Q&A: Edward Rugemer, author of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World


Today at The Junto, we’re featuring an interview with Ed Rugemer about his new book, of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World, which Casey Schmitt reviewed yesterday. Ed Rugemer is an Associate Professor of History and African American Studies and the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of History at Yale University. A historian of slavery and abolition, Rugemer’s first book The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War was published by Louisiana State University Press and his work has appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, Journal of Southern History, Slavery and Abolition, and the Journal of the Civil War Era.

JUNTO: First of all, congratulations on the publication of your book and thank you for talking to The Junto about it. Where did the idea for this book come from?

ED RUGEMER: It came from the research of the first book, The Problem of Emancipation.[1] Because I realized in writing that book that the planter classes in Jamaica and South Carolina had this very similar relationship with abolitionists. They were the most radically pro-slavery slaveholders in these different regions of the Anglo Atlantic, the U.S. South and the British Caribbean. When I considered this realization alongside the work of Richard Dunn and Peter Wood from the colonial period, which I had done as a graduate student, I saw that these two slave societies had a very common origin coming out of the expansion of Barbados and both followed this very similar pattern in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution with this pro slavery radicalism. [2] I was always intrigued by that commonality and I had long wanted to do a comparative project. When I was in graduate school at Boston College, both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint were published when I was in the midst of my reading for oral examinations.[3] These books inspired me to take on a comparative project, and so I did.

JUNTO: Your book relies on both comparative history and “longue durée,” which allow you to trace the evolution of slave law and resistance over two centuries in two locations. This an ambitious feat. Can you talk about how you kept these two trajectories straight in your research and writing?

RUGEMER: I wrote a political history which is not typically how comparative histories are written. I just move chronologically. I played around with the chapter structure a lot. I must say that Joyce Seltzer, my editor at Harvard, was really helpful in this, in visualizing the project as I was writing it. I knew I had to start with Barbados, a chapter I organized around the slave law of 1661. Then I wrote a comparative chapter on the establishment of Jamaica and South Carolina, then two single colony chapters set in the eighteenth century, and then the rest is comparative, from the American Revolution to the emergence of radical abolitionism. This structure allowed me to go deep and tell the critical stories of this dialectic between slave resistance and the slave law and to tell those stories in some detail. But at the same time allowed me to move fairly quickly through time.

JUNTO: In terms of the book’s narrative, you intersperse analysis of laws and uprisings with close studies of individuals, such as Thomas Nairne, Ignatius Sancho, and James Ramsay. You take a similar approach in your first book, The Problem of Emancipation. Why did you do this and how do you balance these biographical sketches when you write?

RUGEMER: People are really important in the making of history and I think all good history writing should have some detail of the individual when that is possible; with these individuals it was. I can’t do that with everybody and you wouldn’t want to clutter the text too much, but I think it is valuable to have an understanding of a person acting in the world, shaping these larger themes and structures that we like to talk about.

JUNTO: You use two very different sources of evidence in your discussions of slave codes and slave resistance. How did you handle these different perspectives?

RUGEMER: I think there is a relationship between the resistance of enslaved people and the law that masters crafted to try and control their slaves. Whether it be the organized rebellions or the day to day resistance that plagues slaveholders from the very beginning, this struggle was at the center of every slave society. And I write a chapter section by section. It doesn’t matter that the types of sources are different. Every historian needs to develop an author’s voice that tries to explain the past from the perspective of archival research and wide reading. So, I’ll have a section taking us through the Yamasee War or the conspiracy in Hanover in 1775 and relate that to the law that follows. I think masters are responding to what enslaved people are doing to make their lives better. That’s what I wanted to capture. I wanted to capture that dialectic. So yes, there’s two different sorts of evidence but it’s working the same narrative, the same history that I want to tell.

JUNTO: What key books were on your desk when you were writing this book?

