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Ending of Slavery in Jamaica and Russia
by   Richard   Rieben
Written – 1976
 
In Jamaica slavery was abolished in 1834 by the British Parliament on the rationale that it was fundamentally an immoral system, though abolition had been presaged by a particularly impressive slave revolt in 1831 and by a history of servile rebelliousness. In Russia slavery was abolished in 1861 by the tsar on the rationale that relations between slaves and masters had deteriorated to such an extent that it would be dangerous and foolhardy to attempt to maintain a system of control that was so obviously losing its effectiveness. Essentially, it may be seen that slavery was abolished in both countries for the same reason: a growing desire for freedom on the part of the slaves. In both countries the slaves' awareness of the possibility of freedom was fostered by legislation which seemed to make freedom a viable and attainable goal: in 1830 all free Jamaicans were considered as equal under the law regardless of race. And the desire for freedom was given fire by anticipatory and retaliatory measures against emancipation by the slaveholders of both countries: the gentry of Russia in many cases sought to reduce the allotments of their serfs or to move them to poorer lands in order to protect their property against the emancipation which appeared imminent.

The two systems of slavery in the two countries, although different in type, were not that different in practice. The great absenteeism of the plantation owners in Jamaica lent an almost feudal air to the Jamaican institution of slavery and the strong, pre-emancipation, communal bonds of the feudal peasant villages in Russia gave a sense of plantation-effort to the Russian institution of serfdom. Strengthening the similarity of the two systems of slavery was the existence of "private" plots of land for the use of the slave households; the slaves of both countries had, thereby, a personal sense of working for their own welfare and had, within their grasp, the capacity to attain, given the condition of freedom, a state of economic autonomy (i.e., self-sufficiency at least at a subsistence level).

Neither the abolition of slavery in Jamaica nor the emancipation of the serfs in Russia altered the immediate status of the slaves. In both countries abolition was predicated upon gradualism; and in both countries gradualism was predicated upon the premise of omniscient government; that is, upon the control, ordering and guidance of the subsequent emergent economic system by the government. In both cases the government was under the influence of both the landed-elite economists and the "humanitarian" economists (in Jamaica both of these sought to preserve the plantation system), but the principle of a utopian ordering of the economic (and thereby social) system prevailed in both countries. In Russia the inter-play of these two groups of "economists" served to denigrate the security (and, ergo, ultimate value) of emancipation: Alexander II conditionally freed the serfs, Pobedonostsev sought to restrict or negate their freedom, Stolypin attempted (with the least utopian control of any) to make freedom a reality, and the communists beginning with Lenin sought to restrict and control the "former" serfs.

In both countries, with the exception of Stolypin's short-lived measures, the government sought to abolish slavery and, simultaneously, maintain the status quo (economically and socially), thus attempting the impossible. In Jamaica a system of apprenticeship followed abolition for a period of four years, under which system it was hoped that the former slaves would make the transition from slave to freeman wholly within the context of the plantation. By progressively (and gradually) freeing the slave under apprenticeship, the system served only to make the slave increasingly aware of the potential of full freedom and increasingly dissatisfied with the slavery-stigmatized plantation set-up. The former slaves deserted the plantation and took up a free life in the hills or cities; developing small plots of land with a diversified produce that provided a backbone strength to the inner-island economy. With the steady trend toward small-plot settling by the former slaves, the government took steps to discourage settlement and thwart the success thereof by various coercive laws, thereby incurring the anger and further alienation of the former slaves.

In Jamaica the former slave was free to purchase his full freedom at any time subsequent to abolition; in Russia this was not the case. The serfs were to be bound to the land for nine years following emancipation and were to continue working for their masters for two years following emancipation. Furthermore, the Russian peasants were to gain ownership of their land through a method of compensation in which the government paid the gentry with government bonds and the peasants were consequently indebted to the government usually via 49-year payment-plans. To ensure the viability of the peasants as a financial risk, the government made the payments binding upon the community and legally subjugated the peasant to the will of the commune.

The total emancipation of the serfs in Russia was only an actuality for a brief time during the ministry of Stolypin who, forty-five years after Alexander II had initiated emancipation, reduced and then abolished land redemption payments, effected measures to facilitate a change over to individual proprietorship, gave the peasants full citizenship rights, abolished passport regulations and internal colonization restrictions (thus giving the peasants the legal right to mobility), abolished the system of communal or joint responsibility, and re-instituted the system of justices of the peace (destroying the arbitrary rights of the land captains who, under Pobedonostsev, had assumed the powers previously held by the serf-owners). Stolypin was assassinated in September of 1911 and his reforms were never fulfilled ... and neither was emancipation.

