GUYANESE will today observe 176 years since the emancipation of slavery. This is indeed a good time to reflect on the path we have travelled as a nation, in particular the difficult days of slavery and indentureship, when our foreparents were subjected to the greatest cruelty imaginable and indignity ever inflicted on Man by their fellow men.
The genesis of that inhuman treatment meted out to our foreparents was greed and the lust for money, which, in the opinion of the masters, could best be obtained through free labour, and later on, when slavery was abolished, by indentured labourers who, for all practical purposes, were subjected to the same indignity as that of the slaves. Instead of physical chains, the indentured labourers were subjected to paper chains, which effectively denied them their basic human right to liberty and freedom.
It is important to understand the early origins of the slave trade was first started by the Portuguese in 1542, but which rapidly spread to other parts of Europe and North America. It soon dawned upon the owners of the plantations that African slaves at that time were the solution to their labour shortages, which, in the case of sugar cultivation, was highly labour intensive.
It was not long afterwards that the importation of forced labour began on a large scale, which, in a way, established a pattern of social formation which persisted until the 1960s in the case of Guyana, the pattern of a White oligarchy, possessing immense political and economic power, ruling over a population brought from other continents against their will.
It is not known definitively when slaves first arrived in British Guiana. The Dutch West India Company, in keeping with the prevalent mercantilist doctrines, was given the monopoly to bring slaves. They sent a ship to Africa in 1657, but there is no record that slaves were brought to the colony. The first recorded slaves arrived in 1672, when two groups were brought to Essequibo by the Dutch West India Company.
Ill-treatment and high mortality rates were not limited to the Middle Passage, as the journey between Africa and the West Indies was called. Living conditions on the plantations were abominable. Houses consisted mainly of crude huts built on low-lying, badly drained land. They were located on a section of the plantation known as the “nigger-yard”, the slaves being referred to as “niggers”.
Later, the Indian immigrant workers lived under similar conditions in logies, barrack-type, mud-floored ranges in the “bound-coolie-yard” and were described as “coolies”.
The hours of work on the plantations were long and hard, and during harvesting period, the slaves worked in shifts which lasted throughout the night. The slave drivers were always at hand to accelerate the pace with the constant use of his whip.
The slaves received no wages; they were given weekly rations of two pounds of salt-fish, beef or herring, some lard and plantains. They supplemented their diet with cassavas, tannias, eddoes and yams grown by them. A scanty supply of clothing was given annually at the discretion of the planters. The quantities stipulated by regulations were six yards of red cloth, and six yards of yellow cloth every six months.
Despite a few benevolent masters, the prevailing pattern during the time of slavery was a vicious cycle of punishment-escape-capture-punishment.
It would be incorrect to assume from the foregoing that the slaves remained passive to the cruelties inflicted upon them. On several occasions, they revolted. Each time, they were brutally treated and subdued by whipping, mutilation of their limbs, burning over a slow fire, or execution on a rab rack, a torture instrument on which the joints were broken, and the person left to die slowly.
Despite the harsh treatment, the slaves were not easily intimidated, and several epic battles and revolts took place from time to time, the most notable of which was the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763, led by Cuffy.
By 1807, the slave trade came to an end, and in 1834, slavery officially ceased. The manumitted slaves were, however, required to serve a period of apprenticeship. The agricultural workers were required to serve for six years, and the non-agricultural workers for four years. In 1838, slavery was finally abolished, and all slaves became free from servitude.
It is important that we understand our history, and the pains and sacrifices made by our foreparents in the struggle for a free and independent society. It was a long, hard and bitter struggle, but thanks to their efforts, we are today a united and free people.
The challenge before us is to safeguard our unity, and do not allow ourselves to be political pawns of those who would seek to divide us for short-term political gains.
(By Hydar Ally)