Is it just me, or does steampunk have an abolitionist problem–or rather, a lack of them? Okay. Perhaps I’m over generalizing. I haven’t read/seen every steampunk story after all. But I’ve noticed that some of the more popular works in the genre, those few that courageously even bother to address slavery, manage to leave out (or somehow weed-out through deft alternative history-making) those figures and groups that were so instrumental in bringing about the end of the slave system in the Atlantic world.
Beginning with Haiti in 1804, the varied institutions of chattel human bondage began to fall one-by-one in the Americas, the final holdout being Brazil in 1888–marking what was likely one of the greatest moral human triumphs of the 19th century. So why is it that in many of the steampunk works that spend so much time re-imagining and reshaping this era, the struggle waged against slavery remains remarkably silent? In the recent film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, nearly no abolitionists are mentioned at all (save for an inserted re-characterization of Harriet Tubman); instead, Lincoln is passed off as an abolitionist, even though he was not one. Cherie Priest’s remarkable Civil War themed steampunk novels give us the POV of Confederate spies and nurses, insurgent New Orleans creoles of color, outlaw ex-slave gun-toting airship pirates and more–but, her world leaves little room for abolitionists. Some of the more politically minded stuff (covered in articles like Suffragette Steampunk), at least include nods to antislavery or passing references to abolitionism–though not as a central theme. Bloggers like Steampunk Emma Goldman also do some great historical pieces on black abolitionists like Ohio’s Langston Mercer, but my critique is aimed at the creative side of the genre. About the only creative work I’ve seen that includes an abolitionist as the main protagonist, is the indie Chronicles of Harriet by Balogun Ojetade, in which Harriet Tubman is recast as a gun-toting fighter of slavery and the mystic world.
Still, an organized antislavery movement appears to be MIA in much of the steampunk I’ve encountered. The William Lloyd Garrisons, Frederick Douglasses and Angelina Grimkés of the era don’t seem to make it into the lore of cogs, gears and airships. Neither do their counterparts across the Atlantic–the Granville Sharps, Olaudah Equianos or Elizabeth Heyricks. Yet these figures (or at least their legacies) were deeply entrenched in the Victorian Era that steampunk enthusiasts so studiously attempt to imitate. Though Queen Victoria would not take the English throne until 1837, the age that bears her name is often associated with the Reform Act of 1832. Quite possibly the next great event to mark Britain during the Victorian Era, and its notions of human progress and morality, was the passage on August 28th 1833 for An Act for the Abolition of Slavery. The law, which would not come into effect until a year later, abolished legal chattel slavery throughout the British Empire and put in its place a form of “labour apprenticeship” (which would end prematurely in 1838). Despite such flaws, on August 1st of 1834 some 800,000 men, women and children were freed from bondage in the British colonies, the majority of which lived in the West Indies.
Britain was not the first nation-state to abolish slavery–that unprecedented honor went to the revolutionary leaders who forged Saint-Domingue into Haiti with gunpowder, iron and blood. But Britain was the first of the great European Empires to do so, for reasons that still remain a matter of debate. *Note: France, pushed by the dynamics of slave insurrections in places like Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe and its own heady revolutionary ideals, had previously abolished slavery in 1794–but then restored it (bloodily so) in 1802, and did not abolish it again fully until 1848. So sorry France, no first prize for you.
The battle against human bondage in England had long roots, tracing back at least to its convoluted use as a propaganda tool during the American Revolution. The 13 colonies called themselves slaves; the British retorted, “no, that would be those guys who grow your tobacco and rice–hypocrites;” the Americans replied, “yeah, well at least we’re not the leading slave traders in the world, Mr. Morality.” And so it went. In the years following, a coalition of Quakers, moral philosophers and reformers, free black Britons, women’s groups and more, launched a massive campaign first against the highly lucrative English slave trade (abolished in Britain in 1807) and then against the prosperous slave industry–both of which were as powerfully entrenched as big oil is today, and backed up by the leading merchant and banking class of the era. In a miraculous and complicated turn of events, they won. That story sits at the very heart of the Victorian Era, and was used to triumph the moral and social progress of Britain in the 19th century–yes, even as it expanded the Empire in Asia and Africa, but that’s a whole notha’ blog. Most interesting for the purpose of this post, the success of anti-slavery in Britain directly influenced their cousins across the pond, as American abolitionists adapted tactics and strategies from English reformers. In the United States, for several decades, the commemoration of August 1st thus became vitally important for the antislavery struggle.
