Covert: strikes, religion and belief
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The University of Glasgow online course,
History of Slavery in the British Caribbean
“We were three months at sea before we arrived in Jamaica, which was the beginning of bondage. But, praise be to God, who has everything in his power to do as he thinks good, and no man can remove whatever burden he chooses to put on us, as He has said, ‘Nothing shall fall on us except what He shall ordain; He is our Lord, and let all that believe in Him put their trust in Him.’”
Fairburn’s edition of The wonderful life and adventures of Three fingered Jack, the terror of Jamaica! : Giving an account of his perservering courage and gallant heroism in revenging the cause of his injured parents, J. Fairburn, London, 1825. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library. By the mid-eighteenth century, concerns over African spirituality and its potential to stimulate open slave rebellion pushed Jamaica to pass its ‘Act to Remedy the Evils Arising for Irregular Assemblies of Slaves’ in 1760. African or creolised African religious practices intertwined with overt rebellions was a common phenomenon throughout the Caribbean for British, French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies. For example, Haiti’s Maroon leader Makandal (1758) and Cécile Fatima (1791) along with Jamaica’s Nanny (1730s) and Sam Sharpe (1831) were religious leaders that led or influenced slave rebellions. Caribbean laws forbidding Obeah under penalty of death. Even the possession of Obeah materials was worthy of expulsion from the British Caribbean to exile in Cuba. Creolised African religious practices continued to be condemned long after emancipation. The criminalisation of Obeah stayed on the books until the twenty-first century.Pro-slavery activists in Britain falsely claimed that the system of slavery helped to spread Christianity among the enslaved. In reality, many enslavers opposed the propagation of the Christian faith as they feared it would weaken their control over enslaved people, or give them ideas about freedom. Missionaries were frequently blamed for slave resistance and revolt. An edited version of the Bible was even published in 1807, titled ‘Select parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands’.You can download a pdf version of the so-called ‘Slave Bible’ held at the University of Glasgow Special Collections. J.A. Wright, ‘Freed West Indian slave family’, The negro’s friend, or, the Sheffield anti-slavery album., J. Blackwell, Sheffield, 1826.Anti-slavery activists also saw conversion to Christianity as central to emancipation. This image shows an idealised family, post emancipation, with the tools of slavery at their feet. The man holds a book, which looks like a bible, while the rays of light peeking through the clouds appear to symbolise the light of redemption. Some enslaved people also embraced Christian theology as a way to resist slavery. Biblical references to slaves finding freedom resonated strongly. Christianity also provided a powerful model to explain how suffering would be alleviated and their sacrifices would be rewarded.‘Not long since, some of thee execrable wretches in Jamaica introduced what they called the myal dance, and established a kind of society, into which they invited all they could. The lure hung out was that every Negro initiated into the myal society would be invulnerable to the white men; and, although they might appear slain, the obeah-man could, at his pleasure restore the body to life’. (Edward Long, History of Jamaica 1774, p. 449)
History of Slavery in the British Caribbean
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