Remarks by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael at the Emancipation Day Event Sponsored by the Guyana Festivals Committee in Brooklyn, New York, August 13, 2000
Mr. Chairman, Fellow Guyanese, Ladies and Gentlemen
There has always been an old argument as to when really was the first Emancipation Day in terms of the history of Guyana and the English-speaking Caribbean. Was it the first day of August 1834, as determined by the Emancipation Act that was passed in the British Parliament the year before? Or was it the first day of August 1838 when the so-called Apprenticeship period, which forced the ex-slaves to provide free labour on the plantations for an extra four years, finally came to an unlamented end? I will not join that debate today, but I will leave you to form your own opinion on this matter.
In my presentation today, I will take you back into a period of our history that very few of our people in Guyana know about. We seem to know a great deal of the political history from 1950 to the present time, but very little about the long period before then. I feel it is very important for us, and particularly for our school-age children, to go back to the beginnings in order to appreciate the struggles of our ancestors, and to understand the problems, and also the successes, we have had in shaping our nationhood.
I will walk you through the events that led to Emancipation to show that the struggles of the people played a leading role in the winning of freedom.
Ever since slavery was introduced into Guyana by the Dutch in the early seventeenth century, the enslaved people always yearned for freedom. The first slaves were the Amerindians, but after they were found to be inadequate to meet the needs of the expanding sugar and cotton plantations, African slaves were introduced. However, records show that Amerindian slaves worked for the Dutch as late as the end of the eighteenth century. It is interesting to note that under the existing system of coercion, African slaves were used to catch Amerindian slaves. On the other hand, free Amerindians loyal to the Dutch were recruited to hunt runaway African slaves and also to help put down slave uprisings.
The enslaved Africans made many efforts to win their freedom. Doing so by peaceful means was out of the question, so a number of violent confrontations occurred on individual plantations. Some slaves quietly escaped from the plantations but were ruthlessly hunted down and severely punished when caught. There were relatively very few instances of runaway slaves living in freedom after escaping from the plantations. The few free Africans who lived in Guyana then were those who were very old and were given their freedom by their masters, or those skilled slaves who manumitted themselves -- that is, they managed to purchase their freedom from their owners through the savings they somehow were able to accumulate.
When the slaves were united and organized they achieved success as in the case of the Berbice Slave Rebellion which broke out in February 1763. Led by Cuffy, they declared their freedom and seized the government of Berbice of which they were in control for almost a year. But division in their ranks and heavier fire power by the Dutch eventually defeated them.
The human rights movement began to take hold in England towards the end of the eighteenth century. As part of this movement, the Anti-Slavery Society played a leading role in the efforts to end the slave trade, to improve the living and working conditions of slaves and also for the abolition of slavery.
The Anti-Slavery Society was very influential since among its members were leading religious personalities and important Members of Parliament including William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Fowell Buxton. In April 1823 Buxton presented a motion in the House of Commons calling for a gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies, but it was defeated because the majority felt that the abolition of slavery would leave the planters without a labour force. However measures to ease the condition of slaves were adopted. The new legislation ordered that female slaves should not be whipped as punishment and drivers should not carry whips in the field.
Through a deliberate attempt by the Governor John Murray, the slaves were not informed of these developments, but eventually bits of skewed information leaked out and the slaves obtained the impression that they had been granted freedom which the plantation owners were deliberately refusing to allow. As you know, this situation resulted in the East Coast Demerara rebellion of 1823.
The uprising collapsed very quickly since the slaves, despite being armed, were poorly organised. A group of soldiers clashed with about 2000 African slaves at Bachelor's Adventure and savagely crushed them and more than 250 were killed. Some who escaped were hunted down by Amerindian slave-catchers and shot. Quamina, regarded as the organizer and main leader of the rebellion, was shot dead by Amerindian slave-catchers in the backlands of Chateau Margot and his body was later publicly hanged. Another leader, Jack Gladstone, was later arrested and also hanged.
