Struggle for freedom: A submerged people
(Adopted from “ Short History of Guyanese People” pages 128-172)
By Jacqueline Allen West
Guyana Chronicle
August 10, 2003

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WITHOUT doubt, the history of Guyana has been concerned largely with European wars and diplomatic ties, and their impact on Guiana. The development of sugar, coffee and cotton led to the slow but rapid growth of a settled Anglo Dutch society with its own social, political and economic institutions. The main personalities were governors, missionary officials and planters. Very brief reference was made of the numerous part of the population, which consisted namely of African Negro slaves.

‘Two brothers stood enfolded in each other’s arms, mutually bewailing their faith of threatened separation. In other words, these people were saying they would be satisfied with slavery only if they would be put to toil together’

It is the view of many historians that a great mass of ordinary people leave little writing evidence behind as in the case of the Negro slaves. They were almost illiterate, left no literature. Yet these men and women helped to shape and build Guyana, they are the most important and influential element in the history of the Guyanese people and the West Indies as a whole. To create an awareness, so as to develop a level of consciousness, some general picture of their lives must be attempted.

Before arriving in Guyana, the slaves suffered the cruelty of being sold into slavery by their fellow Africans, also the physical hardship of the notorious, infamous middle passages. With great apathy we can imagine the mental anguish and agony of an African torn from his land of birth, to be shipped to a foreign strange land in conditions to which today we would not subject cattle.

One Lieutenant Thomas S. St Claire, who was in the colony from 1806 to 1808, has left us this description of the arrival of slaves. He was among the first to board a schooner (slave ship) under American colours, which arrived in the Berbice River direct.

Quote … “never was I so horror struck in my life as when, on gaining the deck of the vessel, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of ignorant and miserable beings, many of whom were, in all probability, kidnapped in their own country, shipped on board a strange vessel, and brought to a foreign clime, to be sold and work like cattle by people of different colour, manners, ideas and constitution. It actually made me sick at heart to imagine for a moment that an Englishman could degrade himself so much as to traffic in human flesh”

A Slave Auction
On arriving in Guiana, the slaves were put up for auction, one of the most hideous, graphic descriptions of humiliations and suffering of Africans subjected to great indignity comes from the pen of Dr. George Pinckard.

“… the poor Africans, who were to be sold, were exposed, naked in a large empty building, like an open barn. Those who came with intention to purchase, minutely inspected them; handled them; made them jump and stamp with their feet, and throw out their arms and legs; turned them about; looked into their mouths and according to the usual rules of traffic with respect to cattle, examined them, and made them show themselves in a variety of ways, to try if they were sound and healthy”.

Dr. Pinckard was greatly offended by some of the purchasers’ manner of selecting, regardless of the bands of nature. The urgent appeals of friendship and attachment went unnoticed and unneeded, signs of imploring looks, tears and signs made no impression and penetrating expressions of grief were unveiling. Wanton greed of commerce overruled the golden chains of affection; and so did interest burst of tie of the heart asunder. The husband was taken from the wife, children separated from their parents, and lover was turn from his partner; the companion was bought away from his friend, and the brother from sister.

In one part of the building a wife was seen clinging to her husband and begging, not to be left behind. There was another scene with a sister hanging on to the neck of her brother and with tears running down her cheeks entreating to be led to the same home.

Two brothers stood enfolded in each other’s arms, mutually bewailing their faith of threatened separation. In other words, these people were saying they would be satisfied with slavery only if they would be put to toil together.

One can only see that it was the separation and broken union of families that caused our fore-parents to rebel.

Living Conditions
Despair came; when the Negro was taken to the plantation. This question must have come to mind. What type of homes were to be found there? The Rev. John Smith, a Congregational Missionary, gives this answer in a journal.

On every plantation there is a cluster of buildings, of which the Negro-houses form a considerable, though not the most, conspicuous part. They are usually built of frail materials; thatched with certain leaves, which at a distance resemble straw; and enclosed with wattle, plastered with mud, and sometimes white washed outside … To make stools, tables, boxes etc., they mostly steal their masters’ boards for which they get a flogging. What repairs were necessary, the Negro, inhabitant had to do them himself on Sunday.

The Slaves’ Food
This consisted of mainly vegetables and salted fish. This forced the slaves to supplement their Negro diet by fishing and cultivating small plots of land allotted to them by their masters.

Even though tired, warm and hungry from the long hours of toil in the cane fields, they still managed, somehow, to produce their own food. The provision ground and Sunday market must have been a welcome relief to many slaves. They provided earning power and a sense of independence, and first training ground for freedom.

