Date of Award

5-2013

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

History

Advisor

Scott W. See

Second Committee Member

Stephen Miller

Third Committee Member

Michael Lang

Abstract

The meaning of blackness in the British Empire during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was complex and contradictory. It was beyond binary simplification and its significance varied depending on location and circumstance. Nova Scotia, a seemingly peripheral location in the North Atlantic, experienced a convergence of experiences that provided insight into the ways in which people constructed racial ideology within a larger empire. Its relationship to the Caribbean allowed for an understanding of race that was necessarily tied to chattel slavery and economic production. Its relationship to British metropolitan ideology, including the tenets of enlightenment society, sometimes acted as a counterweight to the pull of the Caribbean by espousing philosophical rhetoric committed to ideals of British justice and equality. Adding to the complexity of this dynamic was the relationship of the United States to Nova Scotian history. The United States sent several thousand loyalist emigrants, including a large free and enslaved population, to the province in the wake of both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. These people brought cultural understandings and identities that joined with preexisting Nova Scotian conceptions of race that formed a new dialectical understanding of blackness.

This thesis explores this difficult construction of race in three components. The first focuses on rhetoric surrounding British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce’s initial arguments for the empire’s abandonment of the slave trade in 1791. It focuses on the ways in which Nova Scotian public discourse matched discussions in London, and how these conversations changed trajectories due to Nova Scotia’s North American location.

Chapter two examines the story of the Maroons who were transported from Jamaica to Nova Scotia in the wake of a failed rebellion. The examination of the Maroons illuminates a sense of race that was hierarchical, yet open for negotiation. It also demonstrates the conception of race among elites who struggled with competing identities of Britishness centered on both racial social stratification and, at the same time, a commitment to gentlemanly honor. Most importantly, this chapter restores agency to a Maroon population that openly rejected assimilation and maintained their own cultural identity.

The final section examines racial ideology in popular print between the years 1825 and 1833 - the years leading up to and including the British abolition of slavery throughout the empire. This chapter demonstrates the ways in which the conception of race changed between Wilberforce’s initial movement and 1833, and how that conception of race became a tool for white society to define itself against not only blackness, but also other white nations. Nova Scotians began to delineate themselves from their southern neighbors by contrasting Nova Scotian freedom with American commitment to chattel slavery.

By examining these complex stories, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which Nova Scotians negotiated, conceived, and transformed the conception of blackness over a forty year period. It examines black agency, British ideology, national identity, periphery and metropolitan relationships, and imperial economics in order to improve our understanding the meaning of blackness and its place within a larger North Atlantic dynamic.

Share