It was 183 years ago
Sunday, August 1 would be 183 years since our enslaved foreparents were finally ‘freed’. The Emancipation Act, of 1 August 1834, had freed 2, 959 children under 6 years and 1,190 aged and incapacitated persons. 18, 102 of the enslaved became apprentices and had to undergo an Apprenticeship period during which time they were to provide work on the estates for a part of the week. The system which for some apprentices was to last until 1840 was finally terminated on Wednesday, 1 August 1838. It was supposed to be a period designed to prepare apprentices and planters/white society for full freedom but was rather, to a large extent, an effort to provide the estates with labour for an additional 6 years, since there was fear that with full emancipation there would have been large scale desertion of the estates.
The enslaved were regarded as chattel slaves and linked with the land, buildings, animals, and machinery. Their humanity was denied! With the termination of slavery, the planters were compensated to the extent of €1, 601, 307 for the loss of their property, that is their slaves. The traditional reason given for emancipation was attributed to the work of the anti-slavery movement in its campaign around the United Kingdom that resulted in the passage of the emancipation Act in 1833. Eric Williams, late Prime Minister of Trinidad had for his PhD thesis, offered an alternative view, that first appeared in 1944, in his book, Capitalism and Slavery. He gave credit to the work of the anti-slavery movement since the bill to end slavery had to be passed through the British parliament but gave a more comprehensive interpretation. Slavery and the Slave Trade helped to develop the British Industrial Revolution and to expand capitalism which in turn had no interest in slavery and helped to bring an end to that system that had lasted in the British Caribbean territories for over 200 years, although for a shorter time in St. Vincent. He also recognised the role the slaves had in their own emancipation. This was a blow to euro-centric thought and attacks were launched on his thesis which though subjected to many debates has remained central to any discussion of emancipation. A new edition of his work is now in print with a new foreword and an introduction that analyses the many debates since the book was first produced.
Our Vincentian people have paid little attention to slavery and wished that any talk about it would disappear, so embarrassed were they by the fact that their ancestors were enslaved. Moreover, to the extent that it was taught in school, it was done so badly. The result of all of this is that we have not been able to understand the positives that came out of the slave experience. For one, their ancestors withstood the brutality and rigours of slavery with their humanity intact. They built the economy to the extent that particularly between 1805 and 1829 St. Vincent was the second largest exporter of sugar after Jamaica. The planters boasted during the emancipation debates of their contribution to the revenue of Britain and about the tons of shipping to which they contributed and their trade facilitating the development of a nursery of seamen. Despite the contribution made by the enslaved, it was the planters who were compensated, the argument being that emancipation deprived them of their property.
The argument for Reparations built on the St. Vincent case is solid, for it also involves the decimation of the indigenous population and sending into exile most of the indigenous people and the occupation of their lands. Many of us fail to give our support to the Reparation movement because we have a misunderstanding of what it is about and tend to see it in very simplistic terms as an effort to get money into the hands of those who hold power in our land. When we became an independent country, little was given to us compared to our contribution to the British economy. When the majority of our indigenous people were sent into exile and after the end of slavery, colonialism continued until 1979, 216 years after the British took control of our land.
Let us on Sunday reflect on the journey we have been through. There are many lessons to be learnt as we plot our way forward. Emancipation has been an important milestone in our journey as a people!
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian