The road to Eman­ci­pa­tion

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No one can be ab­so­lutely sure when the first en­slaved Africans were brought to our shores, but we do know that when the first Dutch ar­rived in what was to be­come the Colony of Ber­bice in 1627, they brought six Africans with them. Ex­actly what hap­pened to them no one knows, but we do know that the Dutch them­selves were in a very bad way within two years of their ar­rival, and were saved by the Amerindi­ans who gave them food. It could be, how­ever, that Africans were brought here even ear­lier than 1627, since the Colony of Esse­quibo was founded be­fore that of Ber­bice, although the pre­cise date of its es­tab­lish­ment has never been de­ter­mined be­yond doubt. What can be said is that when a Dutch boat sail­ing along this coast put into the River De­mer­ara in 1629, the crew en­coun­tered an en­slaved African there trad­ing with the Amerindi­ans on be­half of the Dutch Esse­quibo author­i­ties. Since he pre­sum­ably had some mas­tery of what was prob­a­bly the Arawak lan­guage in or­der to trade, and clearly was trusted to go into the in­te­rior on his own, it is per­haps rea­son­able to spec­u­late that he must have been in the colony for some time.


The num­bers of Africans in the Guyana Dutch colonies were al­ways very small in com­par­i­son with those in Suri­name and the larger Bri­tish and French West In­dian plan­toc­ra­cies, nev­er­the­less, that did not af­fect their ca­pac­ity for re­sis­tance. The en­slaved in Ber­bice in par­tic­u­lar were prone to re­volt – as early as the 17th cen­tury they rose up in al­liance with the Arawaks – and in 1763, or­ga­nized one of the Caribbean’s most sig­nif­i­cant up­ris­ings which threat­ened Dutch hege­mony in the Guianas. For its part, De­mer­ara is known for its large ma­roon com­mu­nity, which in due course fought with the Bri­tish at the turn of the nine­teenth cen­tury. Ow­ing to the fact that the Span­ish colony of what is now Venezuela bor­dered on Esse­quibo, the en­slaved Africans and Amerindi­ans of the lat­ter colony pre­ferred to take the op­tion of es­cap­ing west, where at some pe­ri­ods the Spa­niards would al­low them to set­tle. While these ex­pres­sions of re­sis­tance made it abun­dantly clear that those held in bondage re­jected their sta­tus, it was not un­til the nine­teenth cen­tury that up­ris­ings in the

Caribbean be­gan to have a di­rect im­pact on metropoli­tan pol­icy as well as move­ments in Bri­tain to end the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery.

Un­der­ly­ing causes

Var­i­ous un­der­ly­ing causes for the abo­li­tion of slav­ery are thought to have been at work, not the least of which was the fact that the Bri­tish econ­omy had moved away from re­liance on the West In­dian colonies, and the rul­ing classes es­pe­cially did not feel the same eco­nomic im­per­a­tive to in­dulge sugar in­ter­ests. Cot­ton, by this time, was seen as more im­por­tant, and cot­ton em­ployed free labour. As the UK in­dus­tri­alised, new eco­nomic con­cerns were mov­ing in the di­rec­tion of free trade, and sugar was iden­ti­fied with an older mer­can­tilist era. As it was, there­fore, the West In­dia lobby which had ex­erted such in­flu­ence in the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment dur­ing the hey­day of sugar, went into de­cline. There were var­i­ous other un­der­ly­ing fac­tors at work as well, in­clud­ing re­li­gious and in­tel­lec­tual ones, all of them symp­to­matic of a chang­ing so­ci­ety which had shifted its at­ti­tudes in re­sponse to a new era. Those at­ti­tudes cov­ered a range of con­cerns, of which slav­ery was only one.

Slave trade abo­li­tion

Where the ac­tive strug­gle in the me­trop­o­lis it­self was con­cerned, it was the Quakers who could per­haps be de­scribed as the pioneers of the abo­li­tion move­ment. This move­ment even­tu­ally came to en­com­pass a range of groups, churches and in­di­vid­u­als, who to­gether mounted the first mass cam­paign in history. It uti­lized a va­ri­ety of tech­niques, many of which set the stan­dard for all sub­se­quent pres­sure groups, and some of which, with adap­ta­tions, are still in use to­day. It might be noted that in­cluded among the speak­ers who went up and down the coun­try to ad­dress meet­ings, were Africans who had per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of slav­ery. The first tar­get was the slave trade, which de­spite many pe­ti­tions to Par­lia­ment and the in­tro­duc­tion of bills, took a long time to get abol­ished. How­ever, this was ac­com­plished fi­nally by an Act which re­ceived the royal as­sent on March 25, 1807. In what were then called the United Colony of Esse­quibo and De­mer­ara, and the Colony of Ber­bice, the par­lia­men­tary Act did not abol­ish the slave trade, be­cause these two ter­ri­to­ries did not come un­der the aus­pices of Par­lia­ment, but un­der the di­rect au­thor­ity of the Crown. This was ow­ing to the fact that along with one or two other West In­dian colonies they had been ceded to the Bri­tish dur­ing the course of the Napoleonic Wars. The end of the slave trade came a few months ear­lier in their case, there­fore, since it was done by Or­der-in-Coun­cil in 1806, and was im­ple­mented on Jan­uary 1, 1807.


