Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
In Emilia Viotti da Costa’s book, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood, the author provides an in-depth analysis of the years surrounding (and following) the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823. Da Costa uses a “macro- and micro-historical approach” to explore the implications of the rebellion on both a regional and global level (Da Costa, xviii). In doing so, Da Costa’s work sheds light on “how and why” slaves chose to resist plantation owners and managers through a reconstruction of events that encompasses the viewpoint of not only whites (such as government officials, missionaries, and plantation owners), but also the perspective of slaves (Da Costa, xviii). Da Costa argues that the Demerara rebellion did not result from a singular event or individual. Instead, she points out that the revolt stemmed from a clash of political, economic, and social issues that evolved over a period of many years. Da Costa argues that the rebellion was a direct result of rising tensions concerning the rights and privileges that slaves increasingly felt entitled to under British edicts and laws; tensions that were exasperated and amplified by the growth of missionary activity (such as John Wray and John Smith), the abolitionist movement in England, as well as Parliamentary actions throughout the region. According to Da Costa, slave perceptions of their rights (which often developed through their misunderstanding of British and colonial culture) conflicted sharply with colonists and their notion of a well-balanced and properly arranged society. In lieu of these largescale differences in opinion, Da Costa argues that the clash over “rights” (and perceived notions of injustice) all culminated in the Demerara rebellion as slaves revolted to secure greater rights while colonists sought to safeguard the traditional views and privileges they felt entitled to under British law. As a result, Da Costa argues that Demerara forever altered the social and political landscape of the British Empire; giving greater attention to the plight of slaves and prompting the expansion of abolitionist efforts (resulting in a permanent ban on slavery less than a decade later).
Da Costa’s work is both informative and compelling with its discussion of the rebellion. Moreover, her work is highly researched and scholarly with its approach; incorporating numerous primary source materials (including memoirs, diaries, court records, and testimonies) to substantiate her claims. A major positive of Da Costa’s work stems from her ability to construct the history of Demerara into an easy-to-read, narrative-driven format. Her recreation of slave testimonies (originally told through the eyes of white individuals) is also quite impressive and illuminating, given the inherent biases of the documents she was forced to rely upon. One drawback to this book, however, lies in its relatively brief discussion of the actual rebellion. Da Costa focuses a large amount of her attention on background information, but seemingly relegates the rebellion to a short section of the book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but more details pertaining to the uprising would have been a nice addition. Further details pertaining to the aftermath of the rebellion would have been a welcome addition as well.
All in all, I give da Costa's work 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Latin American history, as well as a history of early slave rebellions. Both historians and general audience members can appreciate the contents of this work. Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity! You will not be disappointed.
Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion:
1.) What is the underlying meaning behind Da Costa’s book title, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood?
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2.) Is it possible that the Demerara rebellion could have been avoided altogether? Or was it an unavoidable event? If so, then why?
3.) What connections can be made between the experience of slaves in Demerara and slaves of the Southern United States?
4.) What contributions does the author make to current scholarship? Are the contributions significant? Why or why not?
5.) In what ways could the author have improved this work?
6.) What type of sources does the author incorporate in this book? Does this help or hinder her overall arguments?
Emilia Viotti da Costa. Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
© 2018 Larry Slawson