EYEWITNESS: Emancipation eve… on the plantations

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Your Eyewitness is thinking about what was going on in the minds of the 82,000 Africans on July 31, 1838, who were to be finally freed the following day. The day had been too long in coming. While most would’ve known nothing about the 1763 uprising to become free, the 1823 effort on the East Coast would’ve been better known. After all, the British ostentatiously stuck the heads of dozens of executed slaves on stakes in what is today, “Parade Ground”. Just to let the slaves know about the wages of rebellion.

While the “Slave Abolition Act” was passed in the British Parliament and approved by Queen Victoria on August 28, 1833, it didn’t take effect until August 1, 1838. So, all the slaves would’ve heard that they were “free”. What else could “Slave abolition” mean? So you really can’t blame Damon over in Essequibo for organising a protest when told that the freed slaves were now “apprentices” and would have to work another six years at a rate of pay decided by the old “massas”!! He was hung in front of Parliament Buildings for his efforts.

The “apprenticeship” scheme was later reduced to four years and so on the evening of July 31, the apprentices would’ve been waiting with bated breath and high anticipation for “dayclean” to arrive. Many of them had already been making plans: they’d be wiping the dust of the plantations – the scene of their degradation – off their feet to “do what they want to do”.

Some had saved their wages during apprenticeship and added it to their savings from their sales of provisions and vegetables grown in the Provisions Ground on Market Days. They were planning to purchase plantations that some of the planters were abandoning after collecting their compensation from the British Government in 1834 for loss of their “chattel property” – slaves. So, yes, there was great anticipation in the air about living in their own villages.

On July 31, 1838, planters and the colonial authorities were also anxious about what August 1 would bring. Even since the Abolition Act was passed, they were convinced – with good reason as we would see – that many of the slaves wouldn’t want to work in the fields. Or work in the regimented manner that sugar demanded. They knew that unlike some of the islands in the Caribbean, there was ample land in British Guiana for the freed slaves to occupy even if they didn’t purchase plantations.

They’d tried an experiment in 1835 to bring in a new form of controlled labourers –- indentured servants from the impoverished island of Madeira where Portuguese had long cultivated sugar cane.

Yes, July 31, was pregnant with anticipation in British Guiana!

…in the wider British Guiana

Some folks have forgotten that in Guyana there were over 20,000 freed Africans and Mixed persons in addition to the Whites. Most of them lived in the two major towns – Georgetown in Demerara and New Amsterdam over in Berbice. We had no Maroons in our interior like Suriname – here the planters used Amerindians to hunt down “runaways” and bring them back. The town folks comprised the bulk of the people who had an input – limited as it was – into the Legislature and other institutions which the planter class dominated. What were their thoughts on July 31, 1838?

The society at that time was very stratified, with the Whites on the top of the heap and in descending order the Mixed and then the freed Africans. These folks were very protective of their status positions and would’ve been quite in trepidation as to how the freed slaves would deal with them. Would it be “retribution time” they’d be wondering?

They were behind the efforts that launched the Police Force in 1839.

…in today’s Guyana

The COVID-19 pandemic has tanked your Eyewitness’s plans for tomorrow. He had his Kente-cloth Dashiki all ready to don and amble over to the National Park for his fill of metemgee.

Alas!