From the CRB archive: Archibald Monteath

by Nicholas Laughlin on August 1, 2010

The Attack of the Rebels on Montpelier Old Works Estate, by Adolphe Duperly

The Attack of the Rebels on Montpelier Old Works Estate (1833), by Adolphe Duperly. Image courtesy the Yale Centre for British Art

1 August is Emancipation Day, a public holiday in many Caribbean territories, the day when we recall the long struggle to overcome legal slavery in the Caribbean, and the rich, complex history of our African ancestors. It seems fitting today to reach into the CRB archive for the rich and complex biography of a man who overcame slavery in his own way, who refused to lose his dignity to the horrors and degradations of plantation society, and who died a free man by his own determined agency.

Maureen Warner-Lewis’s Archibald Monteath: Igbo, Jamaican, Moravianreviewed in the May 2008 CRB by Bridget Brereton — is

a brilliantly reconstructed biography of a man who was born in “Igboland” (modern south-eastern Nigeria) around 1792, kidnapped and enslaved as a child around 1802, taken to Jamaica and bought by the Monteath family, worked as a human chattel, “promoted” to headman on a livestock farm, and finally self-liberated by purchase in 1837, one year before the final end of slavery. It is the story of a man who was called Aniaso at birth, had the “slave name” Toby imposed on him as a child in Jamaica, and proudly took the names Archibald John Monteath on his baptism in 1821, when he was still human property. And it traces his spiritual journey from a deeply religious Igbo community to his conversion to the Moravian faith and his emergence after 1837 as a full-time church worker much respected by his European colleagues in the close-knit Moravian Jamaican mission.

As Brereton explains, Monteath’s autobiographical texts — produced towards the end of his life, in collaboration with Moravian missionaries — “do not fit the conventions of the antislavery discourse” and were for a long time overlooked by historians of the period of slavery and emancipation. But they remind us how many different forms resistance to slavery actually took, and how complicated individual human beings are, even under social systems designed to suppress their individuality and indeed their humanity.

This life-story is not a self-presentation of a brutalised victim, of a wounded individual, Warner-Lewis concludes. It is an account of a man’s “reclamation of a moral sense, of dignity, and of personal identity.” This was a person with agency and self-confidence, on a life-long “quest for honour lost in childhood, and honour regained” though faith, self-liberation, and religious commitment.

Read Brereton’s review of Archibald Monteath here, and find more reviews of books on Caribbean history in the CRB archive via our subject index.

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