RUGEMER: Well, that changes from chapter to chapter, honestly. In the early stages as I figured out the comparison it was Dunn, Berlin, and Morgan. I read the comparative studies by Peter Kolchin, George Fredrickson, and Enrico Dal Lago; John Mack Faragher recommended the theoretical piece by Marc Bloch, which is quite old but remains the clearest statement of comparative method. Jim Oakes’s article on the political significance of slave resistance was important. [4] I was also teaching myself a lot of this history. For example, I had never read anything about the Yamasee War before I wrote this. So, I had to read as much as I could. Having colleagues like Alejandra Dubcovsky was key because we taught together during that time and she knows that literature inside and out.[5] I had Doug Egerton and Robert L. Paquette’s book of documents about the Denmark Vesey crisis on my desk for that last chapter; that book is so valuable. [6] I principally write from primary sources. Beyond the structuring of the study, it’s not like I had a book or two that I was always referring to. I had my notes, principally. I had research assistants to transcribe man, many images for me, which was really critical. I would never have been able to have done it in the time I did without that help.

JUNTO: What piece of evidence or story were you unable to include that you wish you could have?

RUGEMER: During the American Revolution, there is a fear of Indian attack as well as slave conspiracy among Carolinians and I wasn’t sure how to get that in. That’s a comparative chapter and have a lot of balls in the air. I was paying attention to events in the UK, the Somerset case etc. When I was writing, I couldn’t figure out how to get it in and give it due justice. So, I cut it out. There was actually a lot of evidence for the Revolution chapter that I didn’t end up using. I also wanted to get David Walker in, and I never did. I always thought I was going to have a section on David Walker. I even carried it with me for the entire time I was writing that chapter and took notes on it. But the narrative that emerged through the writing never led me in that direction. There was already a lot to say without bringing in another text.

 JUNTO: What’s next? What should we be looking forward to?

RUGEMER: I have two different projects that are in the early, early stages. I am thinking about writing a synthesis of slavery. My most ambitious self wants to start in ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and some of the theories on the origins of slavery. I teach this material. But I want to take it up to modern slavery and human trafficking in our own time. I don’t think we have an historical narrative that links together the racial slavery of the Atlantic World, which lasted for generations and has had such an insidious afterlife, with the various forms of slavery that persist today. Many modern day abolitionists invoke the abolitionist movements of the past without careful attention to the distinctions between these manifestations of slavery across time and space. Historians need to do this. So I’d like to come up with a synthesis that brought this history together. It’s longer durée than I’ve ever worked, but it won’t be archival.

The second idea is a deeply archival project about a slaveholder we know very little about. His name is Charles Douglas and the Beinecke Library has about 30 years of his correspondence with his brother Patrick. I read it all during my first year at Yale, thinking I would use it for this book, but I only used one brief quote. Douglas moves from Ayr, Scotland to Jamaica when he was a teenager. He mostly worked as a bookkeeper at first (kind of an assistant overseer), but he does accrue some wealth and becomes a slaveholder. What’s curious about him is that when he buys land, he buys land that directly abuts Moore Town in the Blue Mountains, which is one of the Maroon Towns. He becomes the superintendent for the Moore Town Maroons, which is a position established by the 1739 treaties that ended the first Maroon War and recognized Maroon autonomy within the colony. Formally, he was their military commander, but in fact I don’t think it worked that way. But there are these superintendents and they are paid well by the colonial state. I need to find his reports. I don’t know where they are and no one has ever referenced them. And if I can find them, it could be a really interesting book. I need to dig deeper, but it will take some time.

[1] Edward Bartlett Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War, Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), https://lsupress.org/books/detail/the-problem-of-emancipation/.

[2] Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974); Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute, 1972).

[3] Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute, 1998).

[4] Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987); George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); ibid., Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Enrico Dal Lago, American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815–1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005); Marc Bloch, “A Contribution towards a Comparative History of European Societies,” in Land and Work in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers, trans. J.E. Anderson (London: Routledge, 1966), 44–81; James Oakes, “The Political Significance of Slave Resistance,” History Workshop Journal 22, no. 1 (October 1, 1986): 89–107.

[5] Alejandra Dubcovsky, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016). Check out The Junto‘s Q&A with Dubcovsky here.

[6] Douglas R. Egerton and Robert L. Paquette, eds., The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017).


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