The First Civil War, 1830-1842

The Islands

Real War 
   Grounded Networks 
      The Plains   
      Custom, & the Ports    
      Nat Turner, & Others   
      The Islands   
      The Southern Slopes   
      The Mission Coasts  
  Control Networks 
      Mills & Planters  
      Silver & opium  
      Alamán & Calhoun  
      Rancheros & Pilots  
      The War of the South  
      Siege & Contagion 
A Note on Then and Now 
What They Called "Civil War"  
   Liberal Projects 
   Conservative Demagogues 
   Fight Scenes  
  Grounded Reaction 
Outcomes, and Vision 
On the continent of North America, and in some parts of the West Indies, slaves who struck for freedom faced an obstacle imposed from outside: the hostility of a central government committed to supporting slavery.  In other parts of the West Indies, where imperial government was not so committed, slave communities showed what they could win. 

Two great roads were available to people on the plantations, when they moved to transform the life around them.  One road led through the land.  The other took off from the word

Optimists, among the planters of Jamaica, expected that a slave like Samuel Sharpe would be a good Christian, a deacon in a mission headed by a white minister, and just the kind of lay preacher who might be trusted to use his time preaching among the slaves of the island.  He did indeed travel and preach.  In December 1831 he did more, and accomplished far more than Nat Turner had done, four months earlier. 

Aided by other black leaders from the chapel, he called a core group of followers, preaching to them the "natural equality of man."  They should "sit down" and refuse to work unless given wages.  And "if any attempt was made to force them to work as slaves, then they would fight for their freedom." 

They fought.  They were defeated. 

And then they "won."

The Way  through the Land

Slave farm workers, sometimes as fugitives, took one branch or other of the land road:
In Jamaica, the owner of slaves often let them use plots of land to raise part of their food, together with some products that they could sell in the local market.  This was cheaper for him, and it took some edge off of slave discontent.  It also made it easier for "his" people to feel that they had rights in "their" land.

In Cuba, where large numbers of slaves continued to be imported from Africa, to work the sugar plantations, the pressure of the system was eased a little, occasionally, when some slaves were allowed to deal in the market, and then buy their freedom.  About half of those freed stayed in the countryside, mostly as small farmers.

In both Jamaica and Cuba, one time or another, slaves who escaped from the plantations plunged even deeper into the swamps or mountains, as fugitives called maroons, half bandits, independent, but depending on contacts with the freed-farmers and the still-slaves.

The ties that maroons and farm workers managed ran along much the same lines as the family ties between "tame" Indians and "wild" Indians in the Mexican state of Sonora. The non-criollo parts of North America, including the Islands, were not divided rigidly between peasants in one area, indigenous warriors in another, and hapless slaves in yet another.  The reality that kept emerging, in all areas, was a play of polarization and cooperation, between peasants and outlaws, between farmers and warriors.  Each side was necessary to the other.  Each side could be a danger to the other.  Early on, for example, the authorities in Jamaica bargained with some maroons, recognizing their freedom on the condition that they reject new fugitives, and act as a special militia to defend the plantations.
There then: situations available to people looking for something better than gang labor on the plantation:  subsistence plot, small farm, mountain refuge.  This range of hopes was what the land meant to the people who worked it.

The Way of the Word

Preachers and priests took another way.
In all slave populations, especially where there were many people recently taken from Africa, some religious observances derived from non-Christian cultures.  In cases like that of "Vodun," practiced in Haiti, rituals were so different from anything known to planter culture that they nourished an automatic sense of separation.  In the case of elements from Islamic culture, these kept up an awareness that there could exist a universal network different from that claimed by Europe.

Within the slavery system, some owners and some governments encouraged missionaries to preach to slaves, whether to save souls, to encourage docility, or to ease the consciences of white Christians.  Missionaries recruited some individual slaves to act as deacons or lay preachers.  These black preachers, picking up on oratorical styles from Africa, or on white working-class styles going back to the English countryside, developed a form of communication that expressed an immediacy of contact with the universe, even when the individual preachers seemed to be operating under planter toleration.

Some slave preachers, and some preachers among those who had managed to win freedom, operated without approval from planters.  Those who were free could move about, in spite of local laws designed to restrict the influence of free blacks, and some did travel from the United States to the Islands.  This bit of inter-regional contact was only the tip of the active network-building that worked within Jamaica, or within the Bahamas.

There it was, the spectrum of speakers of one's own:  the tolerated black preachers, the independent preachers, the "Vodun"-type forms.  This was the word.

The Baptist War

And then the two roads rejoined.