With the of­fi­cial end­ing of the Bri­tish slave trade, there were those who thought that slav­ery it­self might wither away in due course, while oth­ers be­lieved in an ame­lio­ra­tive, grad­ual ap­proach. The en­slaved in the Caribbean, how­ever, had other ideas. The first of the great ris­ings of the 19th cen­tury took place in Bar­ba­dos in 1816, but it was the one in 1823 in De­mer­ara which re­ally gal­va­nized the anti-slav­ery move­ment in Bri­tain. Its prox­i­mate cause was a cir­cu­lar from the Colo­nial Of­fice set­ting out mea­sures for ame­lio­rat­ing the con­di­tions of the slave labour force. The colonies here boast­ing some of the most ret­ro­gres­sive planters in the West Indies backed in the case of the United Colony by an equally re­ac­tionary Lieu­tenant-Gover­nor, did not an­nounce the con­tents of this cir­cu­lar to the en­slaved pop­u­la­tion, which sus­pected that free­dom had been granted by the King, but that the planters were with­hold­ing it. The case of a white mis­sion­ary who was also charged in con­nec­tion with the ris­ing be­came a cause célèbre in Lon­don, and it did not take long for the anti-slav­ery move­ment to be re­vived. It was com­mit­ted ini­tially to the mit­i­ga­tion and grad­ual abo­li­tion of slav­ery, but it was taken over by the rad­i­cals in the move­ment in 1827, when it was re­named the Anti-Slav­ery So­ci­ety. The cause got its sec­ond fil­lip from a ma­jor re­volt in Ja­maica in 1831, which caused the Anti-Slav­ery So­ci­ety to dis­as­so­ci­ate it­self from the grad­ual ap­proach, and cam­paign to bring an early end to slav­ery. Two years later in 1833 slav­ery it­self was abol­ished by Act of Par­lia­ment which came into force on Au­gust 1, 1834.


But this was not a sim­ple act of eman­ci­pa­tion; it con­tained some poi­soned clauses. In the first place, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment ef­fec­tively bribed the planters by giv­ing them ‘com­pen­sa­tion’ of £20,000,000 for the loss of labour­ers, who were treated as prop­erty; this would be nearly £1 bil­lion in to­day’s cur­rency. The true vic­tims, the en­slaved, got noth­ing. It was paid for by the Bri­tish tax­payer, and the amounts re­leased var­ied ac­cord­ing to the colony and the size of a planter’s hold­ing. An en­slaved worker in Bri­tish Guiana (the United Colony of Esse­quibo and De­mer­ara, and Ber­bice were com­bined in 1831 to form Bri­tish Guiana), for ex­am­ple, was given a higher value than one in Ja­maica. This was prob­a­bly be­cause the for­mer was con­sid­ered to have vir­gin soils and a higher pro­duc­tion rate than the lat­ter. In the end, £4,295,989

was paid to planters for Bri­tish Guiana’s 82,824 en­slaved. In the sec­ond place, eman­ci­pa­tion was not im­me­di­ate; it in­volved an ap­pren­tice­ship scheme whereby the en­slaved had to work a fixed num­ber of hours for the master; for time over and above that they had to be paid wages, or al­ter­na­tively, they could choose to work on their own plots. The en­slaved were di­vided into two cat­e­gories: the prae­di­als, ie, those who worked in the fields; and the non-prae­di­als. The pe­riod of ap­pren­tice­ship was fixed at four years for the lat­ter group, and six years for the for­mer. This news caused dis­tur­bances in most of the colonies, in­clud­ing our Esse­quibo, although there was one West In­dian ter­ri­tory – An­tigua – whose Assem­bly de­cided not to bother with ap­pren­tice­ship at all, and granted im­me­di­ate eman­ci­pa­tion on Au­gust 1, 1834.


As the date for the eman­ci­pa­tion of the non-prae­di­als ap­proached, there was clear ev­i­dence the prae­di­als un­sur­pris­ingly were very hos­tile to a fur­ther two years of servi­tude. Fol­low­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of con­di­tions, the An­ti­Slav­ery So­ci­ety wrote a scathing in­dict­ment of ap­pren­tice­ship and the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of deny­ing free­dom to the prae­di­als for two more years. This was sent to the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment which early in 1838 ad­vised the colonies to eman­ci­pate all the ap­pren­tices in­clud­ing the prae­di­als, on Au­gust 1 that year. It was the Trinidad Assem­bly which did so first, fol­lowed by some of the other Eastern Caribbean ter­ri­to­ries. Bri­tish Guiana’s Court of Pol­icy was more dila­tory, but it too even­tu­ally fol­lowed suit, leg­is­lat­ing to lib­er­ate its en­slaved pop­u­la­tion, ef­fec­tive Au­gust 1. There were fears on the part of the planters here that those who had been newly lib­er­ated would be rau­cous and be­have in an un­ruly fash­ion on Au­gust 1. No such thing hap­pened. The freed men and women of Bri­tish Guiana for the most part at­tended church that day. Au­gust 1 fun­da­men­tally trans­formed the so­ci­ety in all spheres of en­deav­our, as well as in terms of the com­po­si­tion of its pop­u­la­tion, cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for the evo­lu­tion of the na­tion we know to­day. ( Post­script: It should be re­mem­bered that mem­bers of cer­tain Amerindian na­tions were en­slaved through­out the pe­riod of Dutch con­trol here, se­cur­ing their eman­ci­pa­tion from the author­i­ties in the Nether­lands forty years be­fore the Africans did so un­der the Bri­tish.)

Out­side the Public Build­ings on Eman­ci­pa­tion Day

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