Part history of slave emancipation, part philosophical essay on the meaning of freedom in colonial societies, this ambitious and well-crafted work surveys more than a century of Jamaican social and political history. Thomas Holt devotes three-fourths of the text to the tumultuous period between the 1831 slave revolt preceding emancipation and the peasant rebellion at Morant Bay 34 years later. He reconstructs this era around David Brion Davis’ insight that slave emancipation was inextricably bound with the rise of bourgeois ideology and the spread of capitalist social relations.
Specialists in the fields of Jamaican emancipation and British abolitionism are unlikely to discover much new material here. But with his sophisticated theoretical perspective, Holt provides a superb synthesis of the evidence and literature on the transition to freedom that should interest all scholars concerned with the epoch of emancipation. The Problem of Freedom admirably recounts the story of metropole and colony in tandem; Holt never loses the awareness that the dry language of Colonial Office memoranda and the assertive actions of the Jamaican peasantry played equally important parts in the struggle to define the meaning of freedom.
Holt’s central contention is that the nineteenth-century liberals who crafted West Indian emancipation believed that Afro-Jamaicans were fully capable of responding to the incentives of a free labor market. But over three decades, the political economy of free Jamaica did not bear out their hopes. Like ex-slaves everywhere, Jamaica’s freed people put a high premium on autonomy and resisted proletarianization. Nevertheless, according to Holt, “resident whites proved to be a far more troublesome factor in the transition from slavery to freedom than did the slaves (p. 86), not least because they maintained a degree of political power. Indeed, two decades of political stalemate transformed colonial policy from an attempt to “cajole the planter class into adopting liberal democratic principles” into an effort “to contain the aspirations of a politically insurgent black citizenry” (p. 213).
This analysis requires two interpretations that are certain to spark rejoinders. Holt argues that it was only after emancipation’s apparent “failure” to meet the prescriptions of liberal political economy that racism became the “essential solvent for dissolving the contradiction between democratic theory and colonial practice” (p. 215). But some may find overstated his insistence that race was unimportant to British policymakers during the early years of the “mighty experiment.” Holt also casts the transfer of political power to the Colonial Office in the 1860s as a response to the threat (or fear) of black majority rule. The evidence he marshals to make this case, however, is ambiguous; he himself shows that less than 2 percent of Afro-Jamaicans ever made it to the polls.
Certainly, as Holt shows, Morant Bay crystallized a racialist view in London and ushered in an era of metropolitan rule justified as “the white man’s burden.” British imperialists often erstwhile liberals—believed that Afro-Jamaicans had failed the test of bourgeois political economy and internal self-discipline, and consigned Jamaica’s nascent peasantry to the realm of “backward” peoples in need of discipline imposed from without. Holt cleverly notes that in this shifting discourse the dependency of individual slaves was transmuted into that of entire societies, effectively providing a bridge from colonial slavery to imperialism and, in the twentieth century, to neocolonialism under the auspices of “multinational capital” (p. 317)·
Holt takes the story up to the labor revolt of 1938 and the initial stirring of decolonization sentiment. As they had a century before, he notes, the Jamaican masses insisted that “political and economic freedoms did not function in separable domains” (p. 397).