The American Abolitionist Civilizing Mission to Jamaica: An Interview with Gale Kenny

by Luke Harlow

I am excited to bring Religion in American History an interview with Gale Kenny, author of a fascinating new book, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834–1866 (University of Georgia Press, 2010).

The book compellingly analyzes the work of American abolitionist missionaries to Jamaica in the middle of the nineteenth century and should remain of lasting significance to scholars of religion, race, gender, abolitionism, and transnational history. In short, there is much in Kenny’s work that should pique the interest of RiAH readers. In the interview, Kenny introduces us to many of the key figures in the book and expounds upon several of the important interventions she makes with this project.

Kenny is currently ACLS New Faculty Fellow in the Religion Department at Barnard College, and has previously held appointments at Rice University and Sam Houston State University. Contentious Liberties is an expansion of her 2008 Rice University doctoral dissertation in history (where I am proud to say we overlapped as colleagues).

Historians of the United States are aware of the role of Oberlin College and the American Missionary Association in the mid nineteenth–century United States abolitionist movement. Less familiar is their mission to post-emancipation Jamaica. What did abolitionists hope to accomplish there?

When the missionaries left the United States, they were idealistic young people who wanted to play a part in the process of emancipation and history, and in that sense, part of their reason for establishing the mission was to practice their abolitionist beliefs. I think that they read accounts of West Indian emancipation, and it moved and inspired them to take action. For the first generation (who moved to Jamaica in the late 1830s) the West Indies served as a substitute for the South, where they could not safely proselytize their abolitionist Christianity. They also had more obvious missionary goals, and like later northern volunteers in the South after the Civil War, the missionaries wanted to educate ex-slaves and instruct them in “civilized” habits. I would distinguish the Jamaica missionaries a bit from the Reconstruction-era missionaries because the Jamaica Mission had a more utopian design. In Jamaica, they were committed to building something like their alma mater, Oberlin College—interracial Christian communities centered on piety and church discipline, a strong work ethic, and charitable giving. Yet as with most Protestant missionaries of the era, the Oberlin missionaries paid no attention to the fact that black Jamaicans might be attached to their own culture and religious beliefs.

In addition to these primary goals, the missionaries hoped their mission would impact debates about Protestant missionary work more generally, and their political and religious commitment to abolitionism informed their ideas about how missions should be run. As fierce defenders of “independent manhood,” Oberlinites disapproved of “dependent” missions that required perpetual funding from home, and they believed that a self-sufficient Jamaica Mission in which Jamaican church members paid the salaries of the Oberlin ministers would be a model for other American Protestant missions to follow. (It should be noted that the mission never became financially independent.) The Oberlin ministers also saw the Jamaica Mission as a direct challenge to the largest missionary organization of the day, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. While most of the American Board’s leaders opposed slavery, their reliance on donations from southern churches and their mission among the slaveholding Cherokee meant that they did not openly condemn slavery as a sin. When the newly organized AMA (est. 1846) adopted the mission in 1847, it shared many of the same goals as the original Oberlin ministers, yet it also expanded the symbolic importance of the Jamaica Mission as an example of what might happen in an emancipated South.

Initially, the radical abolitionist founders of the Jamaica mission hoped for an “interracial utopia,” but those goals changed over time. What role did race—and particularly gendered notions of race—play in altering their vision?

The missionaries’ ideas of race and gender—and I would also add religious orthodoxy—were inseparable. The AMA missionaries (who were all white) had been forced to confront the explosive issues of interracial socializing, coeducation and women’s rights long before they left the United States. Most had attended Oberlin College, where professors and the administration tried to hold off anti-abolitionist mobs by enforcing strict religious discipline to balance out the school’s radical inclusiveness. These rules, combined with the religious doctrine of Christian perfectionism, became the ideological basis for the Jamaica Mission. Before leaving the United States, evangelical abolitionists tied true Christian piety to certain gendered behaviors (chastity, modest dress, breadwinning fathers and domestically inclined mothers), but not to race. After all, at Oberlin and in other abolitionist-friendly towns in the North, they would have frequently encountered African-American men and women who fit their definition of Christian piety while slaveholding whites or anti-abolitionist whites were considered sinners.

In Jamaica, however, a very different gender ideology prevailed among freed people, many of whom called themselves Christians. For example, in contrast to the AMA missionaries’ condemnation of premarital sex, young people who were economically dependent on their families frequently cohabited and had children before marrying later in life. Further, rather than abiding by the common law doctrine of coverture, Jamaican parents passed down land to all of their children so that a married woman might own and work a patch of land with her siblings instead of the land owned by her husband. The mere fact that married women did agricultural work also proved troubling to the Americans who saw this as evidence of black men’s failure to care for their families, and consequently, their moral failings.

