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Remembering that Momentous Day

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Yesterday, August 1, would have marked 181 years since our foreparents emerged from some of the darkest days in human history. It had been a long and painful struggle. What were they to expect? In March 1807 the Act to abolish the Slave Trade was passed by the British parliament  and came into effect on January 1, 1808. Slavery continued however and with it the struggle. An Act for Emancipation was passed in August 1833 and took effect on August 1, 1834 but it was not what they had waited and struggled for. It was emancipation in name only because they were subjected to a period of Apprenticeship, which came to an end on August 1, 1838.

The real emancipation? How did they react on that memorable day? Stipendiary Magistrate John Colthurst gave us an account, as seen obviously from his perspective, of what the situation was like in Barrouallie where he spent the entire day, having been in charge of that district. The fear of “any ebullition of popular feeling” as anticipated by the planting class never materialised. Instead there was “uniform good conduct”. He attended service at the Protestant church which he described as being “crowded to excess with now, thank Heaven, a free people…” Reverend Braithwaite’s sermon, he considered to the point, comparing slavery to the captivity of the Jews by the Egyptians. The Minister spoke to his congregation of freed people about their duties to God, Queen, and country. Preparing perhaps their minds for acceptance of colonialism minus slavery!

R M Anderson in his Saint Vincent Handbook gives us another account. The Clergy had been ordered by the Lieutenant Governor to keep their churches and chapels open for general thanksgiving by the masses of freed people. “The sight was beautiful, all respectably and even gaily dressed”. Ebenezer Duncan tells us that the day “was ushered in with loud praises to Almighty God”.  Services were held at the Anglican and Methodist churches, with the Methodist Church “being overcrowded with the black folk who began to assemble in the evening of the 31st July, some time before midnight”. 

There the “congregation of newly freed people leaped to their feet and sang with joy and thankfulness Charles Wesley’s Hymn” “Blow ye the trumpet, blow”.

The Methodist Church had been working with the slaves, a Minister of that church had sometime earlier been imprisoned for preaching without a licence. John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism had been a strong supporter of the Abolition Movement. In 1791 after an address to the House of Commons by William Wilberforce, he wrote to him encouraging him with his “glorious enterprise, in opposing that execrable villany which is the scandal of religion, of England and of human nature”.

Colthurst had remarked that in Barrouallie and its neighbourhood “there was not a single revel or absolute merry-making.” If this was so it should not be surprising for the freed people were looking ahead to see how meaningful the occasion was likely to be. The day had scarcely passed before the freed people began to object to the wages offered them, introducing a period of unrest. The planters feared that the freed people would have deserted the estates, so they decided not to sell lands to the newly emancipated. In fact, land was to be sold in large acreage rather than small lots. There was at least one occasion mentioned by R M Anderson when a group of blacks got together and bought an estate which they later subdivided.

With the end of slavery, the planters were handsomely compensated for losing their property, as the slaves were classified. The slaves got nothing for their labour over the years. What better case can be made for reparations! 

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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