This month, I interviewed historian Natasha Lightfoot about her new book, Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). Examining the transition from slavery to emancipation in nineteenth-century Antigua, Troubling Freedom considers how freed women and men sought to give meaning to their new legal status and to forge lives free from the control of their former masters. Drawing on a wide range of sources–including church records, colonial laws, court transcripts, travel accounts, and government documents–Lightfoot reveals how Antigua’s freedpeople carved out spaces of dignity and possibility in the context of landlessness, precarity, and “colonial peripherality.”
Dr. Natasha Lightfoot is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. She is a graduate of Yale University and holds a Ph.D. in History from New York University (NYU). Her research interests include the history of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World, the history of the African Diaspora, and Caribbean history. She has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition and Resistance, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the American Antiquarian Society. Her publications include several articles and book chapters, including works in Slavery & Abolition, The C.L.R. James Journal, and Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. You can follow her on Twitter @njlightfoot.
Troubling Freedom explores how black working peoples conceptualized and pursued freedom in Antigua before and after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Most scholars studying the long transition from slavery to freedom in the Caribbean focus on the islands of the Greater Antilles. What led you to write about Antigua?
Lightfoot: Part of my interest in Antigua’s past is personal. I was born in New York to Antiguan parents. Growing up, I regularly visited my family in Antigua and many of the people that my family socialized with in New York were Antiguans. When I began the Ph.D. program in History at NYU, I became really interested in questions about Antigua’s past. I decided to focus my research on nineteenth-century Antigua during a visit to the University of the West Indies (UWI)-St. Augustine in Trinidad. In the UWI archives, there was an almanac for the West Indies in the nineteenth century, and it contained an entry in the year 1858 for Antigua. The entry mentioned that there had been a riot and that the island’s jails were completely full, but it also claimed that the riot was nothing of any political significance. The entry suggested that the rioters were basically rabble in the streets causing trouble—and not at all political. That entry raised my antenna so to speak. I thought that the way the entry was written was a sign that whatever had occurred was very political: there had been a riot in the streets for several days and the jails were full of rioters. I wanted to figure out what happened and why.
In terms of what makes Antigua unique—and what we learn from looking at a smaller place—I think about the scholarship on post-emancipation societies and struggles for access to land by the newly emancipated. When we look at the literature on the Caribbean after slavery, there is a lot of attention paid to how land is utilized and thought about by newly freed people, and the push to become a peasantry is a signal theme in the literature. It’s central to the story of post-revolutionary Haiti and post-slavery Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad, where newly freed people squatted, rented, or purchased land to reduce their ties to the estates. It’s so different for a place like Antigua where there just was not that same kind of physical space. The island was so small that the estates had just about carved up every piece of available land. Antigua was not diversified agriculturally and there were not opportunities for significant numbers of black working peoples to slip away and drop out of sugar production. Therefore, you really start to understand just how much more limited the options were following emancipation and how much less mobility there was to be had on a small island.
Studying Antigua with this context in mind, I thought about how much the little things must have meant to women and men emerging from enslavement. When I say the little things, I mean the everyday, ordinary ways that black people asserted themselves as free because some of the big things that we associate with freedom—such as the franchise and land ownership—were not readily available to them. I think Antigua is a really instructive case because its particularities, including its smallness, call attention to how freedom was imagined and enacted in a variety of ways.
Unlike other sugar territories in the British Caribbean, Antigua proceeded directly from slavery to “full” freedom in August 1834, bypassing the apprenticeship system instituted elsewhere. In the aftermath of emancipation, however, Antiguan planters devised new means to secure the labor of freed women and men. What strategies did planters employ in their efforts to tie black working peoples to the sugar estates? How did black workers attempt to negotiate the terms of their labor?
Lightfoot: Following emancipation, planters sought to guarantee labor at a cheap rate by enacting the Contract Act, which was introduced just months after the end of slavery. The Contract Act, with various modifications, would govern labor relations in Antigua until the mid 1930s or early 1940s. The Act was billed by the legislature as protecting laborers, but it was really about protecting employers. It mandated that individuals who lived on an estate had to labor on it as well. It was incredibly severe and basically tried to apprentice freed women and men after the fact.
There were all kinds of ways that black working peoples sought to escape the iron clad approach to contracting labor in post-slavery Antigua. Generally, their response was to say: “I’m free now, and I really would like to have some semblance of a different approach to how I labor. I need to be able to claim more of my time. I need better wages. I need to be able to decide who I work for.” Particularly in Antigua, there were many freed people who wanted to claim a particular kind of freedom that decoupled housing on the estates from the requirement to labor for estate owners.
What’s interesting about the case of Antigua is that there are several narratives unfolding. There is the general story that enslaved people were freed, but often went right back to work and live on the same estates on which they had been enslaved. As freedpeople, they received horrible wages and those wages only decreased over the middle of the nineteenth century. In some respects, that could easily be the quick and dirty summary of the story that I tell. But, even within that dire reality, there were so many ways that freed women and men created incredible openings to improve their lives. Their actions complicate any straightforward story of domination and submission. Freed people in Antigua kept appearing in the record as doing something to make freedom meaningful.
