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Wikipedia photo: Showing brutality of slavery
Wikipedia photo: Showing brutality of slavery

By William "Para" Riviere Historian and Attorney-at-Law

Until the publication of Capitalism and Slavery in 1944 it was treated as an open-and-shut case that the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire was abolished in August 1834 essentially because of the long and consistent agitation over a period of almost fifty years on the part of Abolitionists led by William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Fowell Buxton. This view was articulated in the book, The British Anti-Slavery Movement, published in London in 1933. According to its author, Reginald Coupland, the Abolitionists appealed to the humanitarian instincts of British policy-makers in Parliament and their constituents on the outside. And they won the day.

In Capitalism and Slavery, the essence of a doctoral dissertion supervised by the Oxford University Professor Coupland himself, Trinidadian scholar, Eric Williams, challenged Coupland's view. He argued, instead, that the underlying factors which brought about Emancipation in 1834 were, on one hand, economic forces and, on the other, resistance activity by slaves themselves. He proposed that both factors stood at the center of the change in British public opinion and, as a consequence, in the mood inside Parliament on the question of plantation slavery. And, further, that in the absence of these factors Abolitionist appeal to humanitarianism would not have borne the fruits that it did. Emancipation might have come but not in 1834, when it did. Williams reminded that a year earlier the Abolitionist Movement was itself opposed to the idea of emancipation through parliamentary intervention. Rather, they saw freedom for slaves by way only of voluntary concession from slave-owners. And we should tell you that four months before the Emancipation Act became law Dominica's Governor McGregor dispatched to Colonial Secretary, Viscount Goderich, a plan by which slavery on the island would continue for fifty-three years more.

Now, it is almost universally accepted that the fall of West Indian plantation slavery and the freeing of the slaves in the year they were freed were a result of a conspiracy of forces, each of which had its own agenda of goals and objectives. There were three main such forces: one, humanitarianism; two, economic factors; and, three, slave resistance to their enslavement. The leading actors were the Abolitionists; manufacturing interests in the United Kingdom; West Indian planters and their lobbyists in London; Mauritian and foreign sugar interests and their lobbyists in Britain; and last, but by no means least, the toiling slaves on the plantations. On its part, the British government assumed a rearguard stance of watchdog, mediating and arbitrating the competing positions of the various actors. It did so in a manner which in its view best satisfied the policy interests of the Colonial Power.

The humanitarian factor

Abolitionist agitation was crucial. The prohibition on slave trading in 1808 having been secured the broad strategy in pursuit of Emancipation was to cause the widest possible sections of the British public to focus attention on the essential inhumanity of slavery and, consequentially, on the miserable conditions under which slaves were held in British colonies, particularly the West Indian plantation territories. That done, individual parliamentarians would severally be pressured into guiding Parliament and the British Government in the direction of adopting defined and clear-cut policy positions on the Emancipation question.

It should be noted that the movement against the enslavement of Africans was not so significant before the third quarter of the 18th century. Individuals had earlier raised voices against the brutality of the institution, particularly in terms of their acquisition on the Continent of Africa, their transportation across the Middle Passage, and their exploitation and dehumanization on the plantations of the New World. But, due largely to the huge profitability of the triangular trade, including slave trading and enslavement on plantations, and the consequential prosperity it brought to the Mother Country, these protests fell largely on deaf ears.

Of the contribution to the British purse, William's Capitalism and Slavery states: "... at the end of the (17th) century Britain's total profit from trade amounted to £2,000,000. Of this figure the plantation trade accounted for £120,000. Trade with Africa, Europe and the Levant brought in another £600,000. The triangular trade thus represented a minimum of 36 per cent of Britain's commercial profits ... every individual in the West Indies, white or negro, was as profitable as seven in England ..."

Hard on the heels of the abolition of the slave trade in 1808 British policy-making in respect of abolition of the institution of slavery itself evolved over two decades, from 1812 to 1833. And it traversed four clearly identifiable stages: one, registration of slaves; two, amelioration of the conditions of enslavement; three, the abolition in law of the institution of slavery; and, lastly, a system of slave apprenticeship.