There is an intriguing distinction between the social organization of Jamaica and Russia that bears investigation: although in both countries the overriding concern was with economic considerations in post-slavery society, the class considerations were not nearly as visible in Russia as in Jamaica. It is true that there was intoleration of "un-Russian" religions and persecution of the Jews, but this was born of an intense nationalism. The need to "control" the peasant population was not an especial class-motivated concern, but one, rather, of the massive numbers of that uneducated and historically non-responsible population. In Russia the peasants were distinguished not because they were intrinsically inferior to any others, but because they had been serfs and had thereby been deprived of the need to behave as responsible citizens: they had been chattle of a kind and had behaved accordingly. The status of the peasants as ex-serfs seems to have been generally considered remediable, though by what means the intellectuals of Russia seemed to have little idea. The ex-serf status of the peasants in conjunction with their great numbers led inevitably to the idea that control of some sort would be essential following emancipation (from an institution which was becoming increasingly unable to effectively wield control).

From the material I have read concerning emancipation in Russia, I glean the general idea that such class considerations as normally predicate racial distinctions were absent in Russia. The absence of racial distinctions qualifying the ex-serf, however, makes it more difficult to ascertain the absence of class distinctions. (Had there been a racial distinction would class distinction have been more clearly defined or is it the case - as I am attempting to postulate - that Russian society was not socially dependent upon its feudatory governmental structure?) As for social class structure in Jamaica, Philip D. Curtin makes the point that the Jamaican planters often sought the class distinction of social position in order to compensate for their self-imposed exile from an England in which the planter had very likely been of the lower classes. (p. 47) Curtin postulates that the class distinctions of Jamaica were not extensions of English class distinctions; I would but add that, though not extensions, they were nonetheless directly attributable thereto, albeit, perhaps, as a perversion thereof. Even in Jamica, however, the racial distinctions were not decisive determinants of class (given the existence of a "buffer" race of coloreds) until the "intrusion" upon the scene of the wives of the new, post-abolition plantation owners who took their residence and social life (and position) more seriously. The Jamaican class structure, which subsequently evolved racial distinctions as a handy method of keeping track of who belongs where, was, and to the extent that it still exists, is, at root, patterned after the English concept of a class ordered-social structure.

The social and intellectual elite of Russia, on the other hand, far from gloating over their superiority in respect to the peasant masses, were oppressed by the very existence of those masses. It is important to note that in England the lower classes were generally controlled and disciplined and "happily working away for Queen and country;" England had progressed from a strict feudal regime and its peasants had made the transition (and to some extent still were) peaceably; the situation had been kept under control. In brief, the social and intellectual elite of England could afford to be smug; those of Russia could not, and knew they could not.

Given the two different social civilizations (that of Jamaica being essentially English in derivation), I would postulate that even had the peasants of Russia been racially distinct, their treatment in the course of the emancipation would not have been in any fundamental respect different from what it was. Had there been a racial distinction, the Russian elite may have used it as a pretext for "disowning" the problem of the masses (which they were willing enough to do at any event), but this would not have affected the basic fact of their existence and the necessity of handling that fact ... a fact which, even without racial considerations, drove the Russian intellectuals to despair in the apparaent immutability of that fact and apparent insolubility of the "problem" posed thereby.

In Russia, the peasants of today have yet to achieve emancipation, though given the communist regime, the idea of emancipation within that regime is wholly untenable: one group or sector of the population is little better off than any other. The Jamaican descendants of ex-slaves have today a society that only moderately remembers slave status distinctions through the tracings of race; there is a held-over idea of class, but it is largely economic for most of the population and the "class" conflicts are largely thus based, being, as David Lowenthal comments, "racial mainly in name." (p. 322)


bibliography -
Curtin, Philip D., Two Jamaicas. New York: Atheneum, 1975.
Lowenthal, David, West Indian Societies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Ellison, Herbert J., History of Russia. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964.
Vucinich, Wayne S.. ed., The Peasant In Nineteenth-Century Russia. Stanford, Calif., Standford University Press. 1968.

 

copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Rieben