30 November 2003

Underground Networks

Abolition PosterOn the power of posters, pamphlets, and petitions in the time of globalization.

From “Sailing the Black Atlantic,” by Adam Hochschild, a review of Making the Black Atlantic. Britain and the African Diaspora, in The Times Literary Supplement, October 6, 2000:

“By requiring a complex skein of transport, trade, credit and insurance ties that connected Europe, Africa and the Americas, slavery and the slave trade were the core of the eighteenth century’s version of globalization.

In turn, one might call the black diaspora the era’s Internet. As Walvin points out, it was an information network. Word of the dramatic blossoming of abolitionism in England, for instance, was eagerly carried back across the Atlantic by black sailors, and by black domestics brought back and forth across the ocean by their West Indian masters. Slaves waiting on plantation dinner tables in Jamaica or Barbados listened hard when their owners cursed the do-gooders in Parliament, or the Quakers, who organized a huge boycott of slave-grown sugar. News from each side of the Atlantic affected the other. Reports of hundreds of abolitionist petitions flooding Parliament helped spark some of the revolts among impatient slaves in the Caribbean. The first major uprising, in the French colony of Saint Domingue (later Haiti) in the 1790s, provoked a backlash in Britain against the abolitionists, but a later one, in Jamaica in 1831-2, was crucial in hastening emancipation.”