Skip to main content

Caribbean Emancipations Conference Round-Up by Jonathan Dusenbury

Marlene Daut's picture

Caribbean Emancipations Conference Round-Up

by Jonathan Dusenbury


On Friday, April 21, 2017, several dozen scholars met at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute for a one-day conference entitled, “In Freedom’s Name: Rethinking Caribbean Emancipations.” Organized by two Duke history graduate students, Michael Becker and Kristina Williams, with their faculty advisor, Barry Gaspar, the conference hosted three panels featuring ten preeminent scholars of the Caribbean. Collectively, these scholars helped to trouble standard narratives about Caribbean emancipations and encourage audience members to consider new avenues for further research.

Professor Barry Gaspar set the tone for the conference in his opening remarks, imploring scholars to consider Caribbean emancipations not as single moments, but as process. Emancipation was an extended experience, Gaspar argued, lived through for decades before and after formal declarations of freedom. These processes involved different levels of colonial social hierarchy and unfolded in deeply personal ways. Thinking about emancipations as process, rather than as radical breaks, also asks historians to consider how pre-emancipation social arrangements may have affected the way that emancipation was undertaken and experienced in various parts of the Caribbean.

Rebecca Scott, the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, gave the keynote address, “From Freeborn Child to Refugee to Slave: Sanitte, créole de Saint-Domingue.” The story of Sanitte, a child of color born in Cap-Français after the 1793 decree of emancipation by Civil Commissioner Sonthonax, demonstrates the instability of free status for people of color in a world where slavery was not fully abolished. As Scott remarked, the general emancipation that occurred in Saint-Domingue in the summer of 1793 did not produce documentation for individuals, and thus Sanitte possessed no “freedom papers.” Taken out of free territory to Cuba in 1802 by her “guardian” Marthe Boyer, a free woman of color, and then again to New Orleans in 1809, Sanitte’s status was adjudicated by the communities in which she found herself. In Cuba, neighbors attested that Sanitte “had always done what Boyer told her to do” and could be said to be serving as Boyer’s slave. Through community attestation in the highly unstable world of undocumented Saint-Domingue refugees, Marthe Boyer was able to fabricate a legal title to Sanitte, which she carried with her to New Orleans and even used in 1814 to sell Sanitte. Scott laid out a three-step process for Sanitte’s enslavement between 1802 and 1814: a presumption of her enslavement based on Sanitte’s color, a performance of ownership by Marthe Boyer, and a final possession based on Boyer’s successful sale of Sanitte in 1814. Before that last moment, there had been no formal ownership documents, but as Scott reminded the audience, “As we rethink Caribbean emancipations, we will find ourselves face-to-face with silent Caribbean enslavement.”

The conference’s first panel, “Race, Gender, Labor and the Construction of Freedom,” brought together Thomas Holt (University of Chicago), Mimi Sheller (Drexel University),  Marlene L. Daut (University of Virginia), and Linda Rupert (UNC-Greensboro) to consider how freedom was  constructed through race, gender, and class in the Caribbean. Holt presented on Afro-Jamaican women in the era of emancipation, troubling a male-dominated political narrative of this process that he admitted even inflected his own early work. Here, Holt sought to consider the political personality of black Jamaican women, and indeed how pre-emancipation gender relations implicated the social and political struggles of emancipation. In short, how did broken family relations shape black people’s political consciousness in nineteenth-century Jamaica? Also considering Jamaica, Mimi Sheller presented on radical Jewish newspaper editor Sidney Levien to explore the possibility of cross-racial, multi-confessional, multi-ethnic, and cross-class alliances in the era of emancipation. Sheller asked if dominant emancipation stories and national(ist) historiographies suppress alternative histories. Linda Rupert pushed the age of emancipations back into the seventeenth century by considering the effect of the Spanish Empire’s sanctuary policy on migration in the Caribbean. Enslaved people’s knowledge of and claims to Spain’s grant of freedom for those who came and converted to Catholicism had serious intra- and inter-imperial consequences during the century, she contends.

