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St Vincent and the Emancipation Story (Part 4)

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I ended last week’s article by asking about the reaction in St Vincent to the Abolition Act which had received Royal Assent in August 1833. It is necessary to note, first of all, that it was not until May 28, 1834 that Governor Lionel Smith was able to send to the Secretary of State the St Vincent’s Act for the Abolition of Slavery.{{more}} The period between August 1833 and May 1834 was one in which every effort was made by the local Assembly to frustrate the wishes of the British Government, despite their initial carefully crafted response to the intentions of the British Government. They said that they were devoted to furthering the interests of the British Government “as far as can be practically adopted with beneficial results” and with attention to the interests of the colony.

Their initial response to the call by the Barbados Legislature to the legislatures in other colonies to join them in a protest to be sent to the British parliament was to reject it on the grounds that it was too late. On October 15, 1833, a letter was sent to the Executive Council to appoint members to join a Committee they had set up to ‘remonstrate and protest’ against the Abolition Act. Although the Council felt that it was “too conclusive in the first instance”, they appointed two members.

The Protest, as prepared by the Committee, was laid before the Council on October 17, 1833. It referred to the “hasty, ill-advised and crude measures” that were sent to them and left them deeply concerned and disappointed. They drew attention to what they considered the value of the colonial possessions and the quantity of exports received from them, which supported a large body of merchants, manufacturers and tradesmen, along with thousands of seamen in the home country. They regretted that they would have to bow to what they considered the ‘authoritative mandate’. They were, nonetheless, protesting against measures designed to take away their authority and the granting to a third person the right to intervene between master and servant. They reserved the right to claim ‘full compensation’ for the losses they expected to sustain.

Governor Lionel Smith’s immediate response, sent to the Lieutenant Governor Sir George Tyler, was that they appeared not to have taken into account that their reaction and the demands made were likely to impede the distribution of the compensation, which was going to be so important to the cultivation of their estates. The Committee appointed to frame the Abolition Bill proposed certain alterations and, at first, wanted to ascertain the opinion of the British Government before proceeding. The bill from the Assembly was read for the first time at a meeting on February 6, 1834 and a second time on the following day. Several alterations had been made to the original bill sent from England and it had to be sent back to the Assembly, noting in particular the omission of one of the clauses and asking them to reconsider the omission and the possible consequences for the colony. At a meeting on March 6, they reconsidered the bill and restored the clause that had been deleted.

The debate continued and it was not until May 28, 1834, a mere two months before the Act was to come into operation that Governor Smith was finally able to send to the Secretary of State, the Act from St Vincent, entitled “An Act for the Abolition of Slavery in the Island of St.Vincent and its dependencies in consideration of compensation and for promoting the industry and good conduct of the manumitted slave” The Act was to come into operation on August 1, 1834, a Friday. This, however, cannot be regarded as Emancipation Day. August 1, 1838, a Wednesday, can more correctly be given that label, since that was the time when the constraints of the Apprenticeship System were removed. Even then, it was freedom really only in a legalistic sense, because every effort was made by the planters to keep the conditions as close as was practicable to what existed under slavery. Under the conditions existing then their control of land was a powerful weapon in their hands, but the slaves were now free and the dynamics of interplay between planters and the freed persons was what was set in motion, particularly for the rest of the 19th century.

On August 1, 1834, the total ex-slave population was 22,250; 18,102 became apprentices; 2,959 children under the age of six were freed immediately; 1,189 persons were aged or otherwise incapacitated; 14,797 persons were attached to estates; 512 persons were unattached and 2,793 were domestic slaves. The planters received compensation to the tune of £1,601,307, since the law of the land having classified the slaves as property, the Imperial Parliament found it necessary to compensate the planters for depriving them of their property.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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