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Kris Manjapra: “Black communities have had to pay for the failures of emancipation”

Kris Manjapra speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about how the emancipations of enslaved people have left troubled legacies that still endure today

Kris Manjapra Headshot
Published: April 29, 2022 at 12:19 pm

You argue in Black Ghost of Empire that “the history of emancipation from slavery is not a story of endings, but unendings”. What do you mean by that?

We tend to think of the ending of slavery as a “once-and-done” moment. But in fact there was a long period, spanning around 100 years, during which there were various different moments of emancipation. And when you look closely at all those events, as my book does, you can identify a through line. You see that, rather than the end of slavery disrupting the racial caste system, the ways in which emancipations played out in reality actually conspired to perpetuate it. Emancipation processes provided failed pathways to justice for people who had been enslaved, in a way that was often intentional.

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You look at different emancipations across the globe, and categorise them into types. Could you outline those?

It may come as a surprise to learn that the very first emancipations were actually in the American North – around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York. 1780 in Philadelphia was a germination moment in which a particular template for emancipation emerged: the “gradual emancipation” model. This was a process whereby enslaved adults would continue to live in slavery for the rest of their lives. Children born into slavery could look forward to freedom, but that freedom would only be given after a long period of enslavement – potentially 18 to 25 years. That was the basic model for gradual emancipations across the American North.

Fast forward to 1807, when the slave trade – but not the practice of slavery itself – was abolished in the British empire, and we observe what I call the “sea emancipations”. British patrollers were capturing slave vessels and taking enslaved people to an emancipation colony located at Freetown, Sierra Leone, a British holding in west Africa. People went from being held in the belly of a slave ship to being brought before a court where they could then be made free through a legal process. But this freedom still required them to serve 14 years in a so-called “apprenticeship” – basically, slavery by another name. These apprenticeship or indentureship systems developed as another way of prolonging the racial caste system even after the official end of slavery as an institution.

A photo of African-American sailors during the US Civil War
African-American sailors during the US Civil War. This conflict witnessed what Kris Manjapra describes as the “war emancipation” model (Photo by Getty Images)

Then we come to the 1830s. The British empire – which, by this time, was identifying itself worldwide as the “anti-slavery empire” – designed a new kind of emancipation. This was the “compensated emancipation” model, in which slave owners received money as reparation for the loss of their “property”. A very sophisticated logistical and administrative project was established to compensate more than 44,000 slave owners across the British empire [who received around £20m in total]. That model of financially compensating slave owners became a gold standard internationally, and was replicated in places including France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

Now we arrive at a canonical moment in US history – the Civil War – and what I call the “war emancipation” model. In the other emancipations, governments were playing a very careful game, trying to keep the peace between the proponents of freedom and the proponents of slavery, but in this context it broke down into all-out war. Yet it was not the case that the enslaved won out, because the emancipation laws that emerged during that decade [the 1860s] were still tinged by efforts to reconcile with slave-owning interests. Again, it was slave owners who were compensated, not the enslaved – this time through policy decisions, legal mechanisms and the confiscation of the lands that had been given to the newly freed people as a form of early reparations. Government policy emerged as an important domain in which, by design, newly freed people were yet again dispossessed and slave owners were yet again compensated.

Finally, I look at how the British, French and other empires turned their sights on Africa from the 1880s onwards, in what’s known as the “Scramble for Africa”. That collection of imperial projects and wars was again exercised under the banner of emancipation – in the name of freeing African people from slavery – but I view it instead as the beginning of a truly global war on black lives.

Even as they had different characteristics, these types of emancipation built on each other in interesting ways. They all shared a common thread: that enslaved people never received reparations. Reparations were granted in a variety of ways; they were just paid the wrong way – to the slave owners.

You also examine the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th century, in which enslaved people overthrew French colonial rule. How was Haiti’s future as a nation determined by its past as a former slave society?

What happened in Haiti is really a meditation on how freedom could be secured outside the emancipation process. It helps us understand that liberation from slavery is not the same as emancipation. During the revolutionary period, the Haitian people essentially refused to engage in an emancipation process that had been imposed on them by the French empire. They intended to claim their own freedom.

In response to the Haitian Revolution, the French empire and the international community, including the US, colluded to diplomatically exclude Haiti from the international order. They boycotted the country for many decades; the US didn’t officially recognise Haiti until 1862. In the 1820s, the French decided that the only way that they would allow Haiti to enter the international system was if they were able to impose the emancipation that they hadn’t had a chance to implement during the revolutionary period.

This “retroactive emancipation” was imposed some 20 years after the fact, onto a people who already were free. It basically inflicted on Haiti a legal system and a debt system that sought to reassert the racial caste order, the crux of which was that Haiti had to pay the French empire a large sum of money. In some ways this was just like manumission, the long-standing system by which a slave could pay their “owner” a sum of money in order to redeem their freedom. The Haitian state suffered under that debt burden for the better part of a century and a half; you could argue that this retroactive emancipation was the origin of third-world debt. It was rooted in the logic that emancipation was intended to perpetuate, not disrupt, systems of oppression.

