On the 27th of December 1831, a once-peaceful slave "labor strike" in the British colony of Jamaica broke into full rebellion, hastening the passage of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act just over a year later. As Britain's largest American slave colony in 1831, Jamaica was a politically and economically vital holding for the crown, as well as a complex society in which "elite" slaves enjoyed some freedom and mobility that allowed them--even if surreptitiously--to access information and organize on their own. As such, when slave laborers learned that the mandates of an 1823 slavery "amelioration program," which required planters to improve the rights and conditions of all enslaved people, were not being implemented, they organized a strike (Holt 8).
Historian Thomas C. Holt explains that this revolt, "in both rhetoric and tactics," was "a defensive war, intended to maintain rights, privileges, and territory" that the slaves thought had already been won. The rebellion thus began as a relatively nonviolent protest, in that only residences and trash storage buildings were targeted. Growing canes and human beings were not to be harmed, as both would be needed afterward, in the rebels' plot, at harvest time. But when the planters and the army drew up arms against them, the rebels fought back; by the end of their failed effort, in January, the rebels had inflicted more than one million pounds' sterling worth of property damage over 750 square miles in western Jamaica and had lost the lives of 540 slaves--200 in combat, and the rest at the hands of firing squad and gallows (14).
Although the 1831 rebellion was quickly subdued, and although the white colonial militia lost only fourteen lives, a spirit of rebellion had been awakened in Jamaica that could not be subdued--except this time, it was the white planters' turn for retaliation; because the slaves' uprising had been led by members of the Baptist church, these planters began to attack Baptist and Methodist missionaries and churches--actions that lost them the sympathy of whites in Britain and that garnered support abroad for the growing abolitionist movement. The rebellion and its aftermath, then, served its broader purpose of advancing the rights of slave labor, as discussions of gradual abolition in the House of Commons soon shifted, by the Fall of 1832, into discussions about "the necessity of immediate abolition" (17). When the Abolition Act was passed on 20 August 1833, the authors cited the Christmas revolt of Jamaica "as a major factor compelling their action" (14).
The rebels who led the Christmas Revolt of 1831 were unique, certainly in the organization and practical specificity of their aims, as they fought not only for the improvement of labor conditions but also for the right to cultivate the land as their own. They were emboldened to make these demands, in large part, because they represented a generational and societal shift in colonial society that rippled beyond the system of slavery, but that certainly hastened its demise. The 1831 rebels were primarily Jamaican-born, literate, and well-assimilated into colonial culture. In fact, many of them were considered to be part of their masters' inner circles--the plantation "elites"--who worked as drivers and artisans, and they capitalized on their relative mobility throughout the colony to both contemplate and organize.
But to fully understand the complexity of their organization, we must first unpack the power of their position as Jamaican born. The slave rebels, as native-born Jamaicans of African descent, now had a further link to their European cousins who shared the same birthplace but had different rights based purely on the accident of (legitimized) descent. These rebels had a more organic sense of claim to the land they toiled to harvest, and an example of (and refugees from) a victorious rebellion by their neighbors to the north against the Mother Country--all of which helped to fuel their fight and to confirm their cause as both legitimate and laudable. By working, in part, to both merge and overturn a historical narrative of "creolization" that prioritized jus sanguinis (the right of blood) over jus soli (territorial rights), the Jamaican rebels invite a more careful consideration of the work of intercultural performance and creolization to inaugurate political change (Gerbi 182). Although my essay is viewed through a perhaps too-familiar lens of New World acts of creole cultural performance, my aim is to extricate and reanimate these fraught terms ("culture" and "creolization") from their current critical perception as insufficient, static, and vapid signifiers that depend too much on a celebratory, postcolonial (and incorrect) vision of the New World as the primary site of "hybridity" and "mixture." What I offer instead is a fresh look--albeit, through familiar geographical sites and figures--at the rise of ethnography as a political field that is foundationally and strategically linked to broader global histories and struggles.
I open with the Jamaican rebels' revolt in order to parallel it with later acts of "creolized cultural performance," labeling it thus not because it was a "hybrid" mixture of African, European, and American forces, nor because its New World location marks it as a singular or originary event. Rather, I contend that it rehearses a particular kind of political mimicry--a significant political intervention made possible through cultural performance that was not simply analogous to but a foundational mirror for twentieth century ethnographers like Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston. These practitioners straddled, like their revolutionary predecessors across the Atlantic world (from spaces like Jamaica and Haiti to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere), multiple allegiances, affiliations, and performances. Such acts of Bhabian mimicry, I argue, offer a more nuanced, more political, and less static vision of "the culture concept," and perhaps even of "creolization," troubling and insufficient as these terms may remain as we struggle to reconcile historical processes with academic theories about cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary contact and change in the Atlantic world.
Now, it is important to note that a long line of contemporary scholars have correctly criticized this very gesture of American societies and of diaspora scholars to "recast creolization as a more fortunate process productive of cultures and individual abilities distinct from, and possibly superior to, those found in the Old World" (Stewart 1-2). Creolization, like culture, like personhood, is a term with a long and ironically territorial disciplinary history, in part because of its increasingly capacious geographic and intellectual terrain. Creolization has had various overlapping and oppositional meanings since at least the second half of the sixteenth century for Caribbean and Atlantic world scholars, for postcolonialists, for anthropologists, and for literary theorists. From its vexed history in the Atlantic world as a term that articulated either the fusion of or distinction between European and African languages and persons in Caribbean spaces, creolization later came to stand for the pan-African solidarity that shaped the Negritude movement of the 1930s (Palmie 438). (1)
From the mid-twentieth century onward, historians and anthropologists like Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Sidney Mintz, and Richard Price worked to extend this term to include and recover the traces of indigenous people wiped out by European contact, and to embrace the presence of those outside the Afro-European diaspora who also contributed to Caribbean creolite, such as Asians and Middle Easterners. As Martinican writers Jean Bemabe, Patrick Chamoisau, and Raphael Confiant wrote in their 1989 declaration In Praise of Creoleness, "Neither Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians, we proclaim ourselves Creoles" (886).
Later, postcolonial Caribbean scholars, such as Edouard Glissant and Antonio Benitez-Rojo insisted on a broader, yet unintentionally limiting definition of creolization as an infinite and ceaseless process that does away with the notion of "fixed being" as a concept imposed by the West. In Glissant's formulation, colonial travel first instantiated the need to "fix" the notion of the rooted identity in the metropole. Conquerors became "the moving, transient root of their people," and the West is "where this movement becomes fixed and nations declare themselves in preparation for their repercussions in the world" (14). This confluence of colonial travelers, their (human) cargo, and the legacies of devastation, prosperity, or restructuring they wrought on those other continental points of the triangular trade, carried the very contradiction to the fixed and rooted identity it so staunchly asserted. The desire to extend European personhood abroad led to its very disavowal in diaspora. Emerging from a European desire to expand, know, and fix the world into discrete and legible categories, the mission of colonial enterprise instead witnessed and contributed to this infinite process of creolization. But what such postcolonial readings often leave out is the role of interculture already at work in these sites, long before and well after European contact, and just as importantly, the continued significance of bounded local histories and identities in these spaces that cannot and should not be wiped out or dismissed in the wake of narratives of incessant change that are dangerously teetering on a tacit, if unintentional, acceptance of the neoimperial force of globalization, one that is already wreaking an all-too-reminiscent havoc on local communities of kin. Such a reading--one that uproots notions of fixity and belonging from the Old World only to replant them in the New World--also risks denying the coevality of contemporary Africans, Indians, Asians, and indigenous groups across the globe (Pierre 2-4).