Anti-colonial universality in the Age of Revolution

Ajmal Waqif
race and capital Waqif

The ideas and political commitments of the revolutionary abolitionist and Spencean Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835) represent a compelling example of a form of universality, articulated in the midst of the Age of Revolution, which defied European colonialism and plantation slavery. An engagement with Wedderburn’s writings on the Haitian Revolution, maroon warfare and his proposal of a Spencean communist programme will clarify ongoing debates about Enlightenment, empire, slavery and universality and might inform a re-engagement with the idea of universal emancipation in the political present.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

On 10 August 1819, a British government informant wrote a letter to the Home Office about a political meeting he had attended in Soho, London the night before. The purpose of the meeting was a debate on ‘whether it be right for the People of England to assassinate their Rulers’:

I had some difficulty to discover the place for it is apparently a ruinous loft which you ascend by a step-ladder...both Orators and Audience were with a few exceptions, persons of the very lowest description.

The Doctrines were certainly of the most dreadful nature...violently seditious and treasonable – One of those men who appeared to be the principal in their concern is a Mulatto and announced himself as the Descendant of an African Slave – After noticing the Insurrections of the Slaves in some of the West India Islands he said they fought in some instances for twenty years for 'Liberty' – and then appealed to Britons who boasted such superior feeling and principles, whether they were ready to fight but for a short time for their Liberties – He stated his name to be Wedderburn and said he was author of a production entitled 'The Axe Laid to the Root'...[1]

Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835) and his 1817 journal, The Axe Laid to the Root, or A Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica, were products of an Age of Revolution which encompassed not only decades of upheaval in the European core, but slave revolt, marronage, and wars of independence in the colonial periphery. The journal was structured as a correspondence between Wedderburn and himself as editor, imitating a popular style for radical periodicals of the time. These letters contained reports and histories of slave revolts, polemics and denunciations aimed at his peers in the British workers’ movement, and perspectives for transnational revolution. Wedderburn calls himself a ‘Spencean Philanthropist’ in the opening letter of the first issue, and signed off with the following line: ‘I am a West Indian, a lover of liberty, and would dishonour human nature if I did not shew myself a friend to the liberty of others’.[2] Wedderburn’s self-description provides three themes which help us to understand his thought and practise, as developed in the revolutionary conjuncture which created the modern world, and which intrude upon contemporary debates over empire, Enlightenment, racialisation, abolition, decolonisation, and universal emancipation.

The first theme to consider is Wedderburn’s reference to his‘West Indian’ background. This expresses his race and status as a colonial subject, his direct experience of plantation slavery and his commitment to its abolition, and his interest in the history and lessons of the Haitian Revolution. The second is his identification as a ‘Spencean Philanthropist’ ’, indicating his  role as a leading member of a London-based proto-communist tendency active in the workers’ movements of the early nineteenth century, and their vision and programme for a society without private property, with land owned in common by parishes.. The final theme, ‘a friend to the liberty of others’, describes Wedderburn’s recognition of a ‘Universal War’ between the rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed[3], his attempts to win workers in the metropolis to the cause of the slaves and colonised peoples of the periphery, and his conception of universal freedom that was not one of imposing a Eurocentric definition of Enlightenment onto the rest of the world, but one defined through fierce struggles for self-emancipation.

A reconstruction of Wedderburn’s political programme provides a corrective to those theories which take an uncritical view of the European origins and conceptions of liberty in this period, particularly when they cannot suitably account for its conditions and contradictions. As  Buck-Morss posed starkly,  ‘Freedom … as the highest and universal political value … began to take root at precisely the time that the economic practice of slavery … came to underwrite the entire economic system of the west’.[4] Thus my interpretation of Wedderburn accepts and reiteratesthat the universality of European Enlightenment  thought was an inherently contradictory one, which could simultaneously be invoked both for and against conquest, colonialism and slavery.[5] Going further, it also acknowledges that these contradictions are in some part constitutive of Enlightenment universalism and therefore cannot be straightforwardly resolved through ‘the completion of the Enlightenment project’. As Gilroy noted in his rebuke of Habermas, even such qualified defences of European Enlightenment ‘remain substantially unaffected by the histories of barbarity … Locke’s colonial interests and the effects of the conquest of the Americas on Descartes and Rousseau are simply non-issues’.[6]

At the other limit, this reading is also oriented against theoretical schools or modes which reject universalism entirely, preferring what Amin denounced as ‘the culturalist praise of provincialisms’.[7] The few times that postcolonial scholars have engaged with the history of the Haitian Revolution, they have treated it as doomed from its inception due to its relationship to modernity. Thus Babha argued that because Touissant Louverture believed in ‘the signs of modernity … liberty, equality, fraternity’, he inevitably learned ‘the tragic lesson that the moral, modern dispostion of mankind, enshrined in the sign of the Revolution, only fuels the archaic racial factor in the society of slavery’.[8] Similarly, Scott reads Louverture as an almost naïve victim, a ‘tragic subject of colonial modernity’ who ‘must seek his freedom in the very technologies, conceptual languages, and institutional formations in which modernity’s rationality has sought his enslavement.’[9] In both of these readings revolution is not a universal process, but a particular symbol or technology inheirted from colonial modernity, which therefore cannot be used by the colonised against this same modernity.

