The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 42, Issue 1

Article 6
Amazing Grace? Revisiting the Issue of the Abolitionists

Heather Cateau


As we commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the trade in enslaved Africans, it is important that we reflect on the development of the historiography surrounding this important theme. This essay is aimed at a re-conceptualization of the people we have dubbed “The Abolitionists”. It urges us to rethink our sometimes casual use of the term. The approach to this is two fold: a re-examination of the British anti-slavery leaders, and a reassessment of the role of resistance by enslaved people in the Caribbean, with specific focus on the Barbados revolt of 1816. The presence of the Antislavery Society and its supporters cannot be denied. However, Caribbeanists like C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Hilary Beckles and Eugene Genovese have told another story. Building on the base that they established, this essay reminds us that the British “anti-slavers” were very much representative of their time, in so far as they shared the economic views and ideas inherent in the new philosophies that were emerging in their country. They were against enslavement, and they were for free trade; they were the new capitalists, and they were among the rising economic elite. Abolition was not due simply to humanitarian factors – much more was involved than amazing grace. The second part of the paper focuses on the Caribbean and adds another dimension. The role of the enslaved population in their emancipation, a growing field of research today, can be traced to two Trinidadians, James and Williams. Enslaved persons had insisted throughout enslavement on their right to be free. The nineteenth century added another dimension, as enslaved persons weighed in by making their feelings felt with every development in the metropole. These developments are important. They impacted on the emancipation debate that, up to this point, had pursued a course of gradualism based on the premise that an increasingly Creole enslaved population could be depended on for a controlled transition at some vague future date without any major disruption of the societies in question. In fact, ending the slave trade was greatly supposed to facilitate this change. Clearly, they had read the enslaved population wrongly. Their direction would have to change. The above factors clearly illustrate that to understand abolition we must look at both metropolitan and colonial developments.