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St Vincent and the Emancipation Story – Part 2

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When the Act for the abolition of the slave trade was passed and put into effect, sugar had still not been fully established in St Vincent.

As I indicated in last week’s article, the sugar industry did not reach its peak until 1828, the year when the country achieved its largest sugar export.{{more}}

Following the removal of the Caribs in 1797, it took some time to dispose of the Carib lands, particularly with the continuous disputes about the 6,000 acre land grant that was made to Colonel Thomas Browne.

An Act of 1804 declared that the Caribs had forfeited all claims to lands which they had previously occupied and an Act of Pardon in 1805 was provided for those Caribs who remained in St Vincent.

It took some time for them to carve out a number of estates from the Carib lands. The Byrea tunnel, which was to improve communication between the Carib country estates and the rest of the country, was not completed until 1813 and around that time, a part of the Grand Sable estate was provided for the establishment of the town of Georgetown. The Slave Registry, facilitated by an Act of 1817, indicated that by then the Carib country estates had been put in place and were producing sugar. These lands which had been the main reason for the struggle against the Caribs, had long been considered ideal for the production of sugar.

The Grand Sable estate, which by 1817 had 587 slaves, was one of the largest estates in St Vincent.

This meant that when the country got fully into the cultivation of sugar, it had to do so under the conditions created by the act for the abolition of slavery. The realisation that there was inter-island trafficking in slaves and that slaves from foreign vessels still involved in the trade were arriving in the colonies, led to the production of a Slave Registration bill that was strongly resisted in St Vincent. For the period 1815 – 1830, after the abolition of the slave trade, the number of slaves reaching the Americas was greater than the numbers in the last decades of the 18th century.

Although there was no direct British participation, British manufacturers sold goods to the slave traders and British merchants purchased slave grown produce. At a meeting of the Legislative Council on October 12, 1815, a Committee which had been formed to examine the Slave Registry bill, warned against “unwarranted interference” by the Imperial Parliament in the internal affairs of the colonies. The Committee urged that it be opposed “by every legal or constitutional means” since it infringed the original rights under which British settlers were encouraged to settle. It was a threat to the Assemblies which, if allowed, would find them dwindling “into absolute insignificance”. They made a call for the establishment of communications with legislatures in the other colonies to strengthen their protest. The Registration of Slaves Act eventually came into existence.

One of the assumptions which prevailed among many abolitionists, at the time of the passage of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, was that abolition of the trade would lead to the establishment of better working and living conditions for the slaves. When it became obvious that the abolition of the slave trade had not impacted significantly on the treatment of the slaves, attention became focused on measures for the amelioration of the slaves and recommendations about improving the conditions under which the slaves lived and worked were sent to the colonies. West Indian planters and merchants in Britain, realising that failure to implement ameliorative measures could lead to the call for full emancipation of the slaves, accepted the amelioration call and urged their fellow planters in the Caribbean to fall in line. They feared too, that any debate in England, with calls for full emancipation, would reach the ears of the slaves and create problems for them. The planters in the colonies argued that their slaves were their property. A new Slave Act that was passed in 1825 did not satisfy the British authorities until 1830, following a number of amendments.

In St Vincent, as in other colonies, there was uproar among the planters who saw what was transpiring as a move toward emancipation. The Assembly stated that the recommendations governing the amelioration of slaves “created alarm, astonishment and indignation.” They insisted that the measures suggested to them would deprive them of “that wholesome and salutary control” over their slaves. They were certainly not prepared to participate in measures that would cause their own ruin. Some of the clauses in the Bill for the amelioration of slaves, they argued, were already being implemented under their new Slave Act. Circumstances, however, forced them to make some moves in the direction that they were urged to go.

The Slave Laws defined the slaves as property, but they were human beings and the planters always had to contend with this fact. When the news of the 1816 revolt in Barbados reached St Vincent, the militia was called out and put on a 24-hour alert and martial law was declared. Events in Haiti with the revolt spearheaded by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had already indicated to the slaves what was possible. Mrs Carmichael, the wife of a Scottish planter, who arrived in St Vincent in 1820 and spent a few years, indicated that the slaves were of the view “that there is to be no massas at all and Massa King George is to buy up all the estate land and give them to live on.” Trouble was to come in 1833 on the eve of emancipation.

(To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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