One of the more intriguing aspects and offshoots of plantation slavery in the New World is its natural human product: the mulatto. We have here not only a (new) biological presence (progenitor of other phenotypical permutations: sambo, mustee, mustiphini, etc.), but in terms of the established slave order we have a social paradox, a psychological ambiguity, and a politico-cultural problem, since ideologically speaking, the “mulatto” should not exist in a racially structured context where white was light (and right) and black/slave was not even supposed to have a legal personality. But, boys will be boys, and by 1790 there were 25,000 (free) mulattoes in Santo Domingo (out of a population of 540,000); and 50,000 (slave + free) in Jamaica in 1823 (out of a population of 300,000); and in Barbados (1825) there were just over 2,000 free mulattoes out of a population of 24,000. In other words, as the slave system developed—setting out, as a strategy of defense, a series of apartheid laws and regulations—so, at the same time, did the visible evidence of the transgression of these laws and customs make itself increasingly seen and heard. The first reaction of the plantation establishment to this was not to control “miscegenation” (as has been done, say, in South Africa), but rather to limit the number and nature of the privileges that the mulattoes (mother and/or children) might derive from it. Hence, the social restrictions in Santo Domingo, and the property and inheritance limits there and in the British West Indies.
But the mulattoes had time and circumstance on their side: growing numbers, consciousness and militance, better and better solidarity, and protest organizations. At the same time the white oligarchies, under the combined pressure of the American, Humanitarian, Haitian, and Industrial Revolutions, became steadily weakened and so uncertain of themselves that by the eve of emancipation a significant number of the blood-crossed population (along with some blacks) had won—or were being born into—freedom, although the extent and application of this was still very much open to interpretation. The point, though, is that the mulattoes—or more properly the freed population—had by 1830 in the anglophone Caribbean, a softly subtle and corrosive action within the slave establishment which at the same time prepared it for the surprisingly peaceful transition to freedom in the middle of the nineteenth century.
However, with the emphasis focussed (not unreasonably) on the anatomy of the plantation and its slavery (Ragatz: 1928; Williams: 1944; Goveia: 1965, 1970; Patterson: 1967), examination of its variforms (creolization, cultural products, etc.) has been slow in coming. With respect to the mulattoes, there are two excellent Jamaican studies: by Duncker (1960) and Campbell (1968). But—since both these are unpublished theses—we have had to wait until 1974 for a monograph on the subject to become generally available. In The Unappropriated People, Handler has given us a precisely expressed work that sets out the structural format of the freedman’s position in Barbados. He provides us with demographic statistics, a thorough account of “manumission and the validation of free status,” looks at his subject within the economic, religious, educational, military, and social systems of the island, and he gives an account of how their civil rights were reduced and then (re)extended.
But there is something missing. It may, of course, be a reflection of the society itself. Of all Caribbean communities, Barbados (“Little England”) is most apparently bland—even blind—to its own identity. There is a curiously acephalous quality about that particular island. And perhaps the archives reflect this. One suspects that in terms of quantity as well as quality, it would have been unlikely, for instance, for Handler to have found and revealed the kind of life, detail, and conflict for Barbados that Duncker and Campbell were so easily and generously able to provide for Jamaica—or to have given us what we would expect from the relatively more complex, sophisticated culture of, say, Trinidad or St. Lucia.
But there is more to it than this, and it has to do with Handler’s own instinct for caution: an admirable scholarly fastidiousness that elects for a “matt” rather than a “glossy” finish to his picture. The freedmen’s fight for civil rights, differently placed and treated, could have provided the “story” with a plot and a conclusion. Instead, it is quietly dealt with in the fourth of the nine chapters that compose the study. Therefore, what dynamic the work might have had—if this material had been placed as culmination—is lost in the middle of the book. And one expects that this placing is part of the author’s choice and purpose: to provide us with a formal/structural rather than with an informal/dynamic view of his subject. But whether the “choice” was voluntary or involuntary, the effect was to provide us with a formally excellent work, which at the same time fails, in essence, to reach the glimpsed life within the interstices of the culture. In fact, so concerned was Handler with structure (“systems”) in this study that he ends up (because his model doesn’t involve the interstices) with a book whose equilibrium appears more imposed than inevitable.