From the mid 1830s onwards, antislavery activists in the Northeastern US held numerous church services to commemorate British Abolition in the West Indies. On Monday, 1 August 1836, blacks in Catskill, New York commemorated the anniversary of British abolition at their Baptist church; August 1838, several black churches held devotionals and meetings in Newark, New Jersey; and from 1834 to 1842 annual services, “scripture readings, prayers, addresses and commemorative dinners” were held by Boston’s black community at Belknap Street Church.
These church services gave way to larger celebrations, called August 1st or West India Day. By the 1840s, commemorations of British Abolition in the US took on a more festive atmosphere, influenced by the street spectacles of greater democratic participation that marked the changing dynamics of American politics. The anniversary of British emancipation was celebrated with lavish parades, speeches and rallying cries for the end of American slavery. An 1844 August 1st celebration in Hingham, Massachusetts gives insight, where throngs of men, women and children, black and white, streamed into Hingham from surrounding regions. They came not only to celebrate the freedom granted to 800,000 British slaves in the Caribbean, but to push their own nation towards eventual abolition. In the procession marshals were said to “carry truncheons and wear gold stars…struck in Great Britain in commemoration of the First of August, 1834.” There were as well “Similar stars…distributed among the crowd…the Star of the North, the fugitive’s only compass.” On one side of these stars was “a picture of a shackled…Negro…wrists bound by chains…. Below the ground on which he kneels is the legend, ‘A voice from Great Britain to America 1834.” On the opposite side, “a Negro stands upright, arms stretched out…with broken shackles….On the ground lie other broken irons, beneath his feet a broken whip—symbols of his new freedom.” In the center is written “Jubilee, Aug. 1 1834.”
Along with such symbols both celebrating British abolition and urging national emancipation, banners were carried with differing mottos written upon them. One banner was said to declare, “No union with slaveholders”–echoing Garrison’s radical position of disunionism, which in part declared the Constitution an immoral, invalid document for compromising with slavery. From towns in Essex, one banner placed British abolition and American slavery within Republican themes, with a decidedly ironic flair: “Shall a republic which could not bear the bonds of a king, cradle a bondage which a king has abolished?” A banner from Boston depicted “a slave at sunrise on the 1st of Aug. 1834…the chains falling from his limbs” with the motto, “This is the Lord’s doing.”
Prominent figures such as Frederick Douglas spoke at West India Day celebrations. White abolitionists of note from William Lloyd Garrison to early radicals like the Jewish feminist Ernestine Rose to thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, gave speeches–some of them harsh–on antislavery. Guests from London, Canada and the Caribbean were invited to speak out against slavery, and participate in the festivities of freedom. The commemoration united abolitionists, black and white, in cities and towns throughout the northern United States with free blacks from the British West Indies, British Canada, and Britain proper. August 1st thus served as a powerful political statement of antislavery sentiment that crossed national and oceanic boundaries.
Especially featured at West India Day events were all-black militias, in full military regalia. Organized and disciplined black militias emerged out of a need to protect free blacks from white mobs in Northern cities (who violently drove blacks from public events like July 4th with bricks and bats in places like Boston), and helped protect escaped slaves from slave-catchers. Highlighting their importance, they became a staple at many of the August 1st celebrations, with the hopes that “a spectacle of militancy” would “deter would-be aggressors.” This martial atmosphere was evident throughout the breadth of the antislavery parades, where regular participants marched in single file lines, and carried banners and symbols indicative of military style. Among the marchers were black soldiers as well as sailors, some of whom had served in British regiments and naval vessels. In Canada there was a similar presence of black soldiers, members of the Queen Victoria Rifle Guards and other militias who served alongside the British army, who marched in West India Day commemorations.
Frederick Douglas, witnessing these independent black military units march in an August 1st parade in New Bedford, Massachusetts, voiced his pride at seeing them. A Mrs. Q, watching a black militia drill in Staten Island, voiced both pride and challenge to whites who would see fit to disturb black celebrants with violence: ‘who dare molest, or make us afraid?” West India Day’s disappearance in the US was ironically a product of its success.