Registration of Slaves, 1812-1823

In 1812, that is to say, four years following the abolition of slave-trading to British territories, a scheme for registration of slaves was drafted at the Colonial Office as a model for implementation in colonies governed by appointees of the British Crown. There were five such colonies: the West Indian islands of Trinidad and St. Lucia, and the South American mainland colonies of Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo (British Guiana). Unlike the earlier acquired territories, these colonies did not have an elected Assembly, and governance involved merely an appointed Governor putting into effect Orders-in-Council sent down from London. The registration scheme would be tested in Trinidad and made a model for introduction in St. Lucia and the mainland territories.

In Trinidad, the plantation owners objected to the scheme on three main grounds. First of all, they considered it "unjust" for slave owners to be deprived of their lawful property in slaves for failure to register them. Secondly, the cost to them was thought to be unfair. And, thirdly, that there was a lack of adequate facilities for internal communication, in respect of which Governor Woodward indicated three years later as follows: "... the inhabitants of the eastern Cost of the Island have not yet appeared this year to make their returns. There is no road to that quarter and the long voyage and danger of being carried away by currents deters the planters from undertaking it."

A further problem concerned the transfer of property in the island from Spanish to British planters. The problem had its origins in the reality that on its capture by the British the island had been a colony of Spain and substantial re-organisation of the labour force and its ownership was required. The process involved the "change of slaves from plantations and owners to other plantations never heard of originally." There was, thus, enormous delay in gaining access to data in respect of slave gangs. In 1813, the Trinidadian model was sent to St. Lucia, Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo for implementation to the letter.

The Abolitionists perceived the experiment to be a success. Buoyed by this, they called on Parliament for extension of the registration plan to the older-established colonies with legislatures, including of course, Dominica. Summarized, they wished for a public record of "every particular essential to the recognizing and identifying" of all slaves. Then, periodic statements of changes in the composition of the gangs were to be submitted, especially as to death, birth, manumission, transfer and "other accidents." It was anticipated that, as in the Crown Colonies, the "only evidence of slavery and of title" should be "the record, or a certified extract from it by the proper officer." And they proposed that financiers be bound to refrain from investment in production in the territories "excepting on the security of registered plantations." The message was clear: registration was to be the only evidence of slave ownership. An unregistered person was assumed to be free.

The Abolitionists were confident of success. Brougham reflected their mood. He put it this way: "... All deaths and all important casualties, must now be faithfully registered every year; so must almost all elopements and recaptures...whoever has the actual care of Negroes...must render an account annually of the manner in which he has executed his great and serious trust...Unless he can account for the decrease by deaths, or for their maimed and unthriving condition, to his mismanagement must the change be ascribed. At first, perhaps, this may only prevent great atrocities...but it will soon spread further; and no-one will be very anxious to have it recorded in his neighborhood, and the fact also certified in England, that, during the past year, so many of his slaves died of blows or wound; so many of overwork; and that there remains such a number, whose descriptions must be altered, in consequence of scars or mutilations."

In fact, such optimism was unjustified. The West India lobby in England and their planter allies in the territories with elected Assemblies opposed slave registration tooth and nail. The lobby wasted no time in declaring its intention to "omit no lawful and constitutional means of averting the many calamities to the Mother Country, and the ruin of the colonies, with which the interference in question is pregnant." It called on West Indian legislatures to make representations to the imperial Government. And it directed West Indian associations throughout Britain to obstruct passage of the measure, including by petitioning Parliament.

Opposition to Slave Registration

Of course, the planter-dominated West Indian legislatures opposed slave registration. They regarded it as an interference with their authority over their internal and domestic affairs, an "infringement" of their "inherent rights" under the "English constitution." The Jamaica assembly explained: "… The most important of the rights, privileges, immunities and franchises which are inherent in British subjects as their birthright, and have by then been brought to this island, is to consent to those laws by which they are to be governed, by the exercise of their right to send Representatives to the said General assembly, who, with His Majesty, and the Council, law, and of rights ought to do, all such acts and matter of legislation, respecting to the internal government of the island, as the Imperial Parliament can do within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Island."

This claim lacked legal validity. It was made forty years before by the revolting Thirteen Colonies of the mainland North America. Historically, the Imperial Parliament might have restricted its colonial policy-making to the matters of trade and commerce. But the Declaratory Act of 1766 provided for its complete legislative authority. This authority, according to Brougham, was "firmly established upon priniciples, declared by existing and undisputed statutes, and recognised by precedents, in a long, uninterrupted current of practice." The parliamentarian could scarcely imagine a "more monstrous instance of imperium in imperio…than each colony having an independent parliament with powers of exclusive legislation."

