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D. A. Dunkley, Agency of the Enslaved: Jamaica and the Culture of Freedom in the Atlantic World. Reviewed by Rebecca Schneider.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 - 16:14
D. A. Dunkley, Agency of the Enslaved: Jamaica and the Culture of Freedom in the Atlantic World (Lexington Books, 2013). 240pp. (Hdbk., $65.00; ISBN 978-0-7391-6803-5).

Rebecca Schneider
University of Colorado Boulder

There is something Romantic about revolution. Between throwing off the constraints of tyrannical institutions and reimagining more equitable collective life, modern conceptions of liberty in the West echo the political convictions of the Romantic era. While revolutions in America, France, and yes, Haiti/Saint-Domingue provide sites for exploring revolutionary action, the accretion of small, daily acts of resistance throughout the West Indian slave colonies reveal something more pervasive, insurgent, and durable about the revolutionary spirit. Such acts provide the main focus of D. A. Dunkley’s examination of freedom in Agency of the Enslaved: Jamaica and the Culture of Freedom in the Atlantic World.

In 1823, one hundred and forty imprisoned Jamaicans submitted a petition rejecting their criminal status. Their alleged crime? Failing to prove that they were free. By the time the list of “Persons Committed to Gaols and Workhouses as Runaways, but Who Declared Themselves to Be Free” was dispatched to the Colonial Office in London, sixty-nine claimants had been able to establish their freedom. But, as Dunkley insists, all of the petitioners succeeded at least in terms of being treated as persons with the potential right to freedom in the eyes of the law. Dunkley argues further that enslaved people already knew that they were free despite the conditions of colonial enslavement. Rather than viewing slave resistance from the perspective of the masters, as a rejection of mastery, Dunkley advocates for viewing acts of resistance as the enslaved themselves saw them, as expressions of freedom.

Dunkley defines what he calls “slave freedom” concisely as “the knowledge and conviction of enslaved people that they were free” (1). In impassioned prose, Dunkley earnestly asserts the various ways that enslavement—active denial of black freedom by white masters—was “wrong,” “unwise,” “unjust,” “inhumane,” “artificial,” and “weak” (2, 25, 29, 35). His introductory chapter lauds the newness of this concept, or at least his naming of it. In chapters 2-3, Dunkley begins his analysis of slave freedom by examining the act of running away. Then in chapters 4-10 he turns to early nineteenth-century slave instruction and Christian conversion to query dynamics of power and freedom in a relatively unexplored context. Dunkley builds here on the work of one of his former professors at UWI, Carl Campbell’s Missionaries and Maroons (1979). The idea that enslaved people demonstrated an inherent belief in freedom has become generally accepted by historians of slavery, as Neil Robert’s recent Freedom as Marronage (2015) attests. But Dunkley pays refreshing attention to enslaved people’s religious instruction in the era of amelioration and abolition (the book concludes in 1834 on the eve of emancipation).

Dunkley repeatedly shows how his project links to other scholarship on slave freedom. He demonstrates knowledge of Anglophone Caribbean histories from Edward Long and Matthew Lewis, to Eric Williams and Elsa Goveia, to Kamau Brathwaite and Trevor Burnard. Dunkley traces his work’s lineage to Richard Hart’s Slaves Who Abolished Slavery (1985), seconding Hart’s interest in self-emancipatory attitudes even where his view of resistance remains, in Dunkley’s estimation, “too limited” (8). Dunkley calls upon B. W. Higman, Hilary McD. Beckles, Orlando Patterson, Kenneth Morgan, Michael Craton, and Diana Paton to summarize historical knowledge about enslaved life, using colorful phrases like “went viral” and “regurgitates” (34) to signal where standard narratives need reconsideration. Dunkley also introduces readers to lesser-known texts such as letters between Anglican clergy serving in Jamaica on the eve of emancipation and material from the Church Missionary Society (CMS) archive. But his attempt to analyze enslaved people’s own reactions to instruction and Christian conversion (especially in Chapters 5 and 7) is complicated by the virtual non-existence of texts authored by enslaved people. One solution involves oral sources such as Maroon accounts from a 2011 panel discussion in Morant Bay, which Dunkley invokes in chapter 8.

As early as the 1780s the Church Missionary Society sent people (called “catechists”) and money (manifested as schools and churches) to Jamaica for the purpose of educating some of the free and enslaved blacks as well as some maroon communities. Their efforts increased significantly after British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 (55, 56). After examining dozens of letters written by and about Anglican catechists, Dunkley posits the “determination by enslaved people to turn this education into something that was their own, into an education that they might use” (92). Enslaved people, he argues, used scriptural literacy—meant for indoctrination and social control—to spark competition among the various Christian sects. Dunkley explains that “each church had to show how it was better than its competitors [… ]. The Moravians, for example, tried to distinguish themselves by offering enslaved people the chance to become preachers. […] The Anglican Church went a step further by appointing enslaved people to the role of curate or catechist to teach other enslaved people Bible knowledge” (137-8). Dunkley emphasizes Jamaicans’ personal choices to attend one church over the other or none at all, instead using Sundays for economic activity such as bringing produce to market. These types of negotiations prove a fluctuating power. When the archive reveals that state-sponsored catechists bent their will to the preferences of enslaved people, it also reveals that power was not the singular privilege of colonial masters.

Considering the numerous and detailed primary documents informing Dunkley’s project, one regrets that only a single source is cited from the National Library of Jamaica (MS 2115/R55.7.124.2 “Crop Book for the Tharp Estates”). But a glance through the endnotes will attest to Dunkley’s commitment to a painstaking reading of his British archives including the Colonial Office Papers, Fulham Papers, House of Lords Record Office, The National Archives, and the University of Birmingham Archives (all in England). The book’s recovery of secular and religious source materials, and Dunkley’s revealing insight about the relationships documented therein, surely will stimulate further investigation of this fascinating aspect of a volatile period in Jamaican history.

The main premise of the book—that slave freedom was self-determined even through the era of state-sanctioned emancipation—has been a familiar refrain in Romanticist literary scholarship on slavery, and it continues to gain currency among scholars working on the history of slavery in related disciplines. Dunkley’s emphatic assertions of slave freedom, accompanied by his familiarity with previous scholarship and the detailed archive he exposes, offers a reminder to specialists in transatlantic fields, and an invocation to non-specialists, that enslaved people and the freedoms they claimed belong at the fore of Romantic-era and nineteenth-century Atlantic studies.

Note: A version of this review appeared in the Jamaican Historical Review No. 27 (2018) and appears here in its current form with permission from editor James Robertson.