More recently, with more specificity and perhaps further alongthe anti-universal continuum, Afro-pessimist scholarship has described Blackness , as expressed by Frank Wilderson, a ‘position of noncommunicability in the face of all other positions’. Per this reading, there is no analogy to be made or universality possible, whether theoretical or practical, between the ‘social death’ of Blackness, and other dynamics of exploitation or oppression. The slave is ontologically beyond the arcs of narrative redemption thrown up by modernity: that of liberty for humans, decolonisation for natives, or communism for the proletarian.[10] No historical process of restitution is realisable for those ascribed the ontological status of Black. The actual history of New World slave revolts, not least of all the Haitian Revolution and its formation of a sovereign Black state, does not shake Jared Sexton’s conviction that ‘abolition is beyond (the restoration of) sovereignty, Beyond the restoration of a lost commons through radical redistribution’.[11]

Wedderburn’s works reveal how far the Afro-pessimist reading falls short when applied to real histories of slavery and emancipation. Greg Thomas has recently observed the ‘glaring absence of Black radical and revolutionary intellectual history’ in the Afro-pessimism school, which is ‘casually dismissive of all historical actuality that does not support a pessimist paradigm’.[12] Wedderburn’s reflections on the Haitian Revolution, maroon warfare, and  proposal of a Spencean  proto-communist programme for the colonial periphery demonstrate that though Wedderburn criticised the hypocrisies and inherent limits of European Enlightenment universalism,  he was an ardent and articulate proponent of an alternate, redemptive mode or vision of universality. As an actually-existing revolutionary abolitionist, Wedderburn saw the slave as the central subject of multiple narratives of redemption: freedom, decolonisation and the Spencean commons.

Universalisms: insurgent, strategic, from below

Interest in the notion of the universal in emancipation struggles is undergoing a slow but significant revival, after decades of ambient doubt. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s comments, in the midst of the black-led insurrections of summer 2020, capture this moment of transition and the renunciation of doubt well: ‘I for one would like very much, I endorse completely, reinvigorating the notion of universal; I don't know what to call it, if the word universal is the problem that people stumble over.’[13] But universalism seems to have returned in a very different form, having sublated the abstract, colonial and Eurocentric modes of old. It is simultanoeously more qualified and more total, in that by rejecting the prima facie assumptions of a flattening European universality, it is able to encompass non-European experience as well. When we turn to Wedderburn’s thought and practise, we shall see that a similair dynamic is at work in how he cast the universal in the midst of that revolutionary age.

Asad Haider’s recent critique of identity and racialisation concludes with a similar invocation, the achievement of a ‘universal position’, which ‘does not exist in the abstract, as a prescriptive principle which is mechanically applied to indifferent circumstances. It is created and recreated in the act of insurgency’.[14] Two of the sources, and their associated formulations of universality, which Haider marshals for these conclusions are particularly relevant in understanding where Wedderburn’s contribution fits in.

The first is Massimiliano Tomba’s ‘insurgent universality’, a formulation arrived at from a comparative reading of the two great documents of the French Revolution; the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 and the Constitution of 1793. For Tomba, the Declaration of 1789 represents the origins of a ‘juridical universalism’ of subjects as abstract individuals having rights imposed on them. By contrast, the ‘insurgent universality’ of the Jacobin constitution of 1793 is an expression of  its ‘background in the insurgencies of women, the poor, and slaves’.[15] Thomas Spence, for his part, used the constitution of 1793 as his starting point for his own proto-communist constitution in 1803.[16] Sophie Wahnich has gone further, arguing that in both of the French Revolution’s Declarations, there is the presence of a concrete universality, for most articles were intended as both pronouncements and tools of struggle.[17]

The second of those sources is the formulation provided by Paul Gilroy; a ‘strategic universalism’ distinguished from the ‘innocent, unreflexive universalisms—liberal, religious, and ethnocentric’ precisely because it acknowledges ‘the complicity of rationality and barbarity’.[18] Indeed Gilroy’s conception of the Black Atlantic is explicitly an alternative origin and interpretation of Enlightenment universality, a ‘counterculture of modernity’. Figures from the Age of Revolution play a key role in this drama, including the black Cato Street conspirator William Davidson and of course Robert Wedderburn.[19]

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s history of the revolutionary Atlantic is partly but crucially an expansion of this Black Atlantic. They identify the presence of a ‘“universalism” from below’ at the the crest of this history, as typified by a handful of cosmopolitan revolutionary moments, to list but a few: the French Revolution, the Irish Rebellion, the Despard Plot, Spenceanism and, perhaps most importantly, the Haitian Revolution.[20] Indeed the revolution occupies one of the most symbolic and explanatory moments in alternative accounts of the origins of universality, since CLR James was the first to rightly induct it as ‘one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle’.[21] James’ recognition of anti-colonial universalism as a theme of the revolution is best captured in the vignette of Leclerc’s army faltering in the face of the Haitians singing Marseillaise and Ça Ira from their fortifications, thus wondering if their ‘barbarous enemies’ have justice on their side.[22] Nick Nesbitt’s study of Haiti’s relationship to the radical Enlightenment identifies this articulation of a concept of ‘universal emancipation’ as the Haitian Revolution’s ‘unique contribution to humanity’. It went further than both the American and the French Revolutions as the ‘culminating, most progressive event of the Age of Enlightenment’ precisely because it was able to further radicalise and manifest ‘an Enlightenment that refused to address Africans as full subjects of human rights’.[23]

As we shall see, slave revolt in the Caribbean colonies, particularly the experience and symbolism of events at Saint-Domingue, were a fundamental concern and influence for Wedderburn’s politics. This was both because they offered an expanded discourse of emancipation that challenged colonial slavery and promised to make men of those denied that status, but also because they demonstrated that revolutionary struggle was a viable route for recreating society upon new social and economic principles, which for him was Spenceanism.