For the white missionaries, the question was whether these “sinful” gender practices were an unchangeable product of Jamaicans’ blackness or if they were cultural holdovers from slavery that could be reformed. One of the main arguments in the book explores how changing ideas of race and gender in the United States and among the missionaries in Jamaica influenced the answer to this question. The ministers who established the mission in the late 1830s largely ignored race and focused instead on structural problems (a lack of public schools, low wages, racism) as the cause of Jamaica’s supposed gender and religious disorder. Thus the civilizing mission’s paternalist ethos was always counterbalanced with the missionaries’ stated goal for black Jamaicans to become “independent” and “manly” landowners. For their part, black Jamaicans worked with the Americans to purchase land for ex-slaves, but most had no interest in abandoning all of their customs for the Americans’ notions of church discipline and separate-spheres ideology. When it became clear that the act of landownership and the mission’s schools were not transforming black Jamaicans as the Americans had anticipated, the ministers returned to their original question: was it race or culture that prevented black Jamaicans from becoming just like the white missionaries?

By the mid-1850s, the older ministers answered the question by fluctuating between their original commitment to racial equality and occasional despair that racial difference might be the real reason for the mission’s failures. Meanwhile, the arrival of a younger generation of missionaries reinforced the mission’s paternalist ethos while diminishing the mission’s emphasis on independent black manhood. The younger missionaries had come of age in the 1850s amid the explosion of domesticity, sentimental literature, and romantic ideas of racial difference. Rather than criticizing Jamaica’s racism and classism as their elders had done, or strongly supporting black men’s independence, the younger missionaries and teachers treated black Jamaicans (adults and children) as perpetual dependents in need of white supervision. This created conflict between the older and younger missionaries, but it also granted married and single women a greater role to play in the mission’s work. The mission households became centers of a kind of imperial domesticity in which missionary wives and schoolteachers attempting to reach their Jamaican servants’ hearts—instead of models of the patriarchal household that they had once been.

What was the Richmond Industrial School? What did its founder and supervisor Seth Wolcott hope to achieve through the school?

Seth Wolcott, with the help from American investors, purchased Richmond, a defunct sugar estate, in 1854. He intended to sell of plots of land to church members (a plan that never fully worked) and to build a manual-labor boarding school to educate any willing Jamaican child. For historians, Richmond can be understood as a bridge between the mostly white manual-labor schools in the North in the 1820s and 1830s and the post-Civil War industrial schools for southern blacks. Incidentally, a similar industrial school also existed in the American Board’s Hawaiian mission, and probably in other places as well. Richmond combined the rules and ideals of schools like the Oneida Institute and Oberlin that aimed to train both middle-class and poor young men (and women, at Oberlin) with the AMA missionaries’ desire to isolate young Jamaicans from the surrounding culture.

In the mission’s history, Richmond also reflected the transition from the first part of the mission to the second and more paternalist era. The mission’s schoolteachers and ministers shifted their focus to young Jamaicans—the rising generation—and they came up with the idea of a boarding school that would (at least in theory) separate young people from their families and the surrounding culture while making them a part of a new “civilized” and orthodox mission family. The school educated both boys and girls, many of whom had lived for a time with the American missionary families before attending Richmond. Wolcott required the students to perform several hours of gender-appropriate work each day, and they were expected to be upstanding members of the “Richmond family.” Just as at Oberlin, even chaste relationships between students were forbidden, and Wolcott took disciplinary action against any students who did not attend church, who stole or failed to do work, and who were caught drinking rum (the ministers found it very inspiring that Richmond’s rum distillery had become the schoolroom). With a student body that hovered around 30-40, the school did educate many of the mission’s Jamaican schoolteachers who took over the mission’s schools when the AMA stopped funding the mission in the 1860s. Wolcott, and after his death, his son, and then grandson grew sugar and, later, bananas, at Richmond, and in the 1940s, Wolcott’s great-granddaughter (a poet) lost the estate through bankruptcy. Her wish that the school become a “baby Tuskegee” to honor her great-grandfather’s work was not realized.

What was the relationship between the American “civilizing mission” and British imperial and missionary endeavor?

By the time the Americans arrived in Jamaica, British emancipation had happened, and many British missionaries were dealing with a decline in support from home. In contrast, during the 1840s and 1850s, both proslavery and antislavery Americans became increasingly interested in relating West Indian emancipation to American slavery. (These trajectories are both shown in Catherine Hall and Ed Rugemer’s work.)

In terms of ideology, the American mission’s driving desire to transform dependent slaves into independent men ran counter to notions of colonial dependency, and the American missionaries frequently criticized their British counterparts. As post-colonials themselves, only a couple of generations removed from the American Revolution, the American missionaries saw their civilizing mission as superior to and distinctive from other efforts to aid Jamaican freed people. The Americans denounced Anglicans for drinking alcohol, attacked almost all other churches for lacking proper church discipline, and they accused white Jamaican politicians and landowners as being racist and anti-democratic. The Americans also complained about the island’s class system, and they reserved a special loathing for what they saw as the British custom of lazy aristocrats (black and colored) who looked down on laborers.