The West India interest in London and planters in the territories, rather than dispute the indisputable, turned their attention to the Renunciation Act of 1788. By this measure Parliament had committed itself to not impose "duties, taxes, or assessments" on its colonies in North America and the West Indies, except with a view to the regulation of trade and commerce. Imposition of slave registration on colonial West Indian legislatures, so it was argued, was in contradiction with that Act, insofar as any contribution involuntarily made towards meeting the costs of the registration experiment were equivalent to taxation. The Dominica legislature regarded this as "direct taxation."

This line of thought fell on sympathetic ears. At the Colonial Office, Colonial Secretary Bathurst observed that if clauses of the Registration Bill "transgress the limits which parliament prescribed to itself" by the Act of Renunciation, then, "no difficulty would arise in making such alternations as would obviate that objection, and leave the Bill equally efficient." In the event, Wilberforce was persuaded against re-introducing the measure. And, rather than enforce the scheme, broadly conceptualized it was merely recommended to the legislatures for implementation.

Quite in character, registration laws enacted by the legislatures disappointed the expectations of the Colonial office. In 1817 James Stephen reported to the Colonial Office that all the enacted legislation were "defective." His opinion was that "unless very essential alterations and improvements are adopted in each colony, it will be in vain to expect that a uniform or effective system of registration will actually be in force under the Acts which have now been transmitted." A year later this position remained unchanged. He advised: "… unless some system as to registration of slaves should hereafter be adopted…more uniform in itself, and more nearly approaching to that established by the Order-in-Council [put into effect in the Crown colonies] a great part of the benefits anticipated from those laws can never be attained…"

The response of the British Government was cautious to the point of timidity. In 1820 a Bill was passed, firstly, making it illegal to mortgage or convey unregistered slaves and, secondly, appointing a Registrar of Slaves in London, England. But, to the great dismay of the Abolitionists, registration was not made the sole claim to slave-holding. In effect, a major loophole through which planters could transgress against the ban on slave-trading remained.

Nonetheless, the Abolitionists would not push for immediate emancipation. Their focal objective was the betterment of slave conditions to be put in place, not by diktat of the imperial Government, but by voluntary action on the part of planters. Clearly, the ban on slave-trading had not achieved the desired ends. Clearly, meaningful registration of slaves seemed on the point of collapse. But the 'Saints' stuck to their position that Emancipation by legislative means was entirely out of the question.

Amelioration, 1823-1831

Buxton was adamant. No sudden, immediate emancipation. Ameliorate the institution, with a view to its eventual voluntary extinction. He told the House of Commons in 1823: "… I even shall be unable to predict, that all such a time, or in such a year, slavery will be abolished. In point of fact it will never be abolished, it will never be destroyed. It will expire; it will, as it were, burn itself down into its sockets and go out…. Slowly, silently, almost imperceptibly to die away, and to be forgotten…"

Improving the state of West Indian slavery as a strategy would continue, albeit on a new basis. The new basis involved "such preparatory steps, such measures of caution…as, by slow degrees, and in a course of years, first fitting and qualifying the slave for the enjoyment of freedom, shall gently conduct us to the annihilation of slavery." This process was crystallized in three resolutions adopted in the House of Commons. The first recognized the expediency of seeking "effectual and decisive measures for ameliorating the condition of the slave population." By the second, the House undertook "through a determined and persevering, but at the same time judicious and temperate enforcement of such measures to seek a progressive improvement in the character of the slaves in such a way as to prepare them for a participation in those civil rights and privileges which are enjoyed by other classes of His Majesty's subjects." The third resolution embodied the anxiety of the House for accomplishment of this objective "at the earliest period that shall be compatible within the well-being of the slaves themselves, with the safety of the colonies and with a fair and equitable consideration of the interest of private property."

The new dispensation had two main objectives. The first called for the immediate liberation for all children of slave mothers born after a certain date. Taking account of the ban on slave-trading it sought to enormously reduce the supply of slave labour, that it to say, the root of the institution. The second objective was the introduction of a series of measures intended to improve the moral and physical state of the slave population or, as it was expressed, the slaves' "scale of civilization." If the Abolitionists had their way these measures would not, as in the case of slave registration, be merely recommended to colonial legislatures for implementation. Instead, they would be made the subject of parliamentary action whereby legislatures would be instructed to introduce the measures. But they did not have their way. Local planters and the Lobby in London also had the ears of the British Government.