Reverend John Smith, an English missionary to whose church the leaders of the uprising belonged, was arrested and charged for having knowledge that the slaves would rebel and not informing the authorities. His arrest which was encouraged by many of the planters was seen as an act of revenge for his preaching to the slaves. He was sentenced to death, but while awaiting the results of his appeal to the British Government, he died from pneumonia in his prison. The information that he was acquitted arrived in Georgetown after his funeral.
Rev. Smith's death was regarded by the slaves as a sacrifice which was made on their behalf, and soon after, they began referring to him as the "Demerara Martyr".
On the 28 August 1833, the House of Commons in England finally approved the Emancipation Bill which was earlier introduced by Thomas Buxton. The final Act, which would come into effect on 1 August 1834, stipulated among other things, that despite the granting of freedom, all slaves over the age of six years would have to serve an apprenticeship of six years in the case of field slaves, and four years in the case of others. They should work for not more than 45 hours per week without pay, and any additional hours for pay. The Act also gave compensation in the form of a free gift of 20 million English pounds to the slave owners for the loss of their slaves.
The slaves who gave their sweat and blood to produce profits for the sugar planters received not a single cent in compensation for their sufferings
There are some historians who say that the planter class welcomed the emancipation of the slaves because sugar production was not economical and that it was very expensive to upkeep the slaves. I disagree with this thesis as it relates to Guyana because, as we would see, sugar production continued and the planters were willing to employ the freed Africans and even to import labour from as far as India, Europe, Africa, and China and also the West Indies and the United States of America.
The Emancipation Act successfully ended one phase of a long and bitter struggle against a system which transformed people into beasts of labour with absolutely no human rights. But as one phase of Guyana's colonial society came to an end, an equally difficult period began. The slaves were told of their forthcoming freedom and waited with eager joy to throw off their cruel chains and, in some cases, even more cruel masters.
In 1833, Governor James Carmichael Smyth did not make the same mistakes as Governor John Murray ten years earlier. He informed the slaves of the freedom date fixed by Britain even before that Act was published in the colony on October 19, 1833. But he did not explain clearly to the slaves the implications of the apprenticeship system which was to succeed slavery.
If the Governor had gained the confidence of the slaves, the planters were still held in deep suspicion as willing and capable of frustrating the Emancipation Act.
The long-awaited day finally arrived. Friday August 1, 1834 was a public holiday. No one worked. Many attended religious services. The merriment went deep into the night. Freedom was finally won!
Imagine then, the shock, bewilderment and anger of many of these free men and women when they were ordered, in the same old way, to the fields and other workplaces on Saturday morning. They could not understand how they could have gained their freedom and still be forced to work in their detested old jobs.
This was, of course, part of the Emancipation Act - an Apprenticeship period of six years - where the freed slaves were compelled by law to serve their old masters just as they had done when they were slaves. The masters were required to provide moral and religious education for the ex-slaves, but their hostility to the Emancipation Act as a whole really meant that they would treat this six year period as an extension of slavery.
There was disorder on the East Coast of Demerara and grumbling throughout the colony in this first week of August. The Governor appeared personally in various places to address workers and explain the obligations which now fell upon them.
Confusion and disorder also reigned on the West Coast Demerara and on August 8, four women were sentenced to the treadmill for riotous behaviour and refusal to work. Five men also were sentenced to two days each on the treadmill, and thirty-nine strokes with the cat-o-nine-tails.
The Governor visited West Coast Demerara and helped to bring some amount of order and understanding to the workers.
On the Essequibo coast workers protested the apprenticeship scheme and there were sporadic stoppages of work throughout the week starting Sunday, August 3. On that Sunday, the plantation owners joined together to kill sixty-five pigs belonging to the workers of Plantation Richmond. The reason was to cut off any alternative livelihood for their workers so that they would remain bound to estate labour. Planters in Essequibo and other parts of British Guiana reasoned with such weakness that they even destroyed the fruit trees of their front lands which they felt would provide free meals for the ex-slaves and hence encourage them not to work on the plantations.
On Saturday, August 9, matters reached a boiling point on the Essequibo Coast. About seven hundred workers (ex-slaves) on the plantations between Richmond and Devonshire Castle went on strike and gathered in the Trinity Churchyard at La Belle Alliance.