In Chapter Four, you argue that freedpeople not only sought better working conditions, but also pursued “well-being and social mobility” through new habits of public and private life. Specifically, you suggest that freedpeople “sought the tangible improvements they expected from emancipation” by participating in public forms of leisure, carving out autonomous domestic spaces, and engaging in heightened consumption of material goods. How did these new cultural practices shape debates about the meaning of freedom in Antigua during the 1830s and 1840s?
Lightfoot: I’ve always wanted to talk about there being some space for joy in the lives of black working peoples. There needs to be an acknowledgment of joy and aspirations for a better life, even if the historical records don’t always let us understand just how full black Antiguans’ lives were beyond their experiences as estate laborers. We need to remember their lives involved more than just work. They were not chattel goods in service of capital accumulation in the empire. That’s just not how black working peoples in Antigua lived their daily lives.
White observers mocked black Antiguans for purchasing nice clothes and other fancy goods, because they were supposedly living beyond their social station. When thinking about these claims in the context of black resistance, it’s incredible how much you can glean from white peoples’ indignance at the fact that black Antiguans wanted to carry themselves in a different way because they were no longer enslaved. I wanted to explore this and did not see it in the literature on the end of slavery.
Obviously, the nature of resistance is one of the major issues that I’m grappling with throughout Troubling Freedom. I was interested in recovering a history of black Antiguans’ opposition to the system, but also acknowledge the limitations and contradictions of their actions. Three books that I read as a graduate student provided a model for me: Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom, Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels, and Walter Rodney’s A History of the Guyanese Working People.
In addition to contending with white planters, merchants, and colonial officials, Antigua’s freedpeople also confronted the racialized and gendered expectations of white Christian clergymen. In Chapter Five of the book, you suggest that black women, in particular, endured intense scrutiny from religious officials in the Moravian and Methodist churches. Could you tell us more about that?
Lightfoot: Chapter Five was difficult to write, but it was also incredibly revealing. It shows that even within such a homogeneous population of working peoples there was an added set of constraints on black women. Specifically, constraints around what women’s roles were supposed to be and the dangers of masculinized black women. And, of course, there was never the sense that black women in post-emancipation Antigua should have the right to stay home and be dainty ladies. Whatever stock ideas about femininity that might have been applied in the middle of the nineteenth century to white women certainly didn’t apply to black women, ever.
But, in the transition to freedom, the Christian churches that were proselytizing emancipated people sought to create some sense of gendered norms. They tried to get black Antiguans to submit to gendered norms in order to Christianize them; thus, the work the church was doing created yet another layer of dominance, a systematic molding of how freedom was supposed to be enacted. And part of that was the demand to submit to monogamous marriage and nuclear family structure.
The entirety of Chapter Five explores how black people engaged the Christian church in ways that both conformed to and challenged its authority. I suggest that some working peoples tried to conform to the demands of the church and believed in the religious teachings sold by the church. But I also think that they were using the church for the many social benefits it provided. So we can’t really see one without the other. They may have been converted by the spirit, but they were also pretty happy that the churches were offering soup kitchens, schooling, and access to free villages when estates folded. So certainly, black people who had any kind of social aspirations or desires for advancement often pursued these aims by joining the church.
Troubling Freedom concludes by analyzing the four-day uprising by black Antiguans in March 1858. As you explain, the insurgents initially targeted black working people from Barbuda before attacking Portuguese immigrants and local policemen. What did the rebellion reveal about black resistance in Antigua and the “contingent nature of freedom”?
Lightfoot: I view the 1858 riot as a kind of public theater, a moment when black Antiguans seized the language of violence through spectacular acts of public expression. Violence had always undergirded the fabric of life in both slave-era Antigua and post-emancipation Antigua. Violence was the language of power and, ultimately, the ability to enact violence was what it meant to be free.
It took me a long time to get to the place where I was able to articulate the centrality of violence in conceptions of freedom. For a long time, I wanted to call freedom all these loftier things. I wanted to call it access to land, to education, to better wages, and whatever else. But actually, the one thing that everyone would have agreed upon in post-emancipation Antigua is that people who were free were able to lord their status over someone else that was less free. Usually, expressions of freedom entailed some kind of violence. That expression of power was what the rioters were searching for in 1858.
Significantly, the rioters did not begin by lashing out against planters or the police force that represented the planters’ interests. Instead, they started out beating up other working people from Barbuda, a neighboring island that had a history of being even more economically deprived and underdeveloped. Some black Antiguans saw migrants from Barbuda as competition for scarce jobs in St. John’s. I think the riot was an effort to claim public space in a forceful way and to beat up on a lesser group. The court transcripts also reveal how a different set of ideas emerged as the violence continued over several days. The rioters didn’t stop at targeting people from Barbuda. They began to focus on the people who were the true sources of their oppression as well.