The fate of Saint-Domingue

The European plantation colonies and the United States saw near-constant waves of slave revolt during the Age of Revolution.[24] Wedderburn’s abolitionism was informed by an engagement with these revolts and he held fast to the hope of an imminent general revolt. In stark contrast, most moderate British abolitionists feared insurgency and called for abolition precisely to shore-up the colonial system. This is best exemplified in Henry Brougham’s warning that if left to unfold ‘the Abolition of the Slave Trade will have been effected by the utter destruction of the Colonial System’.[25] Wedderburn's hopes, and Brougham’s fears, were not remote. The spectre of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) haunted both Europe and the New World, inspiring a whole phase of conspiracies and revolts – to list but a few: the Second Maroon War (1795-6) in Jamaica, the Second Carib War (1795-7) in Saint Vincent, Fédon's rebellion (1795-6) in Grenada, the Coro rebellion (1795) in Venezuela, Bussa’s rebellion (1816) in Barbados, the Demerara rebellion (1823) in British Guyana, and finally the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt (1831-1832). Though Haiti stands alone as the only victorious revolt, the other moments were not without consequence. Within Wedderburn’s lifetime the British Empire conceded the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, with complete emancipation to follow in 1838.

Wedderburn’s animosity towards the colonial slave system came from his direct experience of it during his early years in Jamaica. He was born to an African-born woman named Rosanna, and a wealthy Scottish planter and slave owner, James Wedderburn, who possessed Rosanna. One of Wedderburn’s earliest memories was the flogging of his pregnant mother, indeed James Wedderburn ‘insulted, abused and abandoned’ her, later selling her on. Wedderburn proudly recalled his mother’s ‘violent and rebellious temper … I have not the least doubt … that I have inherited the same disposition – the same desire to see justice overtake the oppressors of my countrymen’.[26]

Wedderburn eventually departed Jamaica by enlisting with the Royal Navy as a youth, making his way to London in 1778. In those early years he operated, near modern-day Holborn, in a multiracial gang called the St. Giles Blackbirds whose ranks included runaway slaves, Asian lascars, Jews and Irishmen.[27]

In the following years he would re-enlist at least once, likely out of difficulty of finding other work in the metropolis. There is evidence that he was involved in the mutiny at the Nore in 1797 when sailors wrested control of a Royal Navy fleet, declared themselves a ‘floating republic’, and attempted to defect to revolutionary France.[28] In the decades that followed Wedderburn fell in with the post-Jacobin radical underground of London, eventually coming to join and then lead the Spencean tendency.

Wedderburn studied and reflected on the symbolic and strategic lessons of the Haitian Revolution and the history of Jamaican maroon warfare. Haiti is mentioned in the very first issue of The Axe Laid to the Root, where Wedderburn claims to have received a report of rumours from contacts in Jamaica intimating that ‘Jamaica will be in the hands of the blacks within twenty years’. The revolution in Haiti (Saint-Domingue) was invoked as a heroic parallel and precedent:

Prepare for flight, ye planters, for the fate of St. Domingo awaits you … Recollect the fermentation will be universal. Their weapons are their bill-hooks; their store of provision is every were in abundance; you know they can live upon sugar canes, and a vast variety of herbs and fruits,—yeah, even upon the buds of trees. You cannot cut off their supplies. They will be victorious in their fight, slaying all before them; they want no turnpike roads; they will not stand to engage organized troops, like the silly Irish rebels. Their method of fighting is to be found in the scriptures, which they are now learning to read.[29]

Perhaps drawing on reports from Haiti, Wedderburn recasts the bill-hook tool – or the machete as it was known in Spanish – of the enslaved plantation labourer as the weapon of rebellion. He also references the Battle of Vinegar Hill during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, where the United Irishmen suffered an utter rout after confronting the British Army in direct combat. He rejects these tactics for the imminent Jamaican revolt, instead celebrating the efficacy of assymetrical warfare.

Further reflections on the Haitian Revolution take place in the sixth issue, through a purported correspondence between Wedderburn and his half-sister, a free Jamaican woman of mixed-descent named Miss Campbell. Though she is described as a plantation overseer, she is won over to abolitionism and Spenceanism and grants her slaves manumission and land accordingly. Most historians agree that though Campbell may have existed, the letters were definitely an invention of Wedderburn’s. Nevertheless the correspondence is extremely valuable for what it tells us of Wedderburn’s understanding of history and strategy in the Caribbean, if not hers.[30]

A letter in that same issue claims that some of the men that Campbell freed were spreading ideas in favour of ‘liberty and possession of the soil’, and though the House of Assembly passed laws to hang slaves ‘preaching, teaching or exhorting’, conversations were still taking place: ‘They have been talking about it this month past to the country negroes on the market days … The news is gone to Old Arbore and St. Anns, to the Blue Mountains, to North Side, and the plantain boats have carried the news to Port Morant, and Morant Bay’. Thus the governor’s secretary calls Campbell in for questioning about her part in spreading these ideas, revealing his fear that ‘there will be more white blood spilt in Jamaica than was in St. Domingo’. The letter goes on to substantiate these fears:

the free Malattoes are...talking about St. Domingo: a great many of the Spaniards fled here, you must know, and brought their favourite slaves with them from St. Domingo, and the young men of Jamaica go amongst them, so they know the causes of their masters’ coming to Jamaica. The slaves begin to talk … the planters’ look frightened the slaves know what it is about.[31]

The history of Jamaican maroon rebellions and communities, provided, to Wedderburn, a tradition of liberty and basic humanity that not only wasn’t derived from Europe, but historically was actively ranged against it.

Marronage was the ever present shadow of plantation slavery and the eternal fear of the masters. Leslie Manigat, in his study of the marronage and the roots of the Haitian Revolution, defines the maroon as a ‘fugitive slave who has broken with the social order of the plantation to live, actually free...where he could escape the control of the colonial power and the plantocratic establishment. In the case of grand marronage, ‘he joins with his fellow maroons to constitute or strengthen the band and to adopt a hit-and-run tactic in a guerilla war against the plantation order’.[32] Wedderburn was evidently aware of the use and efficacy of such tactics, as seen in his prediction, quoted above, that in the course of their rebellion, slaves  will live in the wilds, eating ‘sugar canes’, ‘herbs and fruits’ and ‘the buds of trees’ if they have to.