The British Government was not convinced. Instead, it stuck to its vision of Amelioration as a means to voluntary emancipation. There would be no direct legislation. Once again, despite its proven futility, the programme would be tested in the Crown colonies through the strategy of "recommendation and advice". Accordingly, on May 20, 1823, the Governors of Demerara and Berbice were directed to instruct local authorities to immediately implement two of the proposed reforms: one, abolition of the flogging of females; and, the other, cessation of the use of the whip as a stimulant to field labour. Colonial Secretary Bathurst warned that compliance on their part would avoid the need to promulgate an Order-in-Council to that end. By contrast, Governors of colonies with elected Assemblies were directed to urge upon the legislative bodies the necessity of instituting reforms similar to those imposed on Demerara and Berbice. Further, they were instructed to prevail upon those legislatures to consider listed specific proposals for immediate implementation.

The proposals included the termination of the slave's status as chattel, that is to say, a thing, a piece of property; the removal of all obstacles to the purchase of their freedom, even piecemeal; the prevention of ownership of slaves by Colonial Governors and Attorneys-General and Judges of the Courts; the admissibility of their evidence before the Courts of law; termination of the indiscriminate sale of slaves and the concomitant break-up of slave families; the legalization of marriage among them; the abolition of forced labour on Sundays and reservation of that day for "effectual and religious instruction."

Their lobby in London advised the West Indian planters to concur with the proposed reforms. Attention was drawn to the fact that the reforms were the result of joint discussion by the Abolitionists, the Colonial Office, and themselves. Their concern was the "deep and general" impression entertained by the British public that colonial legislatures were "hitherto very remiss" in respect of the betterment of slave conditions. In their view, West Indian planters and merchants needed to "remove the prejudice" directed against them. And the "only mode" of so doing was to conform to the "spirit" of the proposed reforms so far as was consistent with the "safety of the colonies, and with a fair and equitable consideration of the interest of private property".

Opposition to Amelioration

West Indian legislatures by and large did not do this. The planter-dominated elected assemblies continued to stand in the way. Wherever, they invoked the old claim to exclusive control over their internal affairs, and raised the banner of their "chattered rights" as British subjects. Of course, the struggle against slave registration had taught them that this argument lacked legal basis. So, they placed greater emphasis on the physical damages it was imagined would follow the enormous reduction of the authority of the master over his slave. In their opinion implementation of the reforms would strike at precisely this.

The Abolitionists discounted these fears. Buxton assured the Commons that the alleged danger "if not absolutely groundless, if not utterly imaginary" were quite over-rated. Yet, the Colonial Office proceeded with great caution. It invested the Governors of the colonies with authority to proclaim at the earliest sign of disorder that the intended reform of slavery would be compromised, if not wholly aborted, by "any general misconduct, or acts of insubordination" by the slaves. For it was believed that the success of the Amelioration proposals rested on the "temperate and industrious" disposition of the slaves and on their "anxiety to avail themselves of all the means to improve their moral and religious conditions."

Legislatures also argued that the financial situation of planters did not allow for any improvement in slave conditions, as proposed by the reforms. The legislation of slave marriages, for example, would mean acceptance of the slave family and, in consequence, the loss of the mother's labour. Devotion of Sundays to rest and religious instruction implied a reduction of man-hours weekly. Recognition of the habit of Sunday market spelt a further reduction. Abolition of the use of the whip to stimulate labour would, in their view, "subvert the discipline" required for plantation production. And, for quite obvious reasons, the proposal seeking compulsory manumission of slaves was deemed the greatest threat to the adequacy of compulsory labour.

The British Government was not impressed by this argument. Hence, it contemplated a firmer hand. Where the registration effort had been guided by "recommendation and advice" to territories with legislatures, a policy framework of "authoritative admonition" was now adopted. Once again, the plan was to use Trinidad as the testing ground, extend the project to the remaining slave-holding Crown colonies and admonish the legislative colonies that the package represented a model for implementation by them. The programme was an elaboration of those reforms earlier recommended. Provisions were made for the appointment of a Protector of slaves charged with the responsibility for safeguarding the interest of the slave. The appointee was to be neither owner nor mortgagee of a plantation or a slave. The experiment was set in motion in Trinidad by Order-in-Council issued in March 1824.