On Jamaica, slaves were developing a style of resistance that combined their own communications network with peasant access to a subsistence base.  Given the fact that slaves everywhere engaged in small acts of foot-dragging resistance, it was always possible that leaders in the network would gather this resistance into a broad strike for better conditions.  "Better" might mean living as free peasants within the existing economy.  With a major assist from the British Parliament, this is just what happened.

The notion of a general strike was not absurd.  Sporadic resistance in the West Indies did sometimes lead local planters to give up the effort at control, leaving slaves to manage plantation life for themselves.  On the estates of western Jamaica, slave leaders began articulating that idea for their whole area.  Some of the most influential, such as Samuel Sharpe, were lay officers within the black evangelical congregations, working with a spreading belief that the Crown had already granted freedom, which the slaveowners were conspiring to hide.  This time, it was true that Parliament was close to imposing emancipation.

The masters were talking about how to thwart Parliament.  Against this, Sharpe planned that the slaves should simply stop work, present their demand for freedom, and then hold fast in resistance until the demand was met. The strike began a few days after Christmas, 1831, by slaves acting independently on a number of plantations.  The slaves had gathered such arms as they could, in case they needed to defend themselves -- as of course they did.  The strike turned into a running series of fights, which accumulated and spread, to over two hundred plantations.  Slaves did not take the initiative in attacking the persons of whites, but they did systematically destroy plantation houses and equipment.  Within a short time, they had control over settlements and communications in virtually all the western end of the island, except for the areas right around the main coastal towns.

From those towns, after a few days, came the organized counter-attack.  It mobilized white militia, and soon regular troops.  It also brought in the black maroon companies who still enjoyed their own freedom on the condition that they defend the plantation system.

Some of the regular officers had a clear conception of the strategic challenge they faced.  The rebelling slaves, no longer mere passive strikers, were dispersed in small units, over many plantations.  Even though the rebels were not holed up in remote valleys, like the original maroons a century earlier, the army could not safely break up into units small enough to move against every report of local violence.  Instead, soldiers formed into a system of loose cordons, anchored in the towns -- a net that they could tighten by marching inland, concentrating force to destroy any actual resistance it encountered. This sometimes meant chasing slaves into caves in the mountains.  It also meant driving slaves into the cane fields, where they were invisible from the ground -- but helplessly vulnerable to shells bursting in air.

The rebellion was contained and suppressed.  The leaders, such as were captured alive, were mostly given trials of some sort. Hundreds were executed, by shooting or hanging. Samuel Sharpe was executed on May 23, 1832.

A Year Later, and Years Later

Matters did not stop there.  In 1807, both Britain and the United States had enacted laws against the international slave trade.  Britain, ready for any measure that would vindicate its own naval power, had more incentive to enforce this law, and kept pressuring the United States to cooperate.  At the same time,  the governing class in Great Britain, on its evangelical margin, included people with connections to activists in other countries, all of them committed to fighting slavery.

The climax came after Jamaica's "Baptist War" of 1831.  White evangelical missionaries on the island, who had not really been involved in planning the revolt, were roughed up a bit by local whites, forced to flee back to Britain, and received there as martyrs.  Sharpe's pastor among them, they spoke to public opinion, and to formal hearings before Parliamentary committee.  Fourteen months after the execution of Sharpe, Parliament enacted emancipation for all slaves in the British West Indies, to begin on an apprenticeship basis in 1834.

This meant in practice, as freedom had meant in Haiti, that the ex-slaves in the up-country became poor peasants, while those in the low country continued as plantation workers, under an industrial discipline. In Haiti, freedom left the new peasants at odds with their own generals, who set up as planters with lands seized from the French.  Owning lands, and with crops to sell, these patriot leaders were drawn into the same planter commercial culture that they had just defeated.  In Jamaica, where lands remained the property of the former masters, these "industrial" plantations emerged even more easily.
That left the Spanish colonies of the West Indies, where slaves communicated and conspired as much as in Jamaica, but where masters enjoyed the same political advantage they had found in Texas. Just by thinking about secession, and about annexation to the United States, the slave-owners held a club over the government in Spain. That government, already convinced that colonial slavery was essential to its revenues, supported the institution as brutally as did anyone in Charleston.

When a series of slave revolts broke out in Cuba, in the early 1840s, the name given to the climactic conspiracy --  La Escalera, or The Ladder -- described the frame on which slaves were bound for interrogation.  The answers, extracted under torture, blamed many free blacks -- whom the authorities could then execute without loss to their investment in slaves.

And the resort to torture made it possible, again, for later analysts to imagine that insurrection was something imagined by paranoid slaveowners.


Site Map | About
Copyright 1999 The Intermountain History Group, All rights reserved.