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St Vincent and the Emancipation Story (Part 1)

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The story about Emancipation and how it played itself out in St Vincent is part of a much broader story. In this series of articles I am going to focus on St Vincent and avoid some of the details of the broader picture, on the assumption that much of this is known. It is difficult to know when to start this story, for emancipation is part of a long process that began almost from the beginning of the slave trade.{{more}}

The African slaves who joined the Caribs and gave birth to the Black Caribs/Garifuna were fighting against slavery as much as they were fighting to expel the British intruders. We have to remember, too, that a number of escaped slaves had joined the ranks of the Caribs and became part of the Garifuna formation. Traditionally, the story, as told by the British historians, was about the efforts of Wilberforce, Clarkson and others. In fact, in 2007, when the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Abolition Act was celebrated, the movie “Amazing Grace” was produced, highlighting the efforts of Wilberforce. In recent times, and particularly since Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, historians have begun to pay a lot of attention to the role of the slaves in bringing about their own Emancipation. The Jamaican activist and historian Richard Hart has produced two volumes about “The Slaves Who Abolished Slavery”

In trying to understand emancipation from a St Vincent perspective, we have always to bear in mind that the period of slavery here was a relatively short one, because of the presence of the Caribs, who disrupted the designs of the British to establish the sugar industry. This country therefore went into sugar at a late stage. There were slaves before, brought in mainly by the French, who operated on small farms. The growth of the Atlantic Slave Trade was largely to provide workers for the sugar estates and the numbers to St Vincent increased. The first export of sugar from St Vincent was in 1766, when only 35 tons were exported. Five years later it had reached 2,218 tons and got to its peak in 1828, when the largest quantity of sugar ever exported, 14,403 tons was realised.

The struggles with the Caribs who occupied lands that the British considered ideal for sugar production, held everything in limbo. Even after the expulsion of the majority of Caribs it took some time before slavery and the sugar industry went into full gear. There were still guerrilla acts against the British, resulting in the murder of Samuel/Joseph Clapham, a part owner of the Mt.William Estate, whose mangled body drove horrors into the hearts of the British planters. The records also show the death of a private of the 4th West India regiment, who was murdered in the Carib country. The colonial establishment’s response involved the creation of a Negro Corps, to be specifically employed in that area. This introduced lively discussions about granting them their freedom, for fear that they would join those whom they had been sent to fight.

But there were other subversive acts. In Mayreau, a French planter, St Hilaire, was murdered by his field slaves and Charles Warner of the Friendship estate in Bequia suffered a similar fate from two of his slaves. A large portion of the windward part of the country was abandoned for a few days by the whites and their faithful slaves because of fear of attacks. In the early part of the 19th century there were rumours of ‘intended’ disturbances in Bequia. This was dismissed by the Council, but the rumours became more credible when reports were substantiated by a slave named Tabette. In appreciation of what she had done, arrangements were made for her manumission. Eventually in 1808 an Act was passed and submitted to Britain to deal with the “consequences of the disorderly behaviour” of slaves in Bequia.

But there were other troubles for those engaged in establishing the sugar industry. The American war of Independence affected cheap supplies to the estates and added to the economic woes that were beginning to be felt by the colonies. Nature also took its toll: a hurricane in 1780, followed by a volcanic eruption in 1812, and other hurricanes in 1819 and 1830. The extent of the problem can be seen by the fact that loans provided after the hurricanes were not paid up to thirty years later. Slaves coming to St Vincent were from the Windward and Gold Coast of Africa. Advertisements for the sale of slaves made reference to Eboe and Malay slaves. Slavery existed for a short period in St Vincent and came about at a time when critics were beginning to advertise the abuses of the system. But slavery was slavery, despite the efforts of Mrs Carmaichael (the wife of a Scottish planter) to paint a picture of a system devoid of its abuses. It might be argued that the extremes that existed in the older established sugar colonies never occurred in St Vincent, but slavery there was and wherever slavery existed there were abuses. (to be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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