The plantation owners called for troops, and about forty armed soldiers arrived and took up their positions around the churchyard. In the meantime Damon, who by now was one of the leaders of the workers, ran up a flag on a pole as a sign of their freedom and independence from their masters.
Governor Smyth arrived on Monday August 11th. He addressed the workers the next day at Plantation Richmond. He explained the Apprenticeship period which was in force, arrested the leaders of the demonstration, and ordered the rest back to work. Damon, by this time, was being referred to as the "Captain" and hence leader of the unrest.
He and a number of others were taken to Georgetown, tried immediately and found guilty of rebellion. Four of them were sentenced to terms of imprisonment and severe floggings while two were sentenced to transportation (to New South Wales). Damon himself was sentenced to be hanged. None of these men had threatened a single planter or his property, none had shed a drop of blood. They had simply gone on strike for a few days and assembled under their own flag.
Chief Justice Wray insisted on the death penalty for Damon. He ruled that the hoisting of a flag, even though by unarmed persons, was an act of rebellion, and though all were alike guilty, under the Roman-Dutch law, some might be punished more and some less.
At noon, on Monday October 13, 1834, the very day after the trial, Damon paid the supreme penalty on a scaffold specially erected in front of the recently constructed Public Buildings in Georgetown. Significantly, the very first important public function outside this national edifice was the public execution of a freedom fighter and national hero.
The Africans' strike movement was thus brutally suppressed and they were forced back to work, but they did so reluctantly. From time to time short strikes occurred, and there were acts of sabotage, as during the slavery period, on plantation property.
Harsh punishment, including flogging and imprisonment, was inflicted on disobedient workers. Some were also sentenced to cruel punishment on the treadmill. Even the British Government became concerned that the Africans were being unfairly treated and, as a result, it appointed "stipendiary" or special magistrates to listen to complaints from both Africans and planters. In general, however, these magistrates took the side of the planters and did little to halt the unfair treatment. In many cases, planters were appointed as temporary magistrates by the Governor until the arrival of the appointees from England.
It was generally felt by the ex-slaves that the special magistrates were biased in favour of the planters. This happened because in some cases, punishments imposed by the planters were supported by the magistrates. Usually when an apprentice broke the law, such as refusing to work, the case was passed on to the regular magistrate who generally imposed very harsh punishment such as whipping and imprisonment. But many of the special magistrates were not popular with the planters since they frequently upheld the appeals of the apprentices. There were, however, a number of fair special magistrates, but they were in the minority.
The planters themselves devised their own methods to control the "apprentices". Those who refused to do overtime work had their rations reduced and were refused their handouts of rum, sugar and salt-fish. The planter could also decide if a worker's output was not satisfactory, thus forcing him to do extra duties when he could be working for wages. It was a usual practice for a planter to put an apprentice in the lock-up on a trumped-up charge to await the arrival of the magistrate on the plantation. However, the charges would be dropped just before the magistrate's arrival, but the apprentice would still have to work the extra time equivalent to the period he was jailed. On some plantations where the ex-slaves had provision grounds, the planters made it difficult to earn money from them. Some planters ordered that fruit trees should be cut down, while others prevented the ex-slaves from keeping livestock.
The planters, because of their control of the Court of Policy, were able to influence the passage of laws to control the ex-slaves. It became illegal for apprentices to leave the plantation even during their free time unless they had written permission from the owner or the overseer. A special regulation fixed high fees for licences which those who had special skills had to purchase in order to practise their trade. This affected the ex-slaves who were craftsmen - such as carpenters, coopers, masons and blacksmiths - and even those who had small retail shops and fishing boats. Even those who did door-to-door selling of their farm produce were pressured with high trading licence fees.
Based on the monthly reports the special magistrates sent to the Colonial Office, it was clear that the "apprentices" continued to endure harsh punishments as they did under slavery. In 1837, a British Parliamentary Committee recommended that certain punishments such as the flogging of women should be halted.
By 1838, the British Government felt that further problems might arise if one group of "apprentices" (those who were formerly field slaves) would continue to provide free labour on the plantations for a further two years after the former house-slave group were finally set free in 1838. It therefore proclaimed the freedom of all "apprentices" on the 1 August 1838. Now all ex-slaves were legally free.