Health of the Slaves
The Africans worked so hard that they became prematurely old. The registration in 1820 made in its manifest that no more than 3,000 of the generation had reached ‘three score and ten.’ Having attained the age of 50, they were seldom capable of doing more fieldwork on a regular basis.

Slaves judged to be guilty of rebellion were sentenced to the cruelest of executions. There is this story of one leader of the bush Negroes (i.e. the slaves who ran away to the bushes). This was a courageous man sentenced to be burnt alive, first having his flesh torn from his links with red … hot pincers …. And being compelled first to watch 13 of his comrades broken on the wheel and hanged, and then made to walk over their dead bodies on his way to his own execution.

Other Methods of Control
Other ways of monitoring control was to divide and rule. Europeans tried the method of separating members of the same tribe or a language group in order to make communication difficult for the purpose of conspiracy; but this proved ineffective. Since it was necessary for the master to communicate with the slaves, a language common to most slaves, known as Creole Dutch, developed. There was also a class system that those who found themselves at the lowest rung of the ladder could aspire to higher positions. It went in this order from bottom to top, there were the field slaves, then factory workers, tradesmen of the estate such as black smiths, masons, carpenters and wheelwrights who were hired out to planters by their owners. Their status was higher than that of the ordinary field hand. Into this broadly conceived plan was woven an element of colour.

This crept in when miscegenation began to produce the mulatto, the mistee, and the sambo. The progeny, respectively, of a white man and Negro woman, a white man and mulatto woman, and a mulatto man and Negro woman.

Diversity of Slave Society
It must be remembered that the slaves came from different tribal backgrounds, in West Africa, especially from Asante, from the Congo, and from Angola. Much of their African culture was lost in the strange, new and confirmed surroundings of plantation life. Though in the field of religion and magic, something was preserved and handed down.

In this limited sense, the slaves did not live in a complete cultural vacuum. Nor was tribal identity entirely lost, in spite of the efforts the planters made to destroy it.

An inquiry in 1808 into a suspected slave conspiracy in Demerara-Essequibo revealed that slaves from the same tribe on estates in a particular district, it was customary for them to elect leaders or ‘kings’ to perform such duties as looking after their sick, purchasing provisions, conducting burials, and so on. They also choose other officers such as governors, generals and fiscal.

The Congolese in one district appeared in this particular instance to have had a king, a governor, a general drummer, a doctor and a lawyer. The slaves were very secretive about these arrangements, so that very little is known about them.

The lack of justice in Guiana, and the West Indies, coupled with of course the desire to recapture the freedom they enjoyed in Africa, was mainly responsible for the irrepressible urge which Africans felt to escape from their bondage; and their efforts to gain freedom from a proud chapter in the history of Guyana and the West Indies at large.

Abolition and Amelioration
The first steps to freedom were taken by the Africans themselves; but by the late 18th Century there were forces and influences in England also working towards greater freedom for the Negro Slaves.

The slave trade was a source of wealth for Holland, England and other European nations. Looking at it from an economic point of view, with the gains, this triangular trade when enhanced, lent great wealth and sea power to Britain.

The slave trade stimulated, for instance, the development of shipping and the shipping industry. There was need for special types of ships and it led to the growth of famous seaports such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow.

In the 18th Century, Bristol give way to Liverpool as the main slaving port. The demand for textiles grew; hence goods were supplied in exchange for slaves on the West African Coast. In addition, the slave trade involved the export of a wide range of manufactured goods for export to West Africa such as guns, iron, brass and copper ware.

The large-scale import of raw sugar from the West Indies led to the development of important sugar refining and rum distilling industries in Britain. And the capital accumulated by those engaged in the triangular and West Indian trades contributed to the development of banking and insurance. This helped to finance and enhanced the great growth in industrial development.

IN the early 1790s, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, supported the abolition of the slave trade in the hope of running the great sugar-producing rival of the British West Indies. This was the French Colony of St. Dominique, which was largely dependent on Britain for its slaves. Certainly, by the early 19th Century, there was a strong economic case for abolition. Not all the West Indian interests opposed the abolition measure when it passed through the British Parliament in 1807.

Moreover, it was clear that other forces were also working for the same cause.

Abolition of the slave trade came not from economic forces, but from fresh currents of intellectual and religious thought which were the products of the 18th Century. This intellectual background went hand in hand with the religious revival where philosophers were emphasising, liberty and happiness as the hallmarks of progress; objects towards which mankind should strive. The Wesley brothers began to tramp the land and preach the love of man for his fellow man. The masses regained hope from the comforting words; the middle classes got conscious and took note. These influences led to a slow but rapid improvement in conditions as a result of voluntary and government action.