The plantocracy in Trinidad accepted the legality of Amelioration. But they questioned its expediency. The claim was that implementation of the proposed reforms would depress the value of their property and cause financiers in Britain not to invest in the island. They went on the request compensation to any loss of labour occasioned by implementation of the reforms, to which the Colonial Secretary strongly objected. He wrote to Governor Woodward thus: "I am as ready as any man to acknowledge and maintain that the slave must be considered the property of his master. But a slave has his rights- he has a right to the protection of his master in return for his services, and the law must secure for him that protection. There is nothing in the provision of this Order which goes beyond the limits which this principle prescribes. In most cases they do little more than what practice has sanctioned or the law has already sanctioned."

The mainland territories were less defiant. Two major complaints surfaced. The first concerned the abolition of work on Sunday and the re-location of market day to Saturday. The other protested against the ownership of property by slaves. But, as in the case of Trinidad, the Colonial office was adamant.

As to the colonies with legislatures, there was little compliance. In March 1826 the Colonial Secretary reported that but for some minor enactments in Grenada, St. Vincent, and in Dominica, "very little had anywhere been done." Clearly, the strategy of "authoritative admonition", like its predecessor, that of "recommendation and advice", had failed.

The 1831 Order-in-Council

A new approach emerged. The House of Lords committed itself to the resolutions passed 1823 by the House of Commons. Now, in 1826, eight draft bills incorporating the substance of the programme of ameliorative reforms were dispatched to West Indian Governors, with instructions to direct local legal officers of the Crown to formulate laws on the basis of these drafts, for enactment locally.

Reports from Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts and Tobago suggest partial compliance only. In Antigua, St. Vincent, Montserrat and Dominica, even less was done; legislatures there were censored for "extreme backwardness." Obstinacy on the part of the Jamaican legislature was unparalleled. In December 1826 a slave code enacted there was disallowed by the Colonial Office for its failure to adequately provide for the religious instruction of the slave population. Three years later, another code was rejected for the same reason.

Appeasement and indecision on the part of the British Government had notoriously achieved little, if anything. In 1828 Colonial Secretary Bathurst had threatened to call for intervention by Parliament unless the legislatures by their actions provided "concrete proof" of conformity to the proposed reforms. The threat was largely ignored. Two years later the Colonial office was driven to advise that the policy of "authoritative admonition" had been "utterly unsuccessful." Accordingly, in November 1831 an Order-in-Council was dispatched to the Crown colonies for implementation to the letter. As to the legislative colonies, new tactics were resorted to: their Governors were directed to impress upon them the adoption of the Order-in-Council in its "precise terms" and "entire extent". The Governors were also directed to communicate to the legislatures that "about all" the British Government would … "deplore the continuance on the part of the West Indian colonist, of that insensitivity to the influence of public opinion in the Mother country." Notably, as an incentive to compliance, "substantial relief" was promised.

Mauritian and East Indian Sugar

The "influence of public opinion" of which the Colonial office spoke related to the economic realities which had confronted Britain since the 1820s. The dominant fact was that the West Indian plantation economy no longer held the position of pre-eminence in the nation's commercial and economic life it had enjoyed in an earlier era. The market protection given to sugar and the concomitant hesitancy to dismantle the system of slavery on which sugar production subsisted: both were grounded on this pre-eminence. Now, Mauritius and the East Indies, both territories under British control, offered better possibilities. But comparatively high duties existing on the entry of sugar from these sources stood in the way.

As to the East Indies the following case was made. First, remove the discriminatory sugar duties and, thereby, create an incentive to increase production there. Then, abolish the monopoly of the East India Company. The result would be the opening up to British manufacturers of a market of some 100 million people with a reasonably high level of purchasing power. Ship-owners, too, would profit by an extension of business. And British workers stood to gain from the need for increased employment generated by an increased demand for British-made products. In effect, as Ewart pointed out, the decision was whether or not to place commercial intercourse with the East Indies, that is to say, the East Indian question, on an even footing with continued support of a slave-based and increasingly costly sugar product, that is to say, the West Indian question. Zachary Macaulay put the argument squarely when he stated that continuance of British West Indian sugar preference amounted to the sacrifice of a "…certainty of a continually growing demand (in India) for the productions of our national industry". He insisted that the sacrifice was being made for the sake of a market limited to much less than one hundredth part of our East Indian population, and the whole amount of whose consumption does not nearly equal the amount forced out of the pockets of the people to maintain our West Indian establishments, and to enable the planters to go on extracting from their miserable slaves, by the power of the cart-whip, the sugar which we have afterwards to buy at so costly a rate."

