Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Saturday August 2, 1834

Saturday August 2, 1834

Throughout the British dominions the sun no longer rises on a slave. Yesterday was the day from which the emancipation of all our slave population commences; and we trust the great change by which they are elevated to the rank of freemen will be found to have passed into effect in the manner most accordant with the benevolent spirit in which it was decreed, most consistent with the interests of those for whose benefit it was primarily intended, and most calculated to put an end to the apprehensions under which it was hardly to be expected that the planters could fail to labour as the moment of its consummation approaches. We shall await anxiously the arrivals from the West Indies that will bring advices to a date subsequent to the present time.

From the archives of The Guardian, a British newspaper founded in 1821

In May 1833 the colonial secretary introduced a bill in the British Parliament which finally passed into law on August 29. Chattel slavery was abolished by the British parliament, but the enslavement of Africans in the British colonies did not end. A six year “apprenticeship period” began where Africans were forced to continue providing unpaid labour that enriched white people. The “apprentices” were compelled to remain on the plantations of their former “owners” and provide free labour for 40 hours a week. This was a different form of slavery. The plantation owners, compensated for the loss of their “property,” continued to gain from the unpaid labour of the Africans on their plantations during this “apprenticeship” period. The white overseers and the plantation owners continued to abuse the “emancipated” Africans. The story of a young male who was enslaved on a pimento plantation in St Ann, Jamaica was documented in the book; “A Narrative of Events Since the first of August, 1834 by James Williams, and Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica (1836).” Williams was a young apprentice who was taken to Britain by an abolitionist to speak of the horrors of “apprenticeship.” Williams’ story included being brutally flogged on a regular basis for “infractions” such as not cleaning the pimento crop properly, not turning out sheep early enough in the morning, not working hard enough and running away for seven weeks.

The enslavement of Africans for more than four hundred years has been recognized by the United Nations as a crime against humanity. This was actually a crime against Africans because they were the people kidnapped and forcibly taken away from their homeland, their families, to provide unpaid labour that enriched Europeans.
In 1834, with the anticipated freedom not becoming a reality, the Africans in the “British dominions” did not hesitate to express their dissatisfaction.
On Friday, August 1st 1834, a group of angry Africans entered Port-of-Spain and gathered in front of Government House which was housed on the upper floor of the Treasury and Rum Bond building. Governor George Fitzgerald Hill sent the militia out to intimidate the group but the furious Africans stood their ground determined to be heard. The cause of their anger was the news that they were not entirely free but had to work as “apprentices” for another six years. The Africans recognized that the “apprenticeship” system was a scam used by the white plantation owners and the government representatives in the Caribbean to use free African labour for a further six years. In spite of the presence of the militia, the protest continued until night when the protesters strategically withdrew because they were not allowed to be in the town during the night. The following day, Saturday August 2nd, while white people in Britain were reading the Guardian newspaper’s article that stated “Throughout the British dominions the sun no longer rises on a slave” the group of protesters was back at Government House in Port-of-Spain. Governor Hill then decided that the militia should arrest the protesters who refused to return to the plantations. There were scuffles with the militia as the Africans resisted arrest. Some of the protesting Africans were arrested, tried, sentenced to hard labour and flogging then taken to the Royal Jail. Their incensed compatriots were forced to flee but returned on the Monday to continue the protest. The numbers had swollen by Monday and there were more clashes with the militia. Some of the people who were arrested on the Monday were publicly flogged in Marine Square. These protests continued the entire week.

Similar scenarios were enacted in other British colonies. On Saturday, August 9th, 1834, several Africans on plantations in Essequibo, (Guyana) between Richmond and Devonshire Castle, went on strike. Led by Damon, an “apprentice” from Richmond, they gathered in the Holy Trinity churchyard at La Belle Alliance where they flew a red flag to symbolize their freedom. There was no violence involved in this demonstration. However this show of independence was swiftly and brutally suppressed. The governor ordered that Damon be arrested and on Monday, August 11, he was taken to Georgetown where he was later tried on a charge of rebellion and found guilty. Damon was hanged on October 13, 1834 on a special gallows facing what is now the Parliament Building. Several of the other striking “apprentices” were transported to New South Wales, while others were flogged and imprisoned. Today a monument in Damon’s honour stands at Damon Park in Anna Regina, Essequibo.
On August 11th, 1834, Lord Rolle an absentee plantation owner, with plantations in the Bahamas, wrote a letter of complaint to the colonial secretary from his home in Devonshire, Britain. He had received information from his lawyer that the “apprentices” on his plantation, even though “severely beaten and bruised” were refusing to work unless compelled to do so by the presence of soldiers. On September 13, 1834, acting Governor Blayney Balfour wrote to London that he had to send troops to Exuma three times that year because of “insubordination” of the “apprentices” on Lord Rolle’s estate. He had to eventually have a detachment permanently stationed on the island.

In 1838, seeking to pacify the still angry “apprentices” in Trinidad, Hill made the following proclamation; “I, THE RIGHT HONOURABLE SIR GEORGE FITZGERALD HILL, Baronet, Lieutenant-Governor of the said Island, having received the commands of Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen, through the Colonial Secretary of State, to communicate to the Apprenticed Labourers of this Colony the feelings of Interest and solicitude entertained by Her Majesty and all Classes of Her Subjects for their welfare, and their moral and religious improvement, and at the same time to explain to them their duties, and to guard them against the misconceptions which might arise from imperfect or erroneous information communicated to them, do hereby declare and proclaim, that Her Most Gracious Majesty and both Houses of the British Parliament, Her Majesty’s Ministers, and all Classes of Her Subjects in Great Britain, have felt, and continue to feel the deepest interest in the Improvement and Prosperity of the Apprenticed Labourers in this Island; and that this feeling has been much increased by the quiet, orderly, and industrious behaviour by which they have, in general, been distinguished since the commencement of their term of Apprenticeship on the 1st of August, 1834. It is this feeling which induced Her Majesty the Queen and Her Parliament to pay a large sum of money to their respective Employers, to secure the entire Freedom of all Apprentices in Six Years after the 1st of August, 1834, and the Freedom of all Domestics and Tradesmen in Four Years from that time. But as information has reached me that the Field Apprentices on some Estates believe that their period of Apprenticed Labour for their Employers is to cease on the 1st of August next, it has become my duty to undeceive them, and to tell them the Truth.” The Africans were not impressed and Hill, fearing a repeat of August 1st 1834 or worse was forced to revise his stance.

On July 25th, 1838, Governor Hill called an emergency session of the Council of Government to seek approval of a special proclamation he had drafted. The proclamation read; “Be it therefore enacted and it is hereby enacted and ordained by his Excellency, the Right Honourable George Fitzgerald Hill by and with the advice and consent of the Council of Government thereof, and with the authority of the same, that all persons who on the First day of August 1838 shall be in a state of apprenticeship as Praedial Apprenticed labourers shall upon and from and after the First day of August 1838, become and be to all intents and purposes whatsoever, absolutely and forever manumitted and set free.” The proclamation passed into law with six for and five against. Governor Smith and the Jamaican Assembly passed the Jamaican Act on June 16th abolishing apprenticeship effective August 1, 1838. Africans in the British Caribbean won the struggle to gain their freedom from apprenticeship on August 1, 1838, two years short of its intended six-year term.
There was less drama in Canada where slavery was abolished on August 1st 1834 with no “apprenticeship” period.


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