Maroon communities were highly heterogeneous and, in many cases, were composed of social and kinship alliances between indigenous people and escaped African slaves: ‘most maroons became effective guerillas because they blended Amerindian with West African military methods’. In cases where indigenous populations were wiped out in the early phase of colonialism, such as in Jamaica, they still held a symbolic importance to later maroon communities.[33]

In the fourth issue of Axe Laid to the Root, Wedderburn references Campbell’s maroon ancestry, those rebels ‘who fell for freedom’s cause’, and provides a summary of the maroon struggle against the English colonists, who seized Jamaica following the flight of the Spanish in the 1650s. He specifically references the fact that it was Cromwell’s Protectorate which, despite its anti-tyrannical origins and  bourgeois-republican precedence, attempted to reimpose slavery on the maroons:

You who were slaves to the cruel Spaniards stolen from your country, and brought here, but Cromwell, the great, who humbled kings at his feet, and brought one to the scaffold, sent a fleet out, whose admiral dared not return without performing something to please his master, came here and drove the Spaniards out; the slaves, my people, then fled to the woods for refuge, the invaders called to them to return to bondage, they refused; they contended for twenty years, and upwards; bondage was more terrific than death.

In their struggle against the Spanish and then the English, Wedderburn emphasises both the maroons’ desire for liberty, as against colonial slavery, and their basic humanity, as against the brutality of the English: ‘not barbarous, nor voracious … the Maroons were human beings, and ought not to be hunted down by Britons acting the blood-hound’s part’.

Wedderburn summarises his reflections by directly addressing the descendants of the maroons with an anti-colonial provocation: ‘yes, the English, in the days of Cromwell, while they were asserting the rights of man at home, were destroying your ancestors then fighting for their liberty’.[34] Therefore he condemns English liberty, despite its presumed pedigree (as much in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries as now) as reserved for the homeland.[35] Meanwhile, for Wedderburn, it is the maroons’ struggle for freedom that is representative of a kind of true universality.

He expressed this same contradiction between European ‘freedom’ and colonial reality to a crowd of radicals assembled at his Hopkins Street loft in August 1819. A spy report to the Home Office tells that Wedderburn castigated Britain for sending:

Men in arms to West Indies or Africa which produced commotion. They would empl[o]y blacks to go and steal females—they would put them in sacks and would be murdered if they made an alarm Vessels would be in readiness and they would fly off with them This was done by Parliament—who done it for gain—the same as they employed them in their Cotton factories to make Slaves of them … [36]

These reflections on the strategy and symbolism of slave and maroon struggle against colonial slavery provide him with one of the sources out of which he synthesises a radical perspective and programme for the Caribbean. The other is the theory and programme of Spenceanism.

Deluded Spenceans?

Spenceanism was a proto-communist political tendency that represented the revolutionary wing of the early nineteenth-century London underground. Originally devised by the radical pamphleteer Thomas Spence (1750-1814), the programme, or ‘Spence’s Plan’ as it was often called, was distinguished from the rest of the post-Jacobin milieu because it sought ‘to destroy not only personal and hereditary lordship, but the cause of them, which is private property in land’. Property would instead be held in common by parishes, and the revenue generated would be ‘deemed the equal property of man, woman, and child, whether old or young, rich or poor, legitimate or illegitimate’. Spence pinned the hope of realising his Plan on the successes of those insurrections unfolding ‘abroad and at home, in America, France, and in our own fleets’.[37]

After Spence’s death in 1814 a group of his friends and comrades formed the Society of Spencean Philanthropists to propagate his programme. The Spencean Philanthropists played a key role in the underground and mass politics of that decade. In the winter of 1816 they organised mass workers’ meetings for reform at Spa Fields, London, which escalated into rioting and looting of arms. The leaders of the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820, a failed attempt at assassinating the Prime Minister and his cabinet, were veteran Spenceans.[38] Wedderburn had known Spence for nine months before the old radical’s passing, and soon became ‘an attentive and active member of the Spencean society’; by 1817 he was one of its de facto leaders.[39]

When the Seditious Meetings Bill, designed to disband radical political organising, was heard in parliament in February 1817, the Spenceans were described in the following terms: ‘They were all on the same agrarian principle—the equal division of property—the simultaneous rising of the parishes—, the hunting down of the landholder’.[40] Spenceanism reached the Caribbean in 1817,[41] when the Jamaican Royal Gazette reprinted the Address of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists to All Mankind (1816), a pamphlet which served as the Spenceans’ manifesto addressed ‘to the Governments and people of the world’. The Gazette prefaced the reprint with the warning that ‘this document is as extraordinary an instance of the perversion of first principles and the delusion of the human mind, as has been devised to perplex and mislead the world since the commencement of the French Revolution’.[42] The newspaper reprinted another article referencing the Spenceans in September of the same year: an essay by Robert Southey, the romantic poet turned reactionary, which denounces the Spenceans as ‘some weak men, some mistaken or insane ones, and other very wicked ones’.[43]

It seems to be in direct response to these anti-Spencean commentaries, this ‘paper war’, that Wedderburn, addressing ‘his countrymen and relatives’, mounted a defence of Spenceanism:

It is natural to expect you will enquire what is meant by a deluded Spencean; I must inform you it is a title given by ignorant or self-interested men, to the followers of one Thomas Spence, who knew that the earth was given to the children of men, making no difference for colour or character, just or unjust; and that any person calling a piece of land his own private property was a criminal; and though they may sell it, or will it to their children, it is only transferring of that which was first obtained by force or fraud, this old truth, newly discovered, has completely terrified the landholders in England.

