Free Communities of Color in the Revolutionary Caribbean

By Robert D. Taber and Charlton W. Yingling

The tumult of the Age of Atlantic Revolutions provided new opportunities for people of color in the Caribbean, and recent scholarship has emphasized remarkable individuals who pursued their freedom and respectability through mobility and resilience. However, such an approach under-represents women and men who remained in their communities and elides explanations of how some sought to benefit from colonial hierarchies. Our new book, Free Communities of Color in the Revolutionary Caribbean: Overturning, or Turning Back?, brings together emerging and established scholars to explore meanings of community and belonging for people of color in the late Age of Atlantic Revolutions, not just in Haiti or the British Atlantic, but also Caracas, Cartagena, the Dutch and Swedish Caribbean, and the European metropole.

In the introduction, we frame these concerns by asking, “How did the Age of Revolutions present an opportunity for turning over European domination, while turning back to convenient symbols and ingrained structures of European norms, whether as complicity, subversion, or some aspect of both? How did these groups refract a colonialist mentalité through language, education, literacy, dress, craftsmanship, residences, music, civic engagement, and militia service? And finally, did eighteenth-century cosmopolitanisms decline in reaction to the Haitian Revolution?” (pg. 4)

Many of the contributors use micro-biographies of individuals of color to discuss community concerns and challenges. James Taylor was born into slavery in Jamaica. Freed by his white father’s family, he sought a job in the British East Company, but first needed to find the right color of jacket to pass as white (or white enough) during his London interview. Juan Bautista Olivares was a free pardo musician in Caracas who had to prove his loyalty to the Spanish crown, and his fealty to Roman Catholicism, to combat a charge of subversion. In independent Haiti, historians and writers such as Beaubrun Ardouin and the Baron de Vastey wrestled with how to present Haiti’s connection to the African past, and the role enslaved rebels played in securing their country’s future — a task made more difficult by the deliberate effort of white supremacist chroniclers to belittle or flatten the story of the Haitian Revolution. Meanwhile, women and men of color in Napoleonic France experienced the brunt of a deportation policy that found them in internal exile, deprived of sufficient food and clothing, but blocked from travel to the Caribbean. Through all of these challenges and transformations, communities of color in Charleston, Cartagena, and on Swedish St. Bart’s and Dutch Curacao continued to navigate the possibilities and challenges of the legal and racial regimes of the first half of the nineteenth century.

The chapters explore how free communities of color deployed religion, literature, politics, fashion, the press, history, and the law in the Atlantic to defend their status, and at times defined themselves against more marginalized groups in a rapidly changing world. Displays of social, cultural, and symbolic capitals often reinforced systemic inequities, complicated revolutionary-era tensions among the long-free, enslaved, and recently-freed, and beleaguered newly-independent societies with colonial continuities.

Overall, this book demonstrates that problems of belonging, difference, and hierarchy were central to the operation of Caribbean colonies, and better illuminate the challenges present during the long nineteenth century history of emancipation.

Without recalibrating scholarship to focus on community and hierarchy, we risk under-appreciating how the varied motivations and ambitions of free people of color shaped the decline of empires and the formation of new post-colonial states.

Table of Contents:

1. Robert D. Taber and Charlton W. Yingling, “Networks, tastes, and labor in free communities of color: Transforming the revolutionary Caribbean”

2. Cristina Soriano, “‘A true vassal of the King’: Pardo literacy and political identity in Venezuela during the age of revolutions”

3. John Garrison Marks, “Crafting freedom: Race and social mobility among free artisans of color in Cartagena and Charleston”

4. Ale Pålsson, “Smugglers before the Swedish throne: Political activity of free people of color in early nineteenth-century St Barthélemy”

5. Erin Zavitz, “Revolutionary narrations: Early Haitian historiography and the challenge of writing counter-history”

6. Margaret B. Crosby-Arnold, “A case of hidden genocide? Disintegration and destruction of people of color in Napoleonic Europe, 1799–1815”

7. Daniel Livesay, “West meets east: Mixed-race Jamaicans in India, and the avenues of advancement in imperial Britain”

8. Jessica Vance Roitman, “‘A mass of mestiezen, castiezen, and mulatten’: Contending with color in the Netherlands Antilles, 1750–1850”

Book cover of Free Communities of Color and the Revolutionary Caribbean by Robert Taber and Charlton Yingling.

Enter for your chance to win a copy of Free Communities of Color in the Revolutionary Caribbean: Overturning, or Turning Back? 

Fill out the following form by Sunday, October 28 at 11:59pm EST. Jodi Wyett is our winner!

Title image: Agostino Brunias, Free West Indian Dominicans, c. 1770

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