Hospitals and schools were founded; John Howard and Elizabeth Fry began to devote their attention to prison reform. And finally looking beyond the English scene were Wibberforce, Clarkson and others, who began to draw attention to the inhumanity of the slave trade. Granville Sharp, a government employee in the Ordinance Office, dealt with a significant blow in the case of abolition in London.

Granville’s brother was a doctor and one day while leaving his brother’s surgery, Granville noticed an African among the patients. It turned out that the African’s name was Jonathan Strong and that he was suffering from the effects of whip beating given to him by his master, Mr. David Lisle from Barbados. After the beating, Lisle believed that Strong would be of no use to him again and set him adrift. Strong had luckily stumbled into Dr. Sharp’s surgery. The Sharp brothers nurtured Strong who recovered enough to become a messenger at a Chemist’s shop. One day, his former master saw him and promptly claimed him, and sold him to Mr. James Kur, a Jamaican planter, who placed him in jail pending transportation to his destination.

Luckily for Strong, he managed to get word to Granville Sharp, who immediately appealed to the Lord Mayor of London with the result that Strong was set free.

In the 1790s, several missionary societies were formed, including the London Missionary Society, which began its connections with Guiana in 1808.

From 1808, missionaries from the London society had been working among the slaves. Rev. John Wray started the mission station at Le Ressouvenir on the East Coast. In 1813, he was transferred to Berbice, and in 1817, Rev. John Smith replaced him. The latter was very much aware of the difficulties of the missionary’s position. In contrast, it was only possible to work effectively, with the planters’ cooperation.

It was no doubt that Christianity acted both as a stabilising and conservative influence and the events, which occurred, were revolutionary. Certainly Rev. Smith was made aware of the animosity of the government and planters towards the missionaries on his arrival to Demerara.

In his first interview with Governor Murray, the latter asked the former what he came to do? Smith replied that he came to teach the slaves to read. The Governor told Rev. Smith that “if he ever learnt that he taught the slaves to read, he would banish him from the colony.” In another interview, the Governor examined Smith’s instruction from the missionary office and said, “he saw nothing in them which required the former to teach the slaves to read.” This was true because the instruction given stressed on making the slave contented and not an educated individual. “ … it is not to relieve them from their servile condition” that you visit them. That is out of your power. Nor would it be proper, but extremely wrong, to insinuate anything which might render them discontented with a state of servitude or lead them to any measures injurious to their masters.

Teaching the Africans to read was very unfavourable to the planters. They emphasised that the literate slave might misunderstand what he read in the Bible. The slave intern might apply it to local situation with harmful results not beneficial to the planters.

The slave would now be able to read the newspapers from England, which consisted of anti-slavery propaganda, and finally, reading created ideas and reflection, which could be dangerous in a slave.

They objected to the preaching of the Gospel on the grounds that Christianity and slavery were incompatible. In 1808, an edition of the Royal Gazette wrote to make slaves Christians without giving them liberty …. What will be the consequence, when to that class of men is given the title of ‘beloved brethren’, as is actually done? Will not the Negro conceive that by baptism, being made a Christian, he is as credible as his Christian white brethren are? Given their way, the planters would have never allowed missionaries in the colonies. But since it was an expressed wish by the British Parliament, they could not go against this decision. They would attend church and behave in a most unseeming manner

‘… The behaviour of most whites was so unbecoming in a place of worship that I sometimes wish they would not come at all ….’

In 1823, the Secretary of the State advised that the slaves be given passes to attend divine service. As a result, there was a fall in the attendance of slaves in church.

There were reports on parliamentary proceedings. They called for the abolition of the flogging of females and an end of the practice of drivers carrying their whips to the field. Governor Murray moved in a cautious manner, he placed the dispatch before the Court of Policy on July 2. It was not until August 2, after two meetings, that they finally passed Lord Bathurst’s recommendations. The slaves who could read frequently got hold of their masters’ newspapers from Britain and a few may even have obtained the publications from the anti-slavery society. Not fully understanding what was done, the slaves interpreted the news to mean that they had been granted their freedom; and the planters denied them this right.

These rumours were spread by Jack Gladstone, a young Negro on Plantation Success whose father, Quamina, was a deacon in Smith’s chapel at Le Ressouvenir.