He declared that he was ‘proud to wear the name of a madman … [and] traitor’.[44] For, in his words, the Spenceans demanded what Wedderburn described as:

a radical adjustment of the social system on the broad basis of universal justice, and the securing to every member of the community his indefeasible right to an equal share of the profit of the land and its appurtenances.[45]

Spence’s programme was applicable ‘at all times, and in all countries’, and it is here where the Spencean programme begins to inhabit a space of synonymy with the politics of slave resistance and abolitionism. In defence of the transnational scope of his ideas, Spence himself had declared that ‘I have no such narrow views as an eye to one Country only. My politics are for the World at large’, once identifying the agents of his politics as ‘the slaves and landless men’.[46]Wedderburn similarly identified a state of affairs where a few landholders were arrayed against ‘the great majority in every nation that are dispossessed of their right to the soil throughout the world’.[47] At an underground political meeting hosted on 13th October 1819, Wedderburn led a debate on the question ‘Which of the two Parties were likely to be victorious, the Rich or the Poor in the event of Universal War’. He made the case that though the world was given to all people ‘as their Inheritance...they had been fleeced out of it—But now was the time to possess themselves of it’.[48] Thus ‘Wedderburn the deluded Spencean’ wishedoffered up the programme as one of redemption not simply to the workers of the metropolis, but to his people: ‘Oh ye Africans and relatives now in bondage to the Christians … receive this the only tribute the offspring of an African can give’.[49]

Was Wedderburn indeed deluded, perhaps naive or even Eurocentric, in assuming the applicability of Spenceanism to the Caribbean?   Wedderburn’s experience and interest in historical and extant forms of slave and maroon resistance allowed him to root the universality of the Spencean programme in the specificity of the Caribbean context. Thus as we now consider his political proposals we may note this habit of linking Spencean interpretations of liberty and common land to the existing conditions of the colony.

The second issue of Axe Laid to the Root opens a discussion on proposals for a post-revolutionary black society with a preface: ‘you might expect, that I should point out a form of government for you; this I leave to your judgement’.[50] Nevertheless Wedderburn submits some foundational principles based both on an appraisal of the European experience of revolution (notably its failures!) and, as McCalman has pointed out, communal-democratic forms of social organisation adapted from Maroon societies.[51]

Wedderburn proposes that they organise a society ‘without a king, without lords, dukes, earls, or the like’ and assures them not to follow European examples of government since ‘with all the proud boasting of Europeans they are yet ignorant of what political liberty is’. He recommends that ‘everything should be settled by votes’ through delegates rotated annually, with the caveat that they shall ‘have no white delegate in your assembly’ and also to ‘never have a man worth more than five hundred a year’. [52]

To preserve the post-revolutionary society, he recommends an armed and militantly organised population, proposing that ‘every individual learn the art of war’, that ‘every male and female be provided with instruments of war at the age of 18’. He cites the colonial threats looming against Haiti to express the importance of defending a new revolutionary society: ‘you will have need of all your strength to defend yourself against those men, who are now scheming in Europe against the blacks of St. Domingo’. To ensure that future generations maintain this vigilance against European colonialism, he recommends children be taught to read and write and be educated in ‘remembrance of your former sufferings, which will show you what you may expect from the hands of European Christians’. He denounces capital punishment, prisons and barracks and exhorts to ‘have no lawyers amongst you’, instead suggesting village assemblies of twenty-four elders as a better mode of settling disputes, and judges delegated to deal with cases of greater magnitude.[53]

Wedderburn explicitly connects the Spencean demand for the socialisation of landwith pre-existing modes of communal land ownership among Jamaican slaves and smallholders, warning the post-revolutionary society to ‘mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, freedom is not worth possessing’, and reminds them of the importance of maintaining the relation of communal property: ‘never give it up to your oppressors, you are not told to hold it as private property, but as tenants at will to the sovereignty of the people.[54]

The land Wedderburn is referring to was called provision grounds; a key element of the social settlement between slave and planter. Over the span of the period of slavery in Jamaicamore communally cultivated lands were conceded, allowing slaves to develop a social independence and what Mary Turner calls ‘the survival and development of precisely those intellectual capacities which the slave system inteded to destroy’.[55] Wedderburn even highlights a communitarian society familiar to him in Jamaica, from the parish of his birth, the Shariers of St. Mary Parish ‘who have all things common’.[56]

This understanding of the politics of land and liberty was borne out in subsequent generations of Caribbean slave and peasant movements. In 1857, twenty-four years after Wedderburn’s death and the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, a report to the Jamaica Royal Commission described black freeholders occupying the lands of a white English plantation owner, who beat the owner and a collector when asked to pay rent, in the following way: ‘… a coloured man of the name of Ripley Edie told the people that the Queen had given them the lands when she gave them freedom … and freedom would be of no use if they had not their lands and houses’. In other words, that emancipation inherently meant the redistribution of productive property from planters to freedmen. The commission asked: ‘do you know whether the people connect the idea of liberty of person with liberty of the land?’, to which he replied, ‘in all properties I have had to do with they have put that forth’.[57]

Official land policy in post-emancipation Haiti diverged considerably from this. The new state preserved a system of cash crop production on the basis of plantation agriculture and forms of unfree labour. This was imposed not only by the necessities of funding a military apparatus capable of defending the newly-freed state from re-invasion but also because the revolutionary elite saw it as ‘the country’s greatest potential source of riches’. Jean-Jacques Dessalines for his part decreed the confiscation and nationalisation of all white-owned property and large estates in general, with opposition from private planters to this land policy feeding into his eventual overthrow.[58] However, in the course of the revolutionary process the Haitian people themselves began to practise more communal forms of land usage, encroaching on plantations to expand their provision grounds, partaking in the products of uncultivated lands, building houses on abandoned estates and effectively taking over plantations.[59] This popular process continued in the post-revolutionary state, with Haitian peasants moving towards subsistence land use, collective property and various forms of maroon settlement and village organisation which Casimir has designated ‘the counter-plantation system’.[60]

