Inspiriting Flesh/Fleshing Out Spirit: Bodies, Bondage, and the Morant Bay Rebellion
This chapter materializes around the concept-metaphor of the “spirit” to parse the troubled and recent past of slavery in the Caribbean, leading to the Morant Bay Rebellion and its aftermath, including the labor struggles and nationalist agitation of the 1930s–1940s. The early 1860s witnessed a resurgence of ancestral, millenarian, and revival religions, including Native Baptist denominations, the Afro-Creole religion Myal, and African spirit religions based on ancestor worship more generally. These spirit-based religions directly influenced the Morant Bay Rebellion leaders, who were both Baptist preachers, as well as later representations of the event. I first track the uncanny manifestation of the Haitian Revolution in texts on rebellion in the Caribbean. The variously terrifying and welcome specter of Haiti, a reminder of both black enslavement and black resistance, haunts the mid-nineteenth-century dispute between Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, and its repetition in the late nineteenth-century debate between James Anthony Froude and John Jacob Thomas. It also haunts the proliferation of C.L.R. James’s textual representations, or more accurately revisitations, of the Haitian Revolution in his plays Toussaint Louverture (1934) and The Black Jacobins (1967). I argue that within all these texts both slavery and black insurrection constitute imperial capitalism’s very modernity, even as they are seen as “premodern” and atavistic. I then examine the Afro-Creole religion Myal’s deconstruction of the primacy of being and its attention to the figure of the ghost, or more accurately to the act of inspiriting, as an ethical responsibility to the “other” through a critique of colonial biopolitics, as seen in Roger Mais’s play “George William Gordon, a Historical Play in 14 Scenes” (1947) and Claude McKay’s poem “George William Gordon to the Oppressed Natives” (1912). I end the chapter with a focus on the representation, in both the aesthetic and political sense, of a mid-century creole anti-colonial nationalism that constituted a “spirit of the age,” and that drew its impetus from trade unionism. In a reading of V.S. Reid’s novel New Day (1949) and two poems from Una Marson’s collection The Moth and the Stars (1937), I argue that while Reid constructs the longed-for nation-state as constituted by family land and thus as part of this masculinized creole nationalist project, Marson more ambivalently reads it as potentially disruptive of family land, and thereby seems at moments to bring that nationalist project into question.