It is impossible at this distance in time to fully grasp the extraordinary brutality of the eighteenth century slave system and the extent of the suffering both physical and mental which it inflicted. As such it is possibly difficult for us to fully grasp either the nature of the release which August 1, 1838 represented. Those who had been in bondage quite literally entered a new reality when they awoke that morning. British Guiana of the time was still a very long way from being a free society, of course, but Emancipation Day whose one hundred and seventy-third anniversary we celebrate tomorrow stands as one of the great divides in our history, and what came after bears no comparison with what went before.
It must not be thought that African contributions to the society began only with Emancipation; apart from being unfair, that would be patently wrong. Everyone knows, to use Dr Walter Rodney’s term, that Africans “humanized” the landscape, building the canal system and every colonial structure in the slavery period, from forts to churches to official buildings to houses. And of course, they laboured on the plantations, creating the economic basis for the survival of the earlier European settlers here and the wealth of some of the later planters.
But those were the exterior things, which they were made to do. But they also worked to improve their own economic lot and supply themselves with some of the most basic utensils which they needed. They cultivated their own plots, not just for the purposes of personal sustenance, but also to provide themselves with commodities which in a colony like Berbice, for example, could be traded with the Amerindians, or which those on plantations near to wharves could sell on the ships. At the end of the eighteenth century, they also had sales outlets in the form of Georgetown and the second New Amsterdam, at the mouth of the Berbice River.
Towards the end of the slavery period with the prospect of emancipation shimmering on the horizon, they methodically saved money. They were not allowed to be paid in specie or have it in their possession, so they assiduously saved the small coins they earned during apprenticeship and probably before. Everyone knows the story of how the African residents of five plantations walked the entire distance to a Georgetown bank pushing wheelbarrows full of small change to pay for Northbrook, which became Victoria Village.
And they were not the only ones who did this; others followed suit, the best known of them purchasing what became Buxton. In the process, they sent up the value of plantations on the property market. In some parts of the country, particularly Essequibo, planters like Carbery sought to make money by selling the front lands of their estates to the Africans in lots, so quite a few African villages came into being via this route. The point is, however, that men and women before emancipation used their initiative to find economic space in the interstices of the slave system, which apart from anything else gave them the initial financial basis of their independence. Unfortunately, after 1838 their economic aspirations were largely thwarted by an unreconstructed and resentful plantocracy.
It is quite impossible to transform human beings into ‘things’; they will keep reasserting their humanity in so many ways. The most obvious is open revolt, although that was a dangerous project which invariably was doomed to failure. Nevertheless, Berbice in particular had a history of open rebellion, beginning as far as we know in 1688, when the Arawaks joined the Africans in a rising. We know very little about the background to this – there are enormous lacunae in the seventeeth century records – but we do know that it was succeeded by at least four other small ones in the eighteenth century prior to 1763. That year there were two: the first at Magdalenenburg on February 23, 1762, and the Great Uprising, which began on February 27, 1763 on the Berbice River proper. This last was one of the major risings of the region, which alarmed planters throughout the Caribbean because of its scale. The last one that we know of in Berbice took place in 1781, but it was not allowed to spread because on this occasion the burgher militia had learned some lessons from 1763 and applied them.
Demerara had fewer revolts for the simple reason that plantations were not laid out there until 1746; however, the one major rising it did have – 1823 – had a direct impact on the emancipation movement in the UK which had fallen dormant until that point. Along with the Jamaicans who rose in 1831, the Demerara Africans of 1823 played a significant part indirectly in the metropolitan emancipation process. Essequibo is a rather different case, because the enslaved there had options other than open revolt, although there were certainly disturbances on individual plantations from time to time. Unlike Berbice and Demerara, however, Essequibo is a vast land space and it was situated next to Spanish-held territory whose governors from time to time offered freedom to Essequibo runaways who agreed to convert to Catholicism. This acted like a magnet for the enslaved of the Guyana colony, who chose escape as their first option.
There were too, small maroon encampments in Essequibo in the slavery period, and major ones in Demerara towards the end of the eighteenth century. The planters eventually fought a war in an attempt to eliminate the latter. Berbice had no maroon settlements until after 1764 – there was one on the upper Canje, for example, which river had been abandoned by the planters except for its lower reaches. In addition, it may be that the Demerara camps had their origin in Berbicians who were never recaptured after the 1763 uprising was crushed.
But revolt was not on the cards most of the time, and neither was marronage for the vast majority of enslaved inhabitants; however, that does not mean the Africans did not express their humanity in ways the planters had difficulty interfering with. The Africans of the three colonies which went to make up modern-day Guyana created their own interior world to give meaning and coherence to the alien, inhuman, polyglot exterior one.
They had their own social relationships; their own traditions; their own rituals – particularly when someone died – their own forms of amusement, however limited their time; their own folk tales, and most of all, their own religious beliefs until the coming of the missionaries. Not all the gods made the journey across the Atlantic because they were not all appropriate to the new conditions, but enough of them did, and were adapted to the circumstances. Elements of them still survive in the cumfa traditions.
Religion is very important to Africans on the home continent, and those enslaved who originated from West Africa in particular, had complex, sophisticated religious beliefs. This religiosity later found expression in Christianity as well – although it must be understood that the planters of the early nineteenth century were particularly averse to converting the Africans, because among other things equality status was implied thereby.
It was the non-conformists who began proselytization, but because of John Smith’s association with the events of 1823, it was decided that the official churches – namely the Anglicans and the Scottish Presbyterians – should become involved so there would be some control over what the Africans were taught. (The planters did understand that the Bible could potentially be quite a revolutionary document in terms of their local world.) The non-conformist missionaries had also taught literacy so their students could read the Bible for themselves, and with the prospect of emancipation in view it was also decided by the powers that be, that education by the churches should be encouraged so the emancipated would become ‘responsible’ citizens.
As it was, and given all the other constraints post-1838, it was in the field of education in particular that the Africans were to leave this society one of their greatest legacies (although not the only one). Coffy would have appreciated that. Even though he could not read or write himself, he had an understanding of the power of the written word, and presumably its potential as a liberating force. The enslaved African who turned up in the 1740s at the Berbice Moravian settlement in the Wiruni at night begging to be taught to read and write, would have appreciated it too. And so would the Africans of the plantations Groot and Klein Poolgeest, who in 1738 watched with tears rolling down their cheeks as the Moravians somewhat ineptly taught their children the ABC.
So tomorrow we should remember the forebears of pre-1838, who in the most extreme of conditions retained their hope, their capacity for planning for the future, their social relations, and their purposefulness, and who seized every tiny opportunity which came their way to improve their lives. And we should remember too, their capacity to construct an interior world, separate and insulated from the plantation, which gave their community continuity and identity, and allowed them to invest their universe with meaning.