contributed to the end of African enslavement. His book synthesizes and summarizes, authoritatively, the factors which led to the abolition of African enslavement in the British West Indies and the Guianas.
David Granger has stayed clear of apportioning relative ranking to the various antecedents of Emancipation. The text disproportionately emphasises the importance of African resistance above those of the other factors, however. This may be purely accidental or it may be subliminal.
Granger has drawn on a rich body of sources in his research. These include Themes in African-Guyanese History which he co-edited along with Winston McGowan and James Rose; Walter Rodney’s A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905; and his own extensive publications on African-Guyanese history such as Crime Against Humanity: The Atlantic trade in captive Africans.
This book is richly illustrated. It contains evocative depictions of the rebel assault on Dageraad during the course of the Berbice Revolt of 1763; the massacre at Bachelor’s Adventure during the Demerara Revolt of 1823; and the Essequibo Revolt of 1834 at La Belle Alliance. It is no coincidence that these revolts occurred in Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo, the country’s three colonies and, later, counties.
The book is a reminder that the transformative events in history are often the product of both endogenous and exogenous factors. It is difficult to divorce the impact of slave resistance, revolts and rebellions from the humanitarian efforts of the abolitionists, just as it is inconceivable to assume that human enslavement would have been abolished had there not been compelling economic grounds for so doing. The book weaves these strands in a single narrative about the pursuit of freedom and human dignity. No one deconstructs history better than Granger.
The Emancipation Movement: The pursuit of dignity and liberty is a work of great economy. It is a digest of the various movements in history which culminated in the landmark decision to abolish human enslavement. It is a rich examination of how history is made not by men alone but also by movements.
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