Smith’s influence proved inadequate, and so Quamina, wishing to be a devout Christian, did all he could to prevent the Africans from doing anything rash.

A house slave, Joseph Packard, betrayed the plot of a strike to his master, who lost no time in informing the Governor. The latter, with a group of soldiers, rode up to Le Ressouvenir where they stopped a large body of Africans. The Governor inquired of them what they wanted. They replied, “Our Right”. The Governor told them to lay down their arms; they hesitated for a while, but later rejected the Governor’s suggestion and began to blow their shells. That night of August 18, 1823, many managers and overseers were confined in the stocks. They received the first intimation that there was a rising from the slaves. Once the rising started, Smith did all he could, but his failure to inform the European authorities resulted in his subsequent arrest. He was charged, tried and imprisoned and condemned to hang. Smith, however, died in February, 1824 and the Court Marshall condemned him and the whole missionary system. Rev. Smith had been described a martyr and also a scapegoat. Quamina also was called a Demerara Martyr.

Believing in the doctrines of Christianity, he risked his life and lost it trying to uphold the sixth commandment (“Thou shall love one another and keep my commandment.”) in the Holy Bible.

The rebellion in Demerara and the death of Rev. Smith aroused humanitarian feelings in England. This encouraged a campaign for emancipation. The British Government moved with caution, only in Trinidad did it impose a series of reforms, which served as a model for other colonies.

The Court of Policy in 1825, under strong pressure from the British Government, passed an ordinance with great reluctance. In 1930, a liberal government came to office under Earl Gray, a Bill was passed giving fair representation in 1832. These included the amelioration, living conditions and welfare of slaves, limitation of working hours, the appointment of a Protection of Slaves officer, the right to marry, the right to hold property and to purchase manumission. But the Court refused to grant complete manumission, i.e. the right of the slave to buy his or her freedom whether his or her master agreed or not.

With much reluctance, the Court of Policy cooperated with the British Government. The former was only portraying the planters’ opinions in the colony. So tight was the opposition to British policy that “The Colonist Newspaper” was entirely suppressed and the “Guiana Chronicle” prevented from publishing on three occasions. Elected in late 1832, the reformed House of Commons was instrumental in our emancipation when it abolished slavery within the British Empire and it came to an end on August 1, 1834.

It had been explained to the slaves that there was a process, which they have to go through, and i.e. to work for a period of four years. This period was known as Apprenticeship.

A Priceless Gem
God bless our foreparents
From them a heritage was born

To us children a legacy was given
Coupled with the sweat from their brows and bodies they toiled
The whips on their backs,
For centuries they endured
Not giving up hope in God
Together they cried out

So great were their wails that the Atlantic trembled in her banks
Looking to Heaven
Always finding time for the Creator
They worshipped fervently
God saw their agony
Felt their pain
For they kept the faith
And gave them freedom

Today we the children hold a priceless gem
That cannot be bought
A heritage entwined with legacy forever.

During a working day, which was 10 hours, and for the remaining quarters of it, the apprentice was required to be employed by his master for wages. The Africans did not understand, for they were surprised, dissatisfied and angry and therefore refused to compromise their freedom. The Governor, Sir James Carmichael Smith, went to the estate and tried to explain the position. A number of Africans in the Trinity parish decided not to work. They ordered that the church belonged to the King and refused to leave it. Their leader, Damon, and some others went down to the stelling to form a guard of honour for the Governor, but the soldiers drove them away and preformed it themselves. He then addressed the Africans and told them to return to their plantations and promised to meet with them the next day; they obeyed.

The following day, on arrival, Damon was sentenced to be hanged. He went to the gallows a puzzled man, for execution of the right of a free man. But the hanging of Damon did not end the troubles.

One must say that Governor Smith handled the situation with great firmness and skill, for which he must be credited; showing much sympathy for the Africans.

For instance, he disagreed with the planters to lessen the apprentices’ clothes allowance and pressed for a ten-hour working day for them.

The planters’ dislike for him was so strong that they petitioned his removal as Secretary of State. Taking into account the years 1834 to 1838, the planters’ had a successful period, for the volume of sugar exports fell only by ten per cent compared with the pre-emancipation period 1830-1833. Certainly, as the years of apprenticeship rolled by, the relationship between apprentices and masters became more strained.

Following the example of other West Indian colonies, and making it a virtue of necessity, planters agreed that the whole body of apprentices should be freed on August 01, 1838.

Today, we the children, enjoy a legacy. Hence, a ‘Priceless Gem’ forever, let us emancipate ourselves from all forms of slavery.

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