The ideological and cultural precedents for such a conception of land and liberty derived from multiple sources: the forms of autonomous land-holding carved out during the period of slavery, the social foment of the initial phase of revolution and, as Fick speculates, a potential restoration of West African landholding practises in a New World context.[61] Overall, despite the significant hardships inherent to a poor peasant economy, post-revolutionary Haiti was distinguished from its Caribbean neighbours in having a positive growth rate, better labour and living conditions, freer movement and rich cultural expression.[62]

It is not at all clear whether Wedderburn was aware at all of the failure to enact land reform and the tensions between the plantation system and marronage in post-revolutionary Haiti. It was not this that aspect of the Haitian example that influenced his proposals for a post-revolutionary, anti-colonial state but the extent to which it represented a distinct break with European political forms and that it opened up space for new and experimental modes of property relations. Indeed Spence himself symbolically offered up the last definitive work of his life, his ‘Constitution of Spensonia’, to the new Haitian state which was in the process of drafting a constitution. The epilogue reads:  

         And though my book’s in queer lingo,

         I will it send to st. Domingo:
         To the Republic of the Incas,

         For an example of how to frame Laws.

         For who can tell but the Millenium

         May take its rise from my poor Cranium?

         And who knows but it God may please

         It should come by the West Indies?

Speceanism as a tradition was interested in indigenous or non-European forms of land ownership, such as the ones that might be resurrected in a Caribbean context, from its conception. Though some historians have speculated a connection, in none of Spence’s works does he ever identify with the English radical political traditions of the mid-seventeenth century Levellers and Diggers.[63] In fact, in his own words Spence claimed to have first developed the essence of his theory after reading European accounts of indigenous models of social organisation:

I began to read, and I found the savages in Greenland, America, and at the cape of Good hope, could all by their hunting and fishing procure subsistence for their families...wherefore I concluded that all our boasted civilization is founded alone on conquest; nor will any men leave their rude state to be treated with contempt, pay rents and taxes, and starve among us...Such studies, Sir, as these, were what stirred me lay before the world a plan of society so consonant to the Rights of Man.[64]

The discussion in the Axe Laid to the Root which brings this synthesis of marronage-inflected abolitionismand Spencean communism to the forefront is Wedderburn, through the voice of Campbell, claiming that once she had manumitted the slaves on her property and granted them land, in accordance with Spence’s Plan, the newly freed folk were won over to Spencean ideas. In response to the denunciatory reprint of the Spencean address in the Jamaican Gazette, the Campbell character expresses surprise ‘to find that the good people of England were so much against the Spenceans’. As a point of contrast she declares:

I, who am a weak woman, of the Maroon tribe, understood the Spencean doctrine directly; I heard of it, and obey, and the slaves felt the force directly. They are singing all day at work about Thomas Spence …[65]

In this narrative, Campbell’s manumission inspires a crisis for the Jamaican colonial assembly who call for her arrest for ‘practising the Spencean doctrine’. One assembly member then cautioned that his colleagues had best ‘suspend all laws’ and ‘imprison the Spenceans’ if they wished to stop a general revolt among the slaves, and presents a copy of Axe Laid to the Root, which had come into his possession after being smuggled onto the island, as evidence. He then calls for the arrest of ‘any individual giving liberty to their slaves’, for finding and destroying of all copies of the Axe Laid to the Root, and the sentence of

death on the slaves for preaching, or exhorting their fellow slaves to embrace various new doctrines, which are calculated to impress the minds of the slaves with a desire of liberty, which is a direct violation of the laws of England, which authorise us to hold the Africans and their offspring as private property … [66]

This narrative should of course be taken as Wedderburn’s satire of the Jamaican colonial authorities, their cruelty and repressiveness, and an interpretation of what their response to a Spencean doctrine of land and liberty might resemble. It clarifies that Wedderburn believed the Spencean programme to be an abolitionist and anti-colonial one, that was correct in the colonial periphery precisely because it was relevant to the direct experiences and demands of the slaves and free people of colour themselves. In fact, a consistent subtext to these passages is that Spenceanism is more relevant to the colonial periphery, which in 1817 had not only seen a successful slave revolution, but looked ready to explode again. This contrasts with Wedderburn’s lapsed hopes for revolution in the core, asking ‘Britons, where is your liberty now?’, provoking their unwillingness ‘to fight...but for a short time’ for their freedom, annd elsewhere  lamenting that even France had been ‘reduced to [a] state of humiliation’.[67] This flight of revolutionary hope, from core to periphery, during this period resonates with one of the key notes in CLR James’ study of the Haitian revolutionaries: ‘liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman’.[68]

Freedom beyond present conception

As the Age of Revolution entered a phase of decline, Wedderburn identified an anti-colonial second wind. Stakes were no doubt higher in the periphery: not only overthrowing an ancien régime and enshrining the rights of man – an unprecedented event in its own right, but also the self-liberation of enslaved and oppressed peoples and the positioning of an anti-colonial challenge to Europe. CLR James believed Louverture surpassed his European revolutionary equivalents in at least one critical way: he was able to declare that he was fighting for ‘freedom...without reservation’.[69] Nick Nesbitt describes Haiti going beyond the French experience as an expression of ‘true universalism’.[70] A contemporary observer and interlocutor in this anti-colonial phase of the Age of Revolutions, Wedderburn’s description of his own project was also one of driving towards a truly universal mode of liberty; ‘a zeal to extend freedom beyond present conception’.[71]

