Slavery in the age of revolution

Book Section

During the period that stretched from 1770 to 1830, European empires in the Americas suffered a series of remarkable powerful blows. During this period, enslaved people consistently played pivotal roles in the shape and de�?nition of political change. Of course, resistance to slavery was a permanent feature of slave societies in the Atlantic world and, despite the frequent claims of pro-slavery advocates, they needed neither outside instigators nor radical revolutionary ideas to inspire them to revolt and resistance. But to be successful, slave resistance had to be extremely careful and very strategic. Before the Age of Revolution, some of the most successful forms of resistance involved taking advantage of conflicts between empires, as in the case of slaves who escaped Georgia for Spanish Florida, where they often gained freedom. Starting with the American Revolution, however, the enslaved found a bounty of new opportunities through which they could confront and contest their situation. Abolitionists, meanwhile, also found the changing institutional and political situation propitious for the pursuit of attacks on slavery. For many of those who came to embrace the radical and egalitarian ideas that circulated during this period, slavery increasingly came to seem indefensible and untenable. The paradox of the Age of Revolution is that it both weakened and strengthened slavery. In North America, for instance, as Ira Berlin writes, the age marked a major transformation in African American life, but with strikingly varied results, “propelling some slaves to freedom and dooming others to nearly another century of captivity�?. “At the end of the revolutionary era, there were many more black people enslaved than at the beginning�?, he notes, because of the expansion of slavery in much of the southern USA. At the same time, however, the “shock of revolution profoundly altered slavery�?, recon�?guring relations between masters and slaves in important ways (Berlin, 2003: 99-100). While slavery was decisively weakened north of Virginia, it emerged shaken but still strong in much of the southern plantation colonies, and indeed entered into a period of expansion and consolidation in the early nineteenth century. In the Caribbean, the period saw the demolition of an extremely powerful and pro�?table institution through the Haitian Revolution, and its weakening in the British Caribbean. But it also, precisely because of the decline of slavery in Haiti in particular, spurred the expansion of slavery in Cuba. In Spanish Latin America, the wars of independence sapped and often decisively weakened slavery, though the process of abolition was extremely slow in many cases, while in Brazil the system of slavery remained strong through the period, and would last through much of the nineteenth century. In this chapter, I narrate the ways in which the events of the Age of Revolution changed the geography of slavery in the Americas, and seek to explain some of the differences between events in different empires and different regions. Throughout, I focus as much as possible on the ways in which the enslaved viewed, responded to, and transformed the meaning and impact of revolution. I concentrate here on two main issues that shaped enslaved responses to, and participation in, the Age of Revolution. The �?rst was the circulation of revolutionary language and ideology, which created new opportunities for voicing protest and for being heard. Enslaved rebels as well as free abolitionists could, and did, point out the hypocrisy of those who embraced and touted ideas of equality and natural rights while defending the brutal practice of slavery. At the same time, when the enslaved demanded freedom they expanded the terrain of political ideas – and this is the second issue I focus on here – concretizing abstract ideas of universal rights, and making freedom mean something extremely real, and often extremely threatening to the social order in the plantation Americas. The Age of Revolution was also an age of near-constant war. While war created a great deal of suffering, notably for the enslaved, it also opened up opportunities. The enslaved participated actively in revolutionary wars throughout the Americas, and in the case of Saint-Domingue, started such a war and ultimately won it. The recruitment of the enslaved into the army was enticing for commanders in wartime, but in a moment of intense political uncertainty and possibility, it also carried with it important dangers. This was particularly true because the �?gure of the citizen-soldier became one of the most potent symbols for a new political order based on equality and political rights. As soldiers, men of African descent became defenders and representatives of emerging nations, and they used this position to gain political power and lay claim on government institutions. At the beginning of the Age of Revolution, slavery was relatively secure throughout the Americas. Indeed, in many places slavery was expanding rapidly. The system had seen its share of challenges, notably during the 1730s, when a wave of plots, uprisings and maroon wars shook many slave societies. The most serious threat to the planter order was probably presented by the strong maroon societies in Jamaica and Suriname. But these were attenuated in Jamaica at the end of the 1730s, when colonial governments signed treaties with the most powerful groups of maroons, exchanging an acknowledgement of their freedom for a promise that the maroons would not accept new runaways from the plantations, and would return those who showed up in their territory.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Dubois, L

Published Date

  • January 1, 2010

Book Title

  • The Routledge History of Slavery

Start / End Page

  • 267 - 280

International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)

  • 9780415466899

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.4324/9780203840573-24

Citation Source

  • Scopus