How did the economy fare after the apprenticeship period ended?
Despite the fact that the apprenticeship system forced the ex-slaves to continue to provide a great proportion of free labour on the plantations, the amount of available labour (free or paid) was not sufficient to maintain a steady level of production. The situation became even more acute after 1838 when apprenticeship ended.
In 1829 throughout Guyana there were about 230 sugar and 174 coffee and cotton plantations, almost all of which were fully cultivated. By 1849 there were 180 sugar and 16 small coffee plantations.
In the area between the Abary and Mahaicony Rivers the large cotton plantations which had existed were abandoned and overrun with bush. This situation was now existing in the district between the Mahaicony and Mahaica Rivers and even on the previously more flourishing area on the west bank of the Mahaica. There was almost total neglect of roads, bridges and canals. The freed Africans who lived in those districts established small squatting villages on some of these abandoned plantations. Through their own savings some of them managed to collectively purchase some of these lands from the European owners, especially after the end of the apprenticeship period. In the backlands, they cultivated small farms to produce fruits, ground provisions, plantains and vegetables. They also kept a few cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry.
On the East Coast Demerara, the labour shortage was more strongly felt after 1838, when the Africans withdrew their labour and opted to move to the villages which they established outside the limits of the existing plantations. The three best estates in the entire British Guiana at that time - La Penitance, Ruimveldt and Houston - suffered badly from decreased production through intermittent labour shortage.
The West Demerara area did not fare better. On the West Bank Demerara, the abandoned coffee lands became occupied by African squatter settlements.
The situation was even worse in Essequibo. Leguan which had 23 sugar and 3 coffee plantations before 1834 had only 8 producing plantations in the 1840s. With regards to the situation in Berbice, it was no different. After 1838, of the rural population of 18,000 over 12,000 were living on small freeholds and bush and squatter settlements. By the 1840s, almost all the cotton plantations were abandoned. The West Coast Berbice district which was one of the greatest cotton producing areas in the whole of Guyana became a desolate area with the complete abandonment of the plantations. As with the eastern part of Berbice, only a few sugar estates continued to show some form of progress.
It is also important to remember that the cotton industry in Guyana flourished up to end of slavery. After that period, production costs rose and the cotton mills in England found that it was cheaper to purchase American cotton which was being produced with slave labour. As you are aware, the United States did not abolish slavery until the early 1860s.
It was just around the period when the Emancipation Act was about to be implemented that the first indentured Portuguese immigrants from Madeira arrived in 1834. And it was in May 1838 just before the apprenticeship period ended that the first indentured Indian immigrants landed in Guyana. The Africans were concerned that the influx of indentured labour would take away their bargaining power to demand better wages to continue working on the plantations. Some writers have stated that this concern was directed at the Indians, but the fact is that the freed Africans expressed their annoyance also against the Portuguese and even African labour recruited from West Africa, the West Indies and the USA.
It is also worthy of note that there was a bond of solidarity between Africans and Indians on some of the estates. When the Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 sent a team to investigate the harsh working conditions of the first Indian immigrants, most of those who gave evidence in support of the Indians' cause at a subsequent commission of inquiry were African workers.
As a matter of interest, I must state that before 1838, all the drainage and irrigation canals, and sea defence dams were dug by the African slaves using shovels as their tools. After this period, paid African labour and Indian indentured workers carried out the excavation works. For every square mile of land which was used for sugar-cane cultivation, about 49 miles of drainage and 16 miles of irrigation trenches were dug. In the process of digging canals and trenches on the sugar plantations, over 100 million tons of earth were excavated.
I have taken you for a stroll along the path of our history. It is a rich history of the struggles of one group of our people - a history which is intertwined with, and overlaps on, the history of other groups in the Guyanese society. There is an existing interrelationship in the history of all the ethnic groups in our country, and if we study our history we will find more commonalities than differences. By understanding these, all of us, despite our ethnic differences, will be better able to work in coooperation and achieve successes together. I appeal to all Guyanese to study and help in their own way to research our country's history.
I close by again mentioning the existing argument as to when was the first Emancipation Day. Was it August 1, 1834 or August 1, 1838? What do you think?