The AMA missionaries’ antagonism toward colonialism became more complicated after the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1866. The uprising terrified some missionaries who then strongly supported Britain’s decision to make Jamaican into a dependent crown colony (a decision that dissolved the island’s elected assembly and self-rule). Others in the American mission, including many of the older missionaries who had grown up in the radicalism of the 1830s, saw Morant Bay as a symptom of colonialism. They argued that black Jamaicans would be better off if the United States annexed the island and granted Jamaica statehood so that American Reconstruction laws and amendments could go into effect. To invoke Catherine Hall’s argument about British missionaries: the American missionaries were in some ways similar to her Baptists in that the Americans’ commitment to racial equality lessened as their “civilizing” efforts failed. The Americans did begin to justify a long-term need for white supervision over black Jamaicans. In spite of this overarching trend, a discernable undercurrent of American nationalism and anti-British and anti-colonial sentiments persisted in the mission through its end in the early 1870s.

Contentious Liberties is part of a growing literature that shows the importance of understanding abolitionism as a transnational movement. How does your work revise our understanding of the movement? More broadly, how does it modify our understanding of American evangelicalism?

One of my goals in Contentious Liberties was to show the interaction between the missionary movement and the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century, and to explore how abolitionist missionaries and their experiences abroad offer up new questions that can then be applied to the fields of abolitionist and evangelical history more generally. For me, this is one of the most fruitful aspects of transnational scholarship—it allows us to rethink concepts, events, and people that we already know. While the missionaries in my book will be quite familiar to anyone who has studied evangelicalism or abolitionism in this period, they were changed by Jamaica as they had to interrogate their Christian and abolitionist beliefs. The AMA missionaries open up all kinds of questions about how nineteenth-century Americans understood the relationship between religion, race, and gender, nationalism, the consequences of colonialism, etc. I hope that historians of abolition and American evangelicalism will pay closer attention to missionaries as a way to think through the complex interaction between race and religion at home and race and religion abroad.

Another contribution I hoped to make was to shed light on an understudied segment of the abolitionist movement: evangelical abolitionists who were not particularly famous as orators or writers—I like to think of them as the “B-list” abolitionists. While they may not have travelled to London for the World’s Antislavery Convention, the Jamaica missionaries and their supporters in the United States still engaged in abolitionism as a transnational movement. The AMA’s newspaper regularly printed missionary accounts from the field, allowing ordinary rank-and-file abolitionists to imagine themselves a part of a worldwide campaign. I found it interesting that both abolitionist and Protestant missionary efforts cultivated a sense of international humanitarianism, however flawed, that appealed to regular Americans who might have never traveled abroad themselves. This topic is something that I am just beginning to research now.

Twenty-first century readers often tend to think of categories like gender or race as inflexible, macro-level social constructions that are very difficult to change. Yet you show a significant amount of change over time in the gendered and racial visions of missionaries to Jamaica. What key events brought those changes?

This question gets to the part of the research that I most enjoyed. As I read missionary letters and wrote about them, I sometimes felt as though I were composing a group biography. As human beings, the missionaries naturally changed over time, and because of their particularly reflective and self-aware letters, they often commented on how their own views had changed. They were also quite a gossipy group, and their letters also allowed me to see each missionary through his or her colleagues’ eyes.

As to what factors led to these changes: everyday encounters with black Jamaicans, or conversations would cause the missionaries to rethink or evaluate their assumptions. For example, one minister questioned the idea that his notion of “civilized” behavior and Christianity went hand-in-hand when he saw two of his most devout church members (a man and a woman) working a field while wearing minimal clothing. Much more dramatically, a yearlong crisis in 1850 almost led to the mission’s collapse. One of the missionaries (a carpenter, not a minister) teamed up with one of the single schoolteachers and several of the missionary couples to challenge the entire basis for the civilizing mission. He argued that God resided within every person, and the missionaries had no authority to question black Jamaicans’ beliefs or practices. He and the missionaries who supported him shut down their schools and churches, and his attack on authority eventually resulted in a sex scandal—he declared himself “spiritually married” to another missionary’s wife and encouraged others to do the same. While the errant missionaries were eventually dismissed from the mission, the incident led to an enormous amount of discussion about how black Jamaicans were having to chastise white missionaries for their gender disorder—a point that turned the civilizing mission’s basic assumption on its head. Less dramatically, many of the single women schoolteachers in the mission developed a taste for women’s rights during their time in Jamaica. For example, one woman, Mary Dean, disavowed the nascent women’s rights movement in the U.S. even as she complained about how her male colleagues treated her unfairly—she had no vote in mission matters, she earned less, and she was under more scrutiny than the male teachers in the mission. Dean and several other schoolteachers became dissenters against the ministers’ paternalism toward themselves even as they remained committed to the racial paternalism underlying the civilizing mission.


Phil said…
Great interview! I am also proud to count Gale as a former colleague at SHSU.

I received my copy just last week. Contentious Liberties is beautifully written and cogently argued. The transnational dimension to Kenny's formulation of abolitionism is particularly strong.

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