Wedderburn’s ‘freedom beyond present conception’ speaks directly to recent debates on the meaning of universalism in the intellectual history of the Haitian Revolution. This has primarily revolved around the dynamic between race, rights and revolutionary violence in the Haitian Constitution of 1805. Sibylle Fischer, in their analysis of what is often referred to as Dessalines’ Constitution, notes the dialectical relationship between the universal and the particular: ‘racial equality cannot be achieved without particularistic claims, and particularism is ultimately justified by a claim of universal racial equality’. This dynamic is alive in the articles dealing with ‘race’: according to Article 12, white people are forbidden from setting foot on Haitian territory ‘in the role of master or proprieter’ with Article 13 carving out exceptions for ‘white women who have been naturalized by the government’ and their children, as well as Germans and Poles – deserters from the expeditionary force sent by Napoleon to reconquer Haiti. Article 14 declares that ‘Haitians will henceforth be known by the generic denomination of blacks’. Here Dessalines’ Constitution replaced biological or cultural definitions of ‘black’ and ‘white’ with political ones .[72] The ‘assertion of common blackness affirmation that blackness names not a skin colour but a political project of resistance to slavery and colonial oppression’ writes Doris Garraway. This ‘negative universalism’ excluded white men but unified ‘everyone else in the Americas – blacks, mulattoes, and Indians’.[73]

Garraway doesn’t explore the political component to the Constitution’s definition of whiteness in Article 12. White men are excluded from being Haitian to the extent that they socially represent ‘the role of master or proprieter’ or wish to ‘acquire any property here’. The spirit of this clause is recreated by Wedderburn in his own revolutionary prescriptions, despite no actual evidence that he had ever had the opportunity to read the 1805 Constitution. When predicting ‘the fate of St. Domingo’ upon the Jamaican planters’ Wedderburn envisions the black population rising to destroy not the white population necessarily. but all those ‘whose interest is connected with slavery’.[74] This is evidently a call for social violence rather than racial. These two categories only happen to converge because of the reality of the colonial social order, where the status of plantation owner was generally synonymous with whiteness.

Buck-Morss, whose work has comepellingly argued for the intellectual-historical significance of the Haitian Revolution, nevertheless cites Article 14 of the 1805 Constitution, with its ascription of blackness to all citizens, not as as anti-racist, universalist innovation, but ‘ethno-national’ and ‘in tension with the idea of universal emancipation’.[75] The revolution’s anti-white violence is one of the biggest obstacles for Buck-Morss, who sees in it a ‘deliberate retreat from universalist principles’. Expressing fears of revolutionary vanguards, she ultimately offers a confused and confusing analogy between Osama bin Laden and Jean-Jacques Dessalines.[76]

But the fury of Dessalines ‘anti-white’ policy was not about reaction or the creation of new racial hierarchies. It must be seen as part of the overall process of consolidation that a post-revolutionary state, with no allies and at constant risk of reconquest, would have to undertake. CLR James made sure to point out that ‘these anti-white feelings of the blacks were no infringement of liberty and equality, but were in reality the soundest revolutionary policy.’[77] Nesbitt similarly rejects ‘hand-wringing’ over the revolution’s violence for the simple fact that this ‘subjective violence...destroyed the most violently exploitative and destructive system the world has yet known’.[78] This was understood well by Wedderburn who believed that the plantation system, upheld by monumental violence, could only be negated by liberatory violence of an appropriate scale: ‘The cause which produced former bloodshed still remains – of necessity similar effects must take place.’[79]

Liberatory violence had an important symbolic and redemptive function. In his ‘Liberty or Death’ proclamation of 1804, Dessalines explicitly positions ‘anti-white’ violence as not only necessary for the immediate ‘preservation of my unfortunate brothers’ but as a symbolic retribution and restitution for the crimes of indigenous genocide and slavery: ‘we have rendered to these true cannibals war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage’. Antagonism towards the class of white owners served a common and constitutive force for a heterogenous and previously divided population. Dessalines understood it as sealing his people’s new unity ‘with the blood of your butchers’.[80]

For Wedderburn the right to liberty was not a passive benefaction but a practical license. It gave the slave the right to seek violent retribution against the master. At the spy-reported Soho meeting of 9 August 1819, Wedderburn was the speaker making the affirmative case for the debate question: ‘has a Slave an inherent right to slay his master who refuses him his Liberty.’[81] In the course of the Campbell correspondence, he frames his demand for universal liberty and the redemption of the enslaved in the language of apocalyptic violence:

I come not to make peace; my fury shall be felt by princes, bidding defiance to pride and prejudice. Truth is my arrow stained with African’s blood, rendered poisonous by guilt, while they hold my innocent fellow as a slave... An act of parliament will not afford a cover for their guilty heads, for the makers of unjust laws throughout the earth are in a state of condemnation.[82]

In their concerns about the legitimacy, efficacy, and universalising quality of violence, it is not bin Laden who Dessalines and Wedderburn prefigure, but those thinkers, fighters and statespeople who led the anti-colonial revolutions of the twentieth century. The Martiniquais Frantz Fanon, in his reflections on the Algerian decolonisation struggle, concluded that the ‘native’s violence unifies the frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect’.[83] Walter Rodney expressed the same sentiments in 1969. Writing of the black revolutionary movement as a whole and its consequences for the Caribbean in particular, he asserted that ‘if there is to be any proving of our humanity it must be by revolutionary means’. He cited the Cuban Revolution of 1959 as the precedent.[84] There are threads which run from the anti-colonial Age of Revolution through to the repeated waves of twentieth-century decolonisation – particularly where both encompass the Caribbean. In 1938 CLR James presented the Haitian Revolution as ‘an example to study’ to a nascent but growing anti-imperialist movement.[85] When he revised Black Jacobins in 1963, the same year of the first English translation of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and in the heat of revolutions blazing in the global south, he added an appendix which concluded that Louverture’s heroic legacy ‘lives [on] in the state which Fidel [Castro] started’.[86] Gilroy stipulates that a theory of modernity ‘worth its salt’ must have something to say about ‘the revolts of enslaved people [that] made selective use of the ideologies of the western Age of Revolution and then flowed into social movements of an anti-colonial and decidedly anti-capitalist type.’[87] Wedderburn’s vision and political commitments manifest this continuum.

