YESTERDAY, all Guyana celebrated Emancipation Day. Emancipation Day, first celebrated on August 1, 1834, is among the oldest holidays on the Guyanese holiday calendar. Emancipation Day celebrates the ending of plantation slavery which had been established by the Dutch in the 17th century and continued by the British when the Dutch Guiana colonies were ceded to the British Empire in 1815. The slaves who manned these plantations were forcibly taken from their homes in West Africa and transported over the Atlantic by slave ships. The conditions in these slave ships were as cruel and barbaric as could be imagined and as a result, a comparatively large percentage of the captives died before they could reach Guyana and the Caribbean. This terrible journey was known as “the Middle Passage”.
Those who survived the Middle Passage were taken to the plantations and formally sold into conditions which in many respects were even worse than those on the slave ships. They were worked from dawn to dusk, given little food, were whipped if the overseers felt that they were not working fast enough and if they became ill, there was no medical help except to give them some rum to drink. They were housed in logies or ranges which were basic huts where there was no privacy, no floors and the thatched roofs always leaked. The death rate among the slaves was very high and new slaves had to be constantly bought to replace them, They were permitted no cultural or recreational time. Occasionally, a slave was manumitted or freed but the overwhelming majority died in hopeless bondage.
Towards the last half of the 18th century, there grew up in England a group known as the ‘Humanitarians’ who were deeply influenced by the ethical teachings of the Christian religion. This group came largely from the new industrial middle classes who were fast displacing the old landed classes in their influence in British life and control of Parliament. This group included such names as Clarkson, Wilberforce and Buxton. Among the first humanitarian challenges this group undertook was the abolition of the Slave Trade which they succeeded in achieving in 1807. The slave trade was largely controlled because the British navy controlled the seas.
They next tried to have the amelioration of the harsh conditions of slavery by the adoption of a number of reforms but the plantation owners rejected most of them. They, therefore, decided to work for the abolition of slavery and the full emancipation of slaves in the British Empire.
At this juncture, that is in the first quarter of the 19th century, the British Industrial Revolution had greatly advanced and Britain had become the workshop of the world. The new economic wisdom was that it was more profitable to sell the Africans manufactured goods and acquire from them agricultural products such as palm oil and also gold than to be engaged in the slave trade. The influential industrial classes and the Humanitarians became natural allies.
At this time, sugar was becoming less and less profitable and the influence of the sugar interest on British politics declined. With the alliance between the Industrial classes and the Humanitarians, the Emancipation Act freeing all slaves in the British Empire was passed in Parliament to take effect from August 1, 1834.
In the West Indies and Guyana, the slaves were however not freed immediately but had to serve an additional four to six years before full freedom. In this period, known as the
Apprenticeship, the conditions of the technically freedmen was greatly improved and they were given a small wage. The Apprenticeship System was designed to allow the ex-slaves to adjust to freedom and more importantly, to allow the planters to locate new sources of labour for their plantations and this led to the Indenture System. The planters experimented with recruiting workers from various countries, finally settling for India. The conditions under which the indentured workers served were little removed from slavery.
The Apprenticeship System in Guyana ended in 1838 and immediately a number of the freedmen left the estates and settled in the towns or squatted on agricultural land near the estates. The majority, however, remained on the estates as wage labourers but soon felt they were underpaid. In the 1840s there were two strikes which failed and thereafter, the freedmen left the estates.
On leaving the estates, the freedmen were able to purchase a number of abandoned plantations in all three counties. They paid in cash from monies they had saved from wages received and from the sales of the Sunday Markets. They then embarked upon creating villages on the abandoned estates, a process known as the Village Movement.
The Village Movement is one of the proudest chapters in Guyanese History: These mostly illiterate ex-slaves established a system of local government; built thousands of houses; cleared and cultivated several thousand acres of land; created a commercial and economic life; saved and spent their money wisely; reestablished the family which had been destroyed by slavery; established the best system of primary education in the colony with the cooperation of the Christian churches; and built up a new rural culture. In all of this achievement, they manifested great entrepreneurial skill and self-reliance and never looked for help from the State or anyone else.
These virtues need to be recaptured by all Guyanese and particularly by our African descendants whose forefathers pioneered them. These virtues would include, we reiterate, greater involvement in Agriculture, education of children and eschewing the debilitating socialist idea of dependence on the State for jobs and social welfare.