The Manufacturing Interests

British manufacturers stood allied with the cause of cheap sugar. Cheap sugar meant for them the ability of their employees to live off the low wages paid. And, it meant greater profits for their businesses. In the event, costly West Indian sugar, propped up by protection on the British market, was not in their interest. Further and quite obviously, so long as the basis of West Indian production continued to be slave labour, so long would market protection continue.

In the 1820s then, the cry of the lobbyists for cheaper Mauritian, East Indian, Cuba and Brazilian foreign sugar suited British manufacturers: West Indian slavery stood in the way; abolish slavery and open the British market to cheap products from whatever source.

Public opinion in Britain would undoubtedly be swayed by these arguments. It would turn towards reforms leading, however slowly, to the disbandment of slavery and, hence, slave-based production. And the Abolitionist campaign would draw support from the ranks of both the manufacturing interests and lobbyists for cheap sugar.

Slaves themselves

The decline in the profitability of West Indian staple production as compared with the Mauritian, East Indian and, further, the Cuban and Brazilian product was rooted in many factors. Included among them were the comparatively exhausted nature of the soils, especially in the older-established territories; the increasingly high cost of plantation supplies; the backward state of technical aids to production; and the absolute inefficiency of the labour force.

As to soil infertility, although this did not apply greatly to the more recently cultivated colonies like Dominica, the bottleneck for the island's proprietors was the mountainous character of the island and the absence of large stretches of land suited for conversion to plantations. In terms of estate supplies, costs had risen appreciably ever since 1783 when the British, in retaliation for the establishment of the United States of America by its Thirteen Mainland Colonies, prohibited commercial intercourse between its citizens and the new nation; in the event, West Indian planters were forced to procure supplies at considerably higher prices from London, Glasgow in Scotland, and Newfoundland and its remaining colonies, in North America.

As to technology, West Indian proprietors on the whole remained wedded to the old habits. While for tillage of the soil the plough was in vogue in Cuba, for example, in the British West Indies this was done largely by hoe and hand. And, as discussed earlier, the old methods of planting and tending sugar cane, the dominant crop, persisted. Further, the cane-mill continued to be powered by wind, water and animal. And while the Cuban planter reaped huge economies of scale from use of central factories by which the crop of a large number of plantation-owners were processed at one plant, his West Indian competitor still processed the cane juice in open boilers. Lastly, in terms of the absolute inefficiency of labour, while forced labour, as pointed out by Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, is by nature inefficient labour, the deliberate actions of the West Indian slaves compounded its inefficiency and, thus, increased the unprofitability of slave-based production.

As discussed earlier, the years particularly followed the prohibition on slave-trading in 1808 was defined by an intensification of resistance by the slave population to their continued enslavement. Non-violent resistance like desertion, sabotage of equipment, setting fire to premature canes, work stoppages and general slow and slovenly performance in the field negatively affected production levels and, therefore, the profitability of individual plantations and the slave-based plantation economy. Such action by slaves represented a natural response to enslavement. But in the final two decades, resistance escalated in part because the British policy of Amelioration was mistakenly understood to mean that England had decreed freedom, which their slave masters were withholding from their slaves.

The Drive to Emancipation

From Amelioration in 1823 to the circulation of the Order-in-Council in 1831 the British Government, Parliament and leading abolitionists convinced themselves that Amelioration was the correct route to emancipation. The guiding philosophy was three-fold: one, slave property was sacred; two, the state ought not to intervene to separate slaves from their lawful owners; and three, freedom should come as a voluntary act of slave-owners. That was the state of affairs in November 1831.

Then, the pace of the drive to emancipation accelerated. Four interventions explain this. One was the negative response of West Indian slave-owners to the Order-in-Council; another, the entry of young leadership into the Abolitionist Movement; third, the Sam Sharpe rebellion in Jamaica in December 1831; and, lastly, a change of government in Britain in 1832.