Do you think that these failures in the emancipation processes were due to misjudgment and mismanagement, or by design?

I think it’s a bit of both. It was never a consideration of the decision makers to bring the black people directly affected to the decision-making table. That allowed for oversights and callousness. In order for there to be legal remedies for harm and restorative justice, you have to listen to the victims.

I do think there was also an element of design at work, but I don’t think it was ultimately about malevolence. Rather, it was about something much more mundane – economic interests. There were obviously many who were going to lose out financially from the freeing of African people. Banking interests, political interests and industrial interests had all benefitted from extracting free labour from black people. So it makes sense that those groups would do everything they possibly could to find a way around abolition and to maintain their interests.

In highlighting these issues, your book challenges traditional narratives about emancipation and abolition. How successful do you think we are at commemorating this aspect of history?

What’s interesting to me is that, despite this very troubling history of what emancipations really meant, black communities have always celebrated and commemorated them. Juneteenth [19 June, commemorating the emancipation of African-Americans] has become a national American holiday. And across many black nations that suffered under British rule, 1 August is still celebrated as Emancipation Day.

What’s important here, though, is what different communities bring to the meaning of the word “emancipation”. Rather than being celebrated in black communities as the end of something, emancipation is actually being commemorated to mark a renewed dedication to the ongoing struggle. That’s a very different way of thinking about our past than simply “moving on” from it – which is always a temptation, especially for histories that haunt us. But we can’t wish away these ghosts. We have to invite them in and figure out what they are asking from us for the future.

Are the aftershocks of these failed emancipations still being felt?

Yes – and I’ll give you an example. Back in 2018, I was rummaging around in archives, as historians do, and I noticed a line in a British Treasury report from 2015, saying the Slave Compensation Act Loan had finally been paid off. That caught my attention, because I could not imagine how a loan taken out in 1835 could have only just been paid off in 2015. Yet for 180 years, British taxpayers had been financing a loan that the British government took out to pay off slave owners across the British empire. This story is a good example of the way that decisions made almost 200 years ago still have implications in terms of policy, law and taxation – it’s a legacy that affects us to this day.

And intergenerationally, black communities have had to pay for the consequences of the designs implemented during emancipation processes. If we look at Britain and the US today, we see that black communities still suffer from overexposure to the criminal legal system, and instability around access to education, food, financing, land and political representation. The question then naturally arises: how do we explain that? As a historian, I know that the answer is in the legacies of the past. It’s not only slavery to blame; the failed process through which slavery ended also perpetuated these forms of social injustice.

In Jamaica, for example, when slavery officially ended with emancipation in 1838, enslaved people walked into a new legal category of “freedom” – but they were still barred from political representation, and had no voice in Jamaica’s assembly. This was the case across all of the British colonies. Furthermore, just as slavery was ending, the British state was investing heavily in the vast expansion of the prison-industrial complex across its plantation colonies, essentially turning slave colonies into prison colonies. Newly freed people were criminalised, with no access to the vote or equitable political representation. If they wanted land they had to squat on the land of the former slave owners because there was no reparations process to redistribute the land to them. The legacy of all of this can still be felt today.

The problems that still bedevil us emerged in part because the harm done through slavery was never redressed. Instead it was carried forward over time, encoded in the criminal legal system and a variety of other dimensions of government policy.

You write that the ghosts in our past demand reparatory action. How do you think such reparations could be made in 2022?

The call for reparations is nothing new. By the end of the 18th century, black people were already organising to argue for reparations; that struggle was in some ways an impetus for writing this book. People say: “Shouldn’t we move on, rather than crying over spilt milk?” But if we recognise that this is a source of on-going woe for our societies, then we can see that it’s a question not about the past but about our present and future.

History teaches us that paying reparations is feasible, because it has been done before – they’ve just been paid the wrong way round. The real question is what form reparations should take. One aspect of this is financial compensation – the law says that if there is harm, there must be recompense – and the discussion around proper compensation to black communities today is one that should continue.

But it’s not only about financial payouts. One mere transactional writing of a cheque, for example, is not going to be sufficient. Don’t forget that reparations were made to slave owners not only in monetary terms but also in legal codes and policy decisions that benefitted them. Two hundred years have passed since the first emancipation began, and we are still paying the social cost for bad decisions made back then. We are now at a point where we can choose, by making good decisions around food, housing, education, legal representation, political representation and financing, to break the cycle and do things that are going to help generations 200 years from now.

There are two other related questions that I think are absolutely essential to ask. What does a proper apology look like? And how do we retell our histories together? The history of abolition and emancipation has been told as a triumphant story of white male abolitionists. But I think there’s another way of telling the story that looks not just to heroes – whom we must certainly respect – but also at the perspective of black communities. That leads us to discussions about the things that went wrong that still need to be fixed today. And I think that gives us the path to transform the reparations debate as it currently exists. 

Kris Manjapra is professor of history at Tufts University, Massachusetts. His books include Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation (Penguin, 2022), Colonialism in Global Perspective (Cambridge, 2020) and Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire (Harvard, 2014)

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This interview was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.

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