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The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938.

Burning hay stacks in England and smouldering cane trash in Jamaica seem to have little in common beyond the smoke they produce. Yet both share something more tangible. The fires mere set by rebellious workers and slaves, responding to capitalism's efforts to create a work force whose limited freedom included little else but the right to work in a disciplined manner, and in the process trying to create their own version of freedom. Though Thomas Holt, focuses on Jamaica in the emancipation and post-emancipation periods, his description of the Swing Rebellion in the southern parishes of England in 1830 in conjunction with his discussion of the Baptist War in Jamaica a year later illuminates a key point: the significance of the language of class in explaining the oppression of workers, white and black, in England and Jamaica. Holts discussion of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion and of the 1938 labour rebellions, both in Jamaica, further illustrates this point, and demonstrates another, that workers, through violent rebellious actions and "quiet initiatives" - such as their gradual withdrawal from the sugar estates, their establishment of free villages, and their engagement in subsistence agriculture - possessed their own vision of freedom, one antipathetic to the bourgeois interests of British policy makers and capitalists.

Holt begins with a description of cane fires set by Jamaican slaves in their 1831 revolt and ends with a reference to more cane fires, set over a hundred years later by the Jamaican proletariat, rebelling against economic and political injustice. These two rebellions resulted in freedom: the 1831 revolt was followed by the Act of Emancipation in 1834 and emancipation itself in 1838, and the 1938 rebellions by universal suffrage and the start of responsible government in 1944 and independence in 1962. Between these two rebellions is over a hundred years of social, political, and economic change. Slaves became apprentices, then freed people, withdrawing gradually from the sugar estates and evolving first into a peasantry which farmed both for subsistence and for export, and then into an agricultural proletariat. During this time Jamaica's former slaves began to gain some political power - as voters and as members of the colonial government - only to lose it when the Jamaican Assembly voted to dissolve itself following the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 and to place the island under crown colony rule. The riots of the 1930s, in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Anglophone Caribbean, were followed by the development of a sophisticated political culture in Jamaica, and the gradual reclamation of political rights. This century saw the decline of the sugar industry, the development of a peasant-based fruit industry and its take-over by multinational corporations, and the re-emergence of the sugar industry.

More than a narrative of the social political, and economic changes in Jamaica over the course of a hundred or so years, Holt's work is also an intellectual history. The ideological and intellectual developments in Britain have a direct and indirect impact on Jamaica and they are the nexus where the histories of Jamaica, Britain, and the empire come together. Racism influenced British colonial policies throughout the empire, wherever racial differences were thought to divide subject populations. Thus racially-divided Canada in the 1830s and 1840s worried colonial officials much as Jamaica (and the other non-white colonies) did later in the century. Ironically, liberalism - the ideology motivating emancipation - contributed to the racist attitudes manifest in post-emancipation Jamaica (and indeed, in all of the Anglophone Caribbean). Liberalism implied the possibility of mobility and equality, but its corollary was the existence of a "residuum" which had shown itself indifferent to the possibility of advancement and deaf to the dictates of a market economy. Former slaves - who preferred the independence of working their own plots of land to servitude on the sugar estates - constituted such a "residuum," as did the Irish and some of England's poor. Holt suggests that denigration of these groups expressed the class divisions of capitalism, but that in Jamaica, the language of race, rather than that of class, was used to explain the former slaves' intransigence and to deny them political rights. "Beneficient despotism" was the resultant form of government and the "white man's" burden the resultant metaphor in the empire.

The contradictions inherent in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century liberalism provide a link with the present. Holt began conceptualizing The Problem of Freedom in the 1980s, the era of Reaganism and the new conservatism - the old liberalism - and discovered that the readiness with which its practitioners were willing to discard peoples and nations unable to "make it" in the modern world was reminiscent of the creation of another residuum, a century or so earlier. Holt's recognition of the historically relative nature of such "universal" dogmas as liberalism reveals a historian concerned with questioning not only the verities of the present, but also those of the past. It also connotes a thoroughly modern sensibility and one that pervades much of this book, from his decision to avoid writing a parochial history of Jamaica to his elegant deconstruction of such racialist sources as J. A. Froude's The English in the West Indies and Thomas Carlyle's The Nigger Question. Combine this with Holts consciousness of the historical tradition in which he is writing and his willingness to detail several crucial debates in Caribbean historiography, and the result is a masterful historical work and one that (like his previous 1977 work, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction) contributes to the scholarly discussion of the nature of emancipation.
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Author:Barros, Juanita De
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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