We have considered three key components to Wedderburn’s conception of anti-colonial universality. Firstly, through a reading of the record of Atlantic slave rebellion Wedderburn was able to identify an alternative tradition of liberty that not only developed parallel to the European one but which also mortally clashed with it in a series of Atlantic encounters. Thus his conception of liberty was able to encompass those unfree people whose exclusion was to a certain extent constitutive of the European conception. Secondly, as a Spencean radical, he substantiated this concept of liberty with the proposal of a universal and transnational programme for communal land ownership and the abolition of class domination. The programme’s universality was grounded in the specificities of the colonial periphery, in so small part because both Wedderburn – and indeed Spence before him regarded elements of non-capitalist, non-European social relations as a source of inspiration and precedence for the programme. In the Caribbean this took the form of maroon communal social and economic forms and the ‘counter-plantation’ of the Haitian Revolution. Lastly, Wedderburn believed that anti-colonial revolutionary violence, manifesting as the violence of insurrectionary slaves against former masters, was not a departure from universalism but a phase in the process of redemption and re-humanisation required to achieve a meaningfully retributive and redemptive universality. In Wedderburn, as in the high water mark of twentieth-century anti-imperialism, this was a universality that was  ideologically and practically for ‘liberty and possession of the soil’[88], that sought, by the force of arms of oppressed groups, to make right past wrongs, and which was consciously arrayed against racial, colonial and economic domination.


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[1] McCalman 1991, p. 116.

[2] Wedderburn 1817a, pp. 7–8.

[3] McCalman 1991, p. 120.

[4] Buck-Morss 2009, p. 21.

[5] Desan 2013, p. 99.

[6] Gilroy 1993, p. 49.

[7] Amin 1989, p. xi.

[8] Bhabha 1991, p. 203.

[9] Scott 2004, p. 168

[10] Wilderson 2015; Wilderson 2010, pp. 58, 18-21.

[11] Sexton 2014, p. 11.

[12] Thomas 2018, pp. 292, 295.

[13] Gilmore 2020.

[14] Haider 2018, p. 113.

[15] Tomba 2018 pp. 31–2.

[16] Waqif 2020, p. 104.

[17] Wahnich 2015.

[18] Gilroy 2000, p. 96.

[19] Gilroy 1993, pp. ix, 5, 12.

[20] Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, pp. 285–6.

[21] James 1989, p. ix.

[22] James 1989, pp. 317–8.

[23] Nesbitt 2008, pp. 8, 2-3.

[24] Geggus 2011, p. 23.

[25] Brougham 1804, p. 92.

[26] McCalman 1991, pp. 44–48.

[27] McCalman 1986, pp. 101–102.

[28] Gill 1913, pp. 306, 309.

[29] Wedderburn 1817a, p. 12.

[30] Thomas 2014, p. 510; McCalman 1991, p. 102, n. 1.

[31] Wedderburn 1817f, pp. 84–91.

[32] Manigat 1977, pp. 421–423.

[33] Craton 2009, p. 63.

[34] Wedderburn 1817d, pp. 54–57.

[35] For more on Cromwell’s Protectorate and the foundations for the British Empire’s colonial policy see Horne 2018, pp. 65–74.

[36] McCalman 1991, p. 114.

[37] Spence 1982, pp. 135, 141.

[38] Waqif 2020, pp. 101–134.

[39] McCalman 1991, p. 78.

[40] Hansard 1817, pp. 601–602.

[41] Thomas 2014, p. 510.

[42] Royal Gazette 22 March 1817, p. 10.

[43] Royal Gazette 13 September 1817, p. 4.

[44] Wedderburn 1817a, pp. 5–9.

[45] Wedderburn 1817b, p. 46.

[46] Spence 1807, p. 60; Spence 1982, p. 69.

[47] Wedderburn 1817g, p. 15.

[48] McCalman 1991, p. 120.

[49] Wedderburn 1817a, pp. 5, 8.

[50] Wedderburn 1817b, p. 24.

[51] McCalman 1991, p. 19.

[52] Wedderburn 1817b, pp. 22–6.

[53] Wedderburn 1817b, pp. 25–30.

[54] Wedderburn 1817a, pp. 4, 6.

[55] Turner 1998, pp. 44–7.

[56] Wedderburn 1817d, p. 59.

[57] Report of the Jamaica Royal Commission II 1866, p. 566.

[58] Gonzalez 2019, pp. 85-89.

[59] Fick 2007, p. 403 ; Fick 1990, p. 180.

[60] Casimir 2020, p. 351.

[61] Fick 1990, pp. 180-1

[62] Blackburn 1995, p. 96.

[63] Cazzola 2021, p. 55.

[64] Spence 1982, p. 75.

[65] Wedderburn 1817f, pp. 87–9.

[66] Wedderburn 1817f, pp. 92–5.

[67] Wedderburn 1817b, p. 24; McCalman 1991, p. 116;  Wedderburn 1817a, p. 15.

[68] James 1989, p. 198.

[69] James 1989, p. 198.

[70] Nesbitt 2008, p. 137.

[71]  Wedderburn 1817d, p. 53.

[72] Fischer 2004, p. 232.

[73] Garraway 2008, p.82.

[74] Wedderburn 1817a, p. 12.

[75] Buck-Morss 2009, pp. 145–6.

[76] Buck-Morss 2009, pp. 39, 143.

[77] James 1989, p. 261.

[78] Nesbitt 2008, p. 12.

[79] Wedderburn 1817a, p. 12.

[80] The Balance, and Columbian Repository, 19 June 1804, No. 25, p. 197.

[81] McCalman 1991, pp. 114-5.

[82] Wedderburn 1817d, pp. 53-4.

[83] Fanon 1963, p. 94.

[84] Rodney 1983, p. 51.

[85] James 1989, pp. 375-6

[86] James 1989, p. 418.

[87] Gilroy 1993, p. 44.

[88] Wedderburn 1817f, p. 86.