Let me explain a little more clearly what I am getting at. Classical, “orthodox” societies/situations are most classically described through “orthodox” historical methods: narrative/analysis, characterization, conflict/issues, infra-/superstructural exploration. Euro-American nineteenth-century historiography has laid this all down. We know we are in the presence of successful works because there is an easy concert between structure and dynamo, form and movement. When, however, we come to cubist/surrealistic societies, offshoots of the metropoles, it is a different matter. Orthodox historiography can relate then only to the formal shells of the formations; the obscure, eccentric lives of the “invisible men” who live under these formalities will escape investigation almost altogether, and we will simply be forced to agree with the pessimists that “nothing was created in the West Indies.”
Handler is too wise and sensitive a scholar to have made this mistake; but in this study he has, for reasons I cannot fully understand, placed orthodox historical set-squares on his unorthodox Bajan material and has come up with a book that has form but no movement, structure but very little life. I would go further and say that even the described form (the equilibrium) being “formal,” is “false, in that for the culture being described the essential is not structure at all, but process; psychological boundaries are not defined so much by sense of hierarchy as by ambiguity; not so much by possession and opposition of values as by paradox. This is why Governor Seaforth, in a flash of sunlight, designated the freedmen unappropriated people, though he was thinking more of the formal/legal, rather than about the psychocultural aspects of their case. But to omit this dimension from a modern study, as Handler does, is to return this group of people to the obscurity from which they have been but briefly summoned.
In a strange way, this book is a methodological exception to Handler’s main contribution to our understanding of Barbadian slave society, which he has been pioneering with studies such as “Pottery Manufacture in Barbados,” “The History of Arrowroot,” “Aspects of Slave Life in Barbados: Music and Its Cultural Context,” etc. [See JBMHS 30:3 (Nov. 1963); Journal of Caribbean History (May 1971); Caribbean Studies 2:4 (Jan. 1972), among others.]
To have achieved the end I have in mind, Handler would have had to have given us a much larger book, in which the orthodox formal, as here, would be put to the test of his numerous exceptions. His model would have had to give more space/time to people. How, for instance, did Thomas Harris (p. 197), mulatto, a slave until the age of 17, become the wealthy businessman he was? How did Joseph Garraway (p. 196) become a stipendary magistrate, even though “During the period [of] this study, the legal and social system of Barbados was consciously oriented towards the preservation of white supremacy” (p. 191) and “Unlike Jamaica, no one in Barbados of known and perceived Negroid ancestry, regardless of generational distance, could achieve a position of legal equality with whites” (p. 192), and despite the fact that “the Barbados legislature, in contrast to the Jamaican one, did not pass private acts granting certain categories of freedmen special privileges. . ..” (Ibid.)? What pressures of choice and circumstance led Washington Franklin (p. 86), freed mulatto, to ally himself with the black slave Bussa and create the revolt of 1816? And what relation did that choice have to, say, that of Samuel Jackson Prescod (p. 104)— the mention of whom raises, for West Indian readers at any rate, the whole urgent problem of the cultural dilemma of the Afro-Saxon. It is clear, in other words, that there remains more in the ancestral social sources (Thome & Kimball: 1838; Sturge & Harvey: 1838; Pinckard: 1806; Vaughan: 1966/67) than Handler cared—or thought necessary— to make central in this book; and he eschews almost entirely the use of unconventional informants, such as newspapers, diaries, and creative literature. The paucity of archival sauces of this kind (see pp. 4-5) is part of Handler’s explanation for this. Yet imaginative (not conjectural: v. p. 4) use could have been made of material from other territories to supplement these defects. But we are still a long way, it appears, from definitive comparative work in this region.
One notes, too, Handler’s attempt to ignore/circumvent the reality of Caribbean color consciousness by writing about “freedmen” (using the formal legal fiction) rather than about “free coloreds” and “free blacks.” This does not get us very far since 1) the weight of evidence in the already limited archives has overwhelmingly to do with mulattoes and 2) there was obviously (p. 216) more natural division in the freed group along color lines, than its opposite. But then the notion and treatment of “freedmen,” as distinct from black or colored people, fits into the structural concept (Chapters II, III, IV, IX) on which the book is based. My contention is that excellent as this may be (and my dispute here is not with text but with context), it doesn’t take us near enough to the eyes of the freedmen—creators, time-servers, schizophrenic aspects of creole culture. What I’m asking for is not only the information that “the social cleavage between freedman and slave was bridged by a series of cross-cutting social and psychological ties which may have mitigated some of the more divisive factors between the two groups” (p. 205), but the illumination of the fact that nearly all freedmen, whether black or brown, had black mothers they had to psycho-culturally drown in order to achieve or maintain their freedom. And freedom and freedman in Caribbean society has a great deal to do with these submerged mothers.