“The High and Conspicuous Ground” The Logic of Immediate Emancipation and the Politics of the Decision of 1834
On 1 August 1834, slavery came to its permanent and quite uneventful end in the colony of Antigua. Antigua’s planter-dominated Assembly was compelled by a series of self-miscalculations to grant immediate freedom to the colony’s enslaved population rather than adopt the proposed the Apprenticeship scheme. The uniqueness of Antigua’s decision lay in the fact of Antigua being the only “sugar colony” to take the action. The Antigua Assembly’s decision was a landmark decision, a fact not lost on many contemporary observers including other regional assemblies and politicians, pro-slavery and abolitionists within the empire. Despite the importance of the decision to understanding regional history, academic historical examination and discussion on the decision has relegated it to a mere footnote in most histories, including histories of the territory. This article seeks to re-establish the importance of the Assembly’s decision to understanding planter and slave-owner attitudes about slavery and freedom, as well as what self-interests affected each slave-owning group’s attitude toward British mandated slave emancipation. The article begins with an examination of the historiography of the decision, offering an insight into the two main perspectives — economic determinism and humanitarianism. The main theme of the paper is the role and nature of economic determinism in compelling the final decision. The article also establishes, in line with Douglas Hall in his Five of the Leewards, that the decision was not a unanimous one, having passed by the single vote of the Assembly’s speaker. The objective is to establish that the decision of the Assembly was not based on choice and consensus, and that the economic considerations were inextricably tied to political and legislative considerations, which the planters voting for the decision appeared to view as equally important. Finally, the author seeks to place the history of the decision in its proper posture, not as a footnote or peripheral event but one which establishes that the history of the region is complex and nuanced and based in large part in colliding personal self-interests, notwithstanding the groups into which historians and some contemporaries placed these actors. The decision of the Antigua Assembly to grant freedom to its then enslaved population requires greater interrogation, debate and understanding on par with the historical discussion that have surrounded the British Parliament’s 1833 decision.