With the end of the Civil War, August 1st celebrations went into decline in the United States, gradually fading, and eventually replaced by more nationalist celebrations. As early as the post-Emancipation Proclamation years, even before the end of the Civil War, this trend was already underway. In a correspondence from Chicago in the August 3, 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer, it was noted, “It has heretofore been the custom of the colored people of Chicago to have a grand demonstration on the 1st of August—a celebration of the anniversary of West India emancipation; but this they have abandoned, and now celebrate as their day of Jubilee Lincoln’s Proclamation of freedom to the African race, on the 1st of January.”
August 1st commemorations would linger on in some places until the 1880s, after which they mostly disappeared. As slaves become free and American blacks became citizens (even if partially so), the commemoration of an event outside of the national memory became less relevant than one that took place squarely in the American narrative. West India Day’s diminishing role and replacement by nationalist celebrations on emancipation was thus a form of both nation-making in the US and the forging of emergent African-American identity. And somehow, over the past century, it became mostly forgotten.
August 1st is still commemorated however in various parts of the British Caribbean, the UK, Canada and West Africa. Trinidad & Tobago in 1985 declared August 1st Emancipation Day–a public holiday in which government offices are closed–and has since regularly held large lavish commemorations that span several days, complete with a re-reading of the British Abolition law, re-enactments of post-Emancipation slave rituals (Canboulay), African heritage festivals and more.
For the steampunk genre, August 1st, with its multi-racial parades and transnational struggle against slavery, holds some interesting possibilities. What would a steampunk version of an August 1st parade in Boston look like–airships emblazoned with the words, “No Union With Slave Holders?” flying overhead? Might the uniforms of an all-black August 1st militia make for some interesting militaristic steampunk cosplay–accented with a few ray guns and air rifles? Anti-slavery patches with some gears and cogs? Perhaps some new interesting gadgetry might find its way into the midst of the abolitionist struggle and the Underground Railroad? There’s also the whole boundary crossing nature of the antislavery struggle, that united abolitionists in the US with counterparts in the Caribbean and England–actors who worked beyond the nation-state. What nefarious pro-slavery plots might more militant abolitionists working across a steampunk Victorian era Atlantic have to come together to thwart?
As is often the case with these ignored or buried aspects of history, there’s quite a lot for the ever-growing steampunk movement to work with–if we can imagine beyond the usual confines of corsets and top hats.
It’s interesting there’s such a hole in steampunk. I suspect that while Moorcock’s “Nomads of the Time Streams” and its full-on political content, the popular roots of the genre are in Jeter/Blaylock/Powers. Like much of what I’ve read in the new rise of the genre it was written purely for entertainment. I’m not being dismissive but there’s a simple escapist element to their works that seems to assiduously avoid more serious content.
I meant “while Moorcock’s …. and its full-on political content laid the foundations for modern steampunk”
I think you’re spot on here–which is always that interesting contradiction in much of speculative fiction. we take pride when our varied genres are recognized for making larger more profound social commentary, but at the same time want our creations to fulfill that escapist element. the problem of course is when we’re dealing with these re-imagined histories (steampunk’s retro-futures), ignoring or glossing over the more troubling aspects of our past (colonialism, slavery, etc) only tends to make the silence of their absence all that louder. the question i suppose is often, “escape “for who (or is that whom)?
It’s got to be a tough choice to make. Even with a history background, as a middle-class, middle-age white guy, it takes an effort sometimes to notice the missing people, because it’s just sort of how my eyes have unfortunately grown up. I imagine for writers similarly situated hoping to write a bit of entertaining fiction, they’re often wearing the same blinders.
As to your last point regarding escape, I imagine they see their target audience in a narrow mirror. Which makes watching the growth of all sorts of new spec. fiction pretty exciting. As a reader part of my reinvigorated of fantasy has been charged by something as simple as new perspectives being brought to the bookshelf.
GREAT piece–also check out gerald horne’s 2012 book “negro comrades of trhe crown”.
Thanks for the read and the suggestion!
A lot of steampunk is set in the British Empire which (as you pointed out) outlawed slavery before Queen Victoria was crowned, and that often is used as the beginning of the era for steampunk stories. So it’s not surprising that slavery isn’t a big issue in stories set in British territories in the Victorian era. In the USA, though, the omission is strange. That said, the Royal Navy, amongst others, were busy suppressing slavery for parts of the 19th century, so those efforts might reasonably be expected to appear in fiction.