Negotiating relief and freedom

Responses to disaster in the British Caribbean, 1812–1907

Oscar Webber
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Negotiating relief and freedom is an investigation of short- and long-term responses to disaster in the British Caribbean colonies during the ‘long’ nineteenth century. It explores how colonial environmental degradation expanded the impacts of natural phenomena such as hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and made the inhabitants of these colonies more vulnerable to such disasters. Both the edicts of the colonial officers on the ground and those arriving from Parliament drove the response to these events in a direction that initially prioritised the restoration of colonial control and ‘fiscal prudence’ ahead of the relief of the suffering. When attention shifted to relief, it quickly became a complex negotiation between the wealthy, white few who sought to recoup all their losses and a Parliament whose influence was waning and who were increasingly distrusted. All the while, both parties, fearing a contestation of their power, contended with having to provide some relief to the African-Caribbean population. There they sought to balance a desire to avoid conflict with reigning in the idea that the state could provide charity. As a result, heavily conditional aid and restrictions on freedom became hallmarks of this third aspect to the process of negotiation relief. That this pattern played out continuously in the long nineteenth century is a reminder that in the Caribbean the transition from slavery to waged labour was not a clean one. Times of crisis brought racial and social tensions to the fore and freedoms once granted were often quickly curtailed.

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