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Emancipation and revolutionary change

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“Blacks hoped that emancipation would provide the opportunity for them to take full control of their own lives, to lay a completely new base for the society. They hoped to realize the revolutionary potential of the legislation to abolish slavery”. (Marshall W. ‘We be Wise to many more tings’ in Social and Economic Studies, UWI, Vol 17.)

Let us look at what the freed Africans did after emancipation. One generation after freedom in St Vincent, in 1861, the new workers built new villages away from the plantations, where they settled their families. By 1861, 12,833 workers were living off the estates in these settlements. If we estimate that five or six persons lived in a house, then our near 13,000 fore-parents in that generation constructed between 2,100 and 2,500 houses/dwellings in those 23 years, or 500 to 600 houses a year! What a revolution! But this was not just a housing revolution, it was much more.{{more}} Writing about Guyana, Walter Rodney explained: “A village was freedom. Living off the plantation was a qualitative aspect of freedom…in the villages they began to exercise… some political power. The villages were self-governing units… They exercised this political power for about 25 years after freedom in 1838. Then the colonial power awoke to the realization that a whole alternative power centre now existed….” (Walter Rodney, 1978, The birth of the Guyanese working class.. at Fernand Braudel Centre).

Village life also sharpened the relations between estate owners and workers in many ways. Villagers had more expenses in order to maintain their new communities, keeping their freed wives and children at a new standard of living. They, therefore, bargained harder with the estates for a higher ‘living wage’. A more defined struggle was developing between the two classes. The outcry of estate owners that willing workers were scarce, was a reaction to the extremely low wages offered for such employment. ‘Nevertheless’ Joseph Spinelli observed, ‘most ex slaves continued to work intermittently in estate agriculture, seeking the greatest remuneration for their efforts.’ A revolutionary vision of a new society was guiding the struggles of the free labour force in those early years after emancipation.

EMANCIPATING AGRICULTURE

A revolution not only depends on instituting a new power arrangement, it also deepens the productive forces and capacities of the community. Did this happen after emancipation? Sugar cane estate agriculture was not in good hands or good health, yet, although some lands were idle, the freed slaves had great difficulty getting estate land to cultivate. They did not surrender to the obstacles though. They saved money by pinching their expenses, saving in ‘sou-sou’ and cooperative like projects, and increasing their earnings and productivity through forming jobbing gangs on the estates, and doing swap-labour on their farms and in village projects. These tactics helped them to earn enough to reach the exorbitant prices that estates often charged for land. They knew the value of land as a means of production and power. By 1861, in 23 years, between Tobago, Grenada, St Vincent and St Lucia there were 10,000 new persons with land of their own, many of them freed slaves with small to modest farms. We could reasonably say that there was a worker/farmer/peasant population of say 1,500 persons in St Vincent, one generation after emancipation. From being 20,000 estate slaves in 1838, to becoming 13,000 living in their own their homes and 1,500 owning their own farms 23 years later meant that something revolutionary was on the horizon. A human and social liberation struggle was unfolding in the first generation after 1838.

After emancipation, the estates kept going with sugar as their crop of choice. The growing population of peasant farmers led the way in introducing new commercial crops and re-emphasizing older crops. Arrowroot, cocoa, cotton, coconuts and spices became added to the menu of root crops and small livestock. Without their own sugar mills, these cultivations were more suited to the new peasants. From an output of 3,200 pounds arrowroot in 1833, the production reached 37,000 pounds in 1838. The years 1843 to 1851 saw a yearly production of 315,000 pounds arrowroot, valued at 35,000 British pounds. In the late years of the 19th century, the estates jumped on the arrowroot band wagon which the labourers/peasants had launched. At the same time, the counter-revolutionary policies of the local assemblies and also of the British state and sectors of civil society encircled and crushed the revolutionary thrust of our fore-parents. The social revolution of the first generation of freed African working people and the increased productivity of their agriculture withered away under the colonial backlash, and the invisible hand of their education onslaught smothered the fires of visionary change.

The emancipation revolution baton has therefore been passed from generation to generation. It is our generation now that has the challenge to take the baton to the finish line. We must recapture the vision.

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