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St Vincent and the Emancipation Story (Part 3)

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In my article last week, I made reference to the hostility generated in the colonies by the efforts to get the legislatures to pass a Registry Bill (guarding against internal trafficking in slaves) and the Amelioration Bill to improve the conditions of the slaves. In the debate in Parliament in May 1833, the Colonial Office, through Secretary Stanley, noted that their hope that the amelioration measures would have stimulated some action from them was fruitless.{{more}} “That warning”, said Stanley, “has gone forth and for years and years been, I am sorry to say, unheeded and disregarded by all the colonial legislatures … I therefore now call on the House to take the matterat once in its own hands.”

Reference was also made last week to the reaction in St Vincent when martial law was declared and the militia put on standby, in response to the 1816 rebellion in Barbados. A siege mentality had, in fact, developed in the colonies. The Reverend William Shrewsbury, Methodist minister in Barbados, had to flee to St Vincent because of prosecution in Barbados. Ironically too, Reverend Lumb was put in prison in St Vincent for preaching the Gospel, the authorities indicating that he had defied the laws governing the preaching of the Gospel. What should be noted about the attempts to prosecute the missionaries is that they drew a different response from what had been anticipated. It was one thing to attack and imprison slaves and even free people of colour, but once they began to touch their own kith and kin, then they could be sure to lose the sympathies of the white population in Britain, which is where it really mattered, since it was in Britain that the necessary legislation had to be passed.

1833 was a difficult year for the colonies and particularly for those who were set on defying efforts to free the slaves. The colony was facing economic woes, forcing the British Government to have to pay the salary of the Lieutenant Governor. More dangerously for the slave establishment was the growing agitation among the slaves. The Governor had to visit the colony in a warship in a bid to try and calm the situation. He noted that this colony was strong “… in fastness and security for slaves in rebellion when they can invade cultivated parts and long maintain themselves.” (He was obviously guided by their struggles against the Caribs.) The 69th regiment had to be left in St Vincent to try and maintain order.

By May 1833, disturbances had started on estates in the Carib country. The slaves were not turning out to work on time. The manager of the Orange Hill estate declared that working gangs were not turning out before 6:45 a.m. and were coming in one gang. The slaves who were obviously aware of the differences that had arisen between the Executive and the planters, made it clear to their managers and masters that if any punishment was forthcoming they were prepared to take their case to the Governor.

A Committee of Estate Owners that was set up to investigate the situation came to the following conclusions: The disturbances, they suggested, arose from the belief among the slaves that emancipation was soon to come. Although the report of the Committee did not say this, there was a belief among the slaves that the only reason emancipation had not already come was because of the efforts of the planters to block it. The Committee had reason to believe that the slaves had been meeting at night to discuss the situation. This was a particularly sensitive issue, which the 1825 Slave Act’s prohibition of meetings by slaves after 10 p.m. was meant to control. One of four slaves to be punished stated “that what had been done to him he would soon do to them.” The slaves were going to the estate sick house in large numbers of 30-50 each morning, with no obvious signs of sickness. The Lieutenant Governor was very concerned and was even prepared to employ Caribs to work with the militia to try to control the situation.

One Mr Bernal, during the discussion in Parliament, had expressed some concern about the plan put forward to accomplish emancipation. He feared restlessness among the slave population of the colonies and made reference to St Vincent, noting that letters from the colony had indicated a degree of restlessness already being displayed there, based on what was happening in England. He was not prepared to leave it at that, but allowed his wild imagination to run away with him, and so went on to suggest that the slaves in St Vincent had “already began to speculate on having white wives and keeping their pigs and horses.”

The Emancipation Act was finally passed in August 1833. What was the reaction in St Vincent? (To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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