The West Indian plantocracy's response to the Order-in-Council was defiant. By way of the legislatures, instead of recognising their vulnerability and introducing the stated reforms to the slave system, planters raised the familiar, illegitimate and tiresome objections. Jamaica was prepared to ameliorate its slave system, but on terms different from the proposals made in the Order-in Council. Antigua perceived the new tactic as "resinous in their effects, being compatible neither with the safety of the colony nor a fair and equitable consideration of the rights of property." Barbados declined compliance "consistently with the welfare of the colony and in conformity with the unconditional course the legislature was designed by His Majesty's Government to pursue." And, in Dominica, where plantation slave production had sunk to such an extent that as far back as 1820 an abandonment of the island for settlement in British Guiana had been contemplated, planters saw no alternative to rejection of the proposal.

It must be pointed out here that West Indian planter resistance was not based, as they claimed, on either legal or economic rationality. Their constitutional positions were untenable. And it was crystal clear that sugar was no longer "King", and a new basis of production would be in their economic interest. The real fear of the Amelioration scheme was, in fact, its social consequences namely, a breakdown of relationships based on the authority of the slave-owner and, indeed, of the white minority, on one hand, and subjection of the slave population, on the other. This, the planter-dominated assemblies would not voluntarily allow. In her book Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century, Professor Goveia makes the point: "… the idea of a society in which negroes were released from their subordination and allowed legal equality with whites was so antithetical to the principles on which the slaves society rested that it seemed to threaten complete social dissolution and chaos..?"

In effect, acceptance of slave reforms, as proposed, meant social suicide to the white minority living in the territories. Not understanding this, the West India interest in Britain advised the planters in the colonies to acquiesce in the British proposals for Amelioration. Further, they saw continued defiance as playing into the hands of the Imperial Government.

But the planters stood firm. Perceiving the slave to be a specie of property lacking legal or civil personality, they convinced themselves that there was, therefore, no need to consider the slave's welfare except in strictly material terms. So, reforms leading to material improvement of the slave's condition was something in respect of which planters might compromise. But reforms aimed at the "moral upliftment" of the slave community was another matter. Proposals such as effective religious instruction, manumission, the slave's right to acquire property, and the admission of their testimony before the courts fell in that category. There, no compromise was possible. And, without this, amelioration would be meaningless. One month following implementation of the Order-in-Council in the Crown colonies, Colonial Secretary Goderich wrote: "The experience of eight years has now placed beyond the reach of all rational doubt the fact, which, independently of such experience, might have been anticipated, that laws framed in the colonies, and passed by the colonial assemblies, for the improvement of the condition of slavery, are deficient in that quality without which all such legislation of Acts passed during that period of thirteen different assemblies [with the exception of the smaller islands on the subject of slave evidence, and an Act of Grenada respecting the legal presumption in favour of freedom] does not contain a single statute which carries within itself any reasonable security for faithful execution of its provisions."

Young Abolitionists

A core of young abolitionists added a new dimension to the struggle. Led in Parliament by Buckingham, this radical element of the Abolition Society rejected the philosophical basis on which their older and more conservative counterparts had conducted the campaign from the start. The prevailing idea which guided Buxton's gradualist approach was that the slave population because of the experience of enslavement, if not because of racial peculiarities, stood at a comparatively low level in the "scale of human civilization, and in the event required time, plenty time, in which they would be trained and prepared to fully appreciate the fruits of "the free state." Hence, set in train by Amelioration, full freedom would come sometime in the future by voluntary action of slave-owners.

The radical abolitionists rejected this. In their view, a preparatory period might have been necessary if the transition proposed was one in which slaves were immediately accorded the "enjoyment of political rights, the trust of the elective franchise, or elevation to the judicial or other stations of civil political authority." It was stated, further, that Emancipation gave no such guarantees. All it did was give the ex-slave the "liberty to take his labour, the only property he had, to the best market, to select his own employer, to negotiate for his own wages, to earn his own bread, and to enjoy the fruits of his labour unmolested." The ex-slave, black-skinned as he was, needed no special training to do this. Like other people he was, irrespective of his race, a product of his environment and would in time adapt to his new situation.

On May 30th 1833, Buckingham, the leading exponent of this view, crystallized the argument to the House of Commons like this: "We never could prepare them for freedom but by making them partake of its enjoyment. Until the first step, of admitting them to the rights of free labourers, should be taken, they never could be prepared to take the second, or be qualified to enjoy the rights of free citizens. Emancipation, therefore, must precede improvement or it would never come at all."