Marlene Daut presented on Baron de Vastey, the early nineteenth-century Haitian writer whose works, she argued, stand at the origins of a shift in the Black Atlantic intellectual tradition—a shift from supporting the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery, to supporting black sovereignty and black political institutions. Baron de Vastey promoted black sovereignty as the necessary outcome of the abolition of slavery, refuting the pro-colonial works of France’s colonial minister, Baron de Malouet, in an act of “postcolonial reversal.” Though Vastey’s writing career was short-lived, he was prolific. And his works helped to place Haiti at the forefront of a tradition of international thought whereby sovereignty and nationality came to be defined as control over one’s own territory and citizens’ full freedom before the law.

Panel 2, “Between Metropole and Colony: Political Discourses Surrounding Transatlantic Emancipations,” explored the ways in which actors in Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic contested the meanings of freedom during the era. Juanita De Barros (McMaster University) presented on discourses of infant mortality and maternal welfare in the nineteenth-century British Caribbean as measures for colonial health and the fitness of Afro-descended women for freedom. Ideas of hygienic motherhood competed with and comingled with traditional practices. “Granny midwives,” acting as colonial officials, as well as other Jamaican women contested knowledge, freedom, and family. David Sartorius (University of Maryland) shifted the focus of the panel to Cuba and the issuance of passports as a way of denying documentary identity and restricting the mobility of certain classes of Cubans in the nineteenth century. In this world, stowaways between Spain and its colony represented an embodied claim to freedom against a system of written law whose purpose was to identify and restrict.

Anne Eller (Yale University) took the audience to the island of Hispaniola in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, focusing on threats to the Dominican Republic’s sovereignty. Eller argued that threats to freedom in Hispaniola were unparalleled in the Americas during this period, as the Dominican Republic and Haiti experienced imperial aggression more akin to that being felt across the Atlantic ocean in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Further, Dominicans in the country’s rural center understood this threat and its consequences, such that when Spain attempted to reassert sovereignty over their country, the reaction was immediate and explosive. The thousands who had been freed in 1822 by Haiti’s annexation of its neighbor were deeply enmeshed in a circum-Caribbean matrix of freed peoples, encountering not just Haitians but also African-Americans from Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah who had been invited to settle in Hispaniola by Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer. Their experiences of freedom were thus both local and transnational and served to reinforce their commitment to autonomy and self-rule for themselves and for their country.

Panel 3, “Building Counterpublics: The Formation of Black Institutions in the Aftermath of Emancipation,” brought together Johnhenry Gonzalez (University of South Florida) and Natasha Lightfoot (Columbia University) to explore the ways that freed peoples built communities and institutions away from the formal state in the decades after emancipation. In Haiti, Gonzalez argued, there were more maroons after emancipation than before it. While many had fled the Revolution between 1791 and 1804, the poor had no such opportunities and instead made an internal exodus, attempting to find refuge from a state that would attempt to reconstruct many of the oppressive and extractive institutions of the colonial era. The Haitian state’s regressive taxation system placed the heaviest financial burden on basic consumer goods, prompting non-elites to resort to tax evasion and an autarchic barter economy of agricultural goods for consumer goods. Invoking Trouillot’s “state against nation” paradigm, Gonzalez’s work explores the formation of a counter-commercial, counter-cash economy in post-independence Haiti, casting Haiti as a “maroon nation” well after the Revolution.

Focusing on Antigua, Lightfoot similarly explored the small things that freed people did to make themselves feel free. In this case, she examined how free people fulfilled their material desires and provided for bodily adornment. Thus, the black body itself became a counterpublic institution as black Antiguans adorned themselves in sumptuous refinery and reveled in white disdain for their attire. Ultimately, of course, appearing respectable was not enough to become respectable. Respectability remained a racially-bound privilege no matter how much blacks appeared to be "imitating" whites. Nevertheless, the consumption and display of high-status material goods allowed black Antiguans to experience and demonstrate their freedom for all to see.