The Sam Sharpe Insurrection, 1831

The 1831 revolt in Jamaica was a manifestation of the intensification of the violent resistance of West Indian slaves to their continued enslavement. It was led by "Daddy Sharp", the slave of a female planter residing in Montego Bay in the North-west of the island. Next in command was Gardiner, the head waggoner at Greenwich plantation; he held the rank of 'Colonel'. The Colonel's immediate subordinate was 'Lieutenant-Colonel' Dove. A number of 'captains' followed, including Mc. Cail, the man in charge of weaponry, and Alexander Campbell, 'Chief of Espionage.' Then came 'innumerable' Lieutenants and ensigns among whom were James Milla Fine, Donald Mc. Intosh , James Mc. Intosh, John Largia, Thomas Simpson and Wilna Mc. Donald; Lieutenants and ensigns were selected for a "most resolute spirit, a reckless idea of consequences, and a determination to carry into effect whatever bloody orders were issued by their superiors." The disturbance was engaged in by an overwhelming majority of slaves born on the plantations.

The plan of attack was well thought out. First, would be the destruction of "every white man's house and property"; this was intended to drive them into the island's towns, with their families. Then would come a "simultaneous attack on all the towns by every negro in the island"; during the attack white people's "houses were to be set on fire, the males slaughtered, and the females taken as wives to the principal leaders and officers of the insurrection". The confrontation began, quite appropriately, on 27th December, that is to say, at the Christmas holidays when slaves were as of habit given a temporary scaling-down of labour. Within five minutes of the starting signal the parish of St. James, where Montego Bay is located, was "one solid mass of flame." The fires spread to the parishes of Trelawney, Hanover, Westmoreland, St. Elizabeth and, on a lesser scale, to St. Johns, St. Georges, Portland and Clarendon. A week of carnage and destruction, estimated at more than 500,000 pounds sterling, followed. Two hundred slaves were killed on the field and five hundred more were subsequently executed.

The scale and intensity of the insurrection sent out signals that if freedom were not granted from above, then, it would certainly be wrested, as had earlier been the case in St. Dominique, from below. December 27th, 1831 generated new thinking within the halls of Parliament. The thinking was this: better to grant, by legislation, a controlled freedom, than allow the slaves to take real freedom on their own terms.

By 1833 the mood inside the British Parliament had become more accommodating to Emancipation. The changed vision of the Abolitionists. The fall of the Tories and the entry of a liberal Whig Administration. The passage in 1832 of a Reform Bill which enfranchised the middle class, including representatives from manufacturing districts. The passage in 1833 of the first of many Factory Acts which greatly improved the horrible conditions under which the British working classes laboured in the nation's rapidly emerging factories. Most importantly, a drastic shift in British opinion about slavery in British colonies. And, finally, the prevailing tension in Parliament created by fear of another St. Dominique in the West Indies.

Emancipation Act, 1833

The emancipation legislation contained five main ingredients. The first was that all slave less than six years of age on August 1st 1834 except those whose parents lacked the means to maintain them, were to receive immediate, unqualified freedom. The second was that where parents were unable to maintain their children, they were to indenture them to their former owners for a period of time not exceeding their twenty-first birthday. The third was that apprentices were entitled to purchase their full freedom, if they so desired. The fourth was a grant of money to slave-owners as compensation for the impending loss of their property in slaves. A total of 20 million pounds sterling was granted to planters throughout the British Empire, 17 million of which went to planters in the British West Indies. The fifth ingredient of the emancipation measure was that the mass of slaves six years of age or older, rather than freed immediately, were to remain in a state of apprenticeship to their former owners for a transitional period, at the end of which they were to be set fully free. The period was to be six years for praedial apprentices, that is to say, those who were directly engaged in crop production on the estates and, four years, for non-praedial slaves such as jobbers. But, as fate would have it, for both categories of apprentices, it came to an end after four years. The sixth ingredient was the appointment of a corps of Stipendiary Magistrates charged with the supervision of the scheme of apprenticeship.

The Abolition Act passed by Parliament was a model law for all colonies within the British Empire. Parliament was quite aware of the variety of conditions that existed within the general plantation picture. Hence, while articulating the broad principles of emancipation to which it subscribed, the translation of these principles into ground rules governing the day-to-day inter-relation between ex-master and former slave was left to the particular colony. In other words, each colony was charged with responsibility for passing local Emancipation legislation in accordance with the spirit of the parent Act.

Copyright © William Riviere, May 2018


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