By Clyde W. Thierens
The British government’s vacillation in enforcing the ameliorative proposals emboldened opposition by the planter-controlled legislatures. The metropolitan government’s ‘caution’ resulted in Barbados and Jamaica not implementing the majority of the proposals while, in other colonies, a significant number of measures were ignored.
Raymond Smith contends that the desire for free trade by powerful British industrialists supported attempts to undermine West Indian slavery and the preferential treatment West Indian planters received. Planters opposed this nexus between the amelioration proposals and the East Indian challenge. They saw it as a diabolical plot to ruin them. They strongly objected to being betrayed by those who were the chief beneficiaries of their struggles – the British capitalists.
Planters also opposed the proposals because they faced increasing competition also from slavery-dominated Cuba and Brazil whose sugar undersold theirs in Europe.
Their opposition mounted after abolitionists organized a boycott of West Indian sugar in preference for free-grown sugar from the East in 1824.
West Indian planters were peeved that the amelioration proposals did not address the issue of their compensation. In Demerara-Essequibo the argument was made that “full and ample compensation” should have been the first issue considered. In addition, it was noted that the implementation of the ameliorative measures required extra duties for managers and overseers, therefore extra pay would be required for them. Marshall argues that, being well aware of the inevitability of the implementation of the proposals, the legislatures of Barbados, and other colonies, deliberately prolonged their resistance so that they could win a favourable compensatory deal. He claims that they were successful in doing so as planters were able to acquire money and extensive control over post-emancipation developments.
Planters remonstrated against specific proposals which they felt served to reduce the amount of work they could extract from the slaves, and thus reduce their profits. These included proposals such as the termination of the driving system, and the granting of Sunday as a free day, while allowing another day for market. The forty one days granted to enslaved Africans in Trinidad to cultivate their plots was fiercely opposed by planters as ruinous -even as they sought compensation for the loss of slave work. Related to this, proposals to reduce the length of the working day were deemed grossly unjust as planters compared this to the fact that British children were being forced to work in factories for twelve hours in deplorable conditions.
The proposal to allow compulsory manumission was only fully accepted by the Bahamas where a plantation system did not exist. Demerara-Essequibo planters strongly protested because of the chronic labour shortage they faced. Other West Indian planters protested on the grounds that increased manumission would result in an escalation of destitution in the colonies. They also feared the loss of essential slaves such as drivers and artisans who were in the best position to benefit from compulsory manumission.
Planters also opposed the amelioration proposals on the grounds that they were “highly prejudicial” to whites who could only derive some social standing as a result of their colour. They insisted that any interference in the management of the system would destroy the traditional master-slave relationship and impact upon the slaves in ways opposite to those anticipated. Planters argued that introducing radical changes would unsettle the Africans and promote unrest. They charged that discussions in London had made the slaves insubordinate. Slaves’ knowledge of discussions in the British Parliament over amelioration proposals was blamed for the 1823 Demerara Insurrection, as well as incidents of unrest in Jamaica, Barbados, St Lucia, Dominica and Grenada.
Many planters opposed the idea that the proposals were a step toward the granting of freedom for the slaves on the grounds that the Africans were not “fit for freedom”.
They contended that the supposed ‘natural inferiority’ of the slaves precluded them from enjoying the full rights of human beings. These sentiments were in direct opposition to the underlying principle of amelioration which aimed at ‘elevating’ the slave from the status of chattel to that of human being.
Among the measures that were regarded by the abolitionists as serving to enhance the dignity of the slave in preparation for freedom were restrictions in the use of the whip, the appointment of a protector of slaves, the protection of the family unit, the promotion of religious instruction and the recognition of the rights of slaves to marriage and to property. The provision of more free time to the slaves, easier manumission and encouraging them to earn and save were also linked to this idea.
Many planters obviously felt that they were duty bound to resist the proposals and seek to preserve the status quo as this had enriched them, and shaped their socio-cultural reality, for centuries.
Humanitarians and missionary societies saw religion and education as the primary agents to ameliorate the condition of the slaves, while preparing them for freedom.
Few planters supported missionary work among the slaves while some had a “grudging toleration” in the hope that religious instruction would produce submissive workers. However, many of the planters viewed missionary work with suspicion. This evolved out of suspicions that missionaries were allied with abolitionists and were their spies. They also were uncomfortable with the close contact missionaries developed with the slaves as much as they were uneasy about what the missionaries actually taught the slaves.
Some planters opposed missionary work in the belief that religious instruction would incite the slaves to rebel as there was a “fundamental incompatibility between Christianity and slavery”. The non-conformist missionaries were seen as particularly threatening in this regard because of their anti-establishment nature which the planters feared could serve as a bad example for the slaves. All of these fears seemed to be validated by events surrounding the 1823 Demerara Insurrection in which Reverend John Smith of the London Missionary Society was seriously implicated for his alleged role in inciting and supporting the slaves on the East Coast. These developments led to increasing opposition by planters to proposals for slaves to receive religious instruction. In Barbados this anti-religious sentiment turned violent as Reverend Shrewbury was attacked. In Jamaica, the planters blamed the 1831 Christmas Rebellion especially on the Baptists.
While some planters preferred their slaves to be taught by the established churches, many opposed religious instruction because it opened them to moral criticism by Christianized slaves. A number of planters were vexed at having to curtail their sexual exploits with female slaves who objected on moral grounds. Planters often attacked religious instruction as time wasting and disruptive of the slave routine.
They objected to night services which they claimed made slaves unable to attend work well rested the next day.
There was also great concern among the planters that their cruel and unjust acts could not be hidden from the missionaries who communicated these to their superiors in England —with some of this information being used by the abolitionists.
On the other hand, there were planters who argued that the slaves needed to be ‘protected’ from non-conformist missionaries who spread what they described as ‘corrupt’ doctrines such as the argument that slavery was ‘against God’.
Additionally, many planters rejected the idea of slaves being taught to read, and being treated as equals by white missionaries. They were of the view that this would result in slaves having a higher regard for themselves, to the detriment of a proper servile relationship.
It is clear that the planters in Demerara-Essequibo, Berbice, and elsewhere in the British Caribbean opposed the proposals of the British government, after 1822, for the amelioration of slavery mainly out of their desire to protect themselves from ruin. The proposals appeared to threaten their ability to continue their way of life—economically, socially and politically. The threatened termination of planters’ dominance and control over a system that had enriched them for generations must have been perceived as utterly appalling.
Based upon their desire for self-protection, planters were galled at the obvious connection between humanitarian pressure for reforms and the machinations of economic forces which sought to undermine their economic foundation. They were incensed that the British Government seemed to be supporting this effort, apparently without considering the dire consequences this had for Caribbean colonies. In addition, the ameliorative proposals contained no hint of compensation for the losses that would be accrued by the slave owners as a result of their implementation.
Planters were greatly offended that many who supported the dismantling of the West Indian system had, for generations been among its chief beneficiaries. They felt that they had been used and discarded—sacrificed after years of solid contribution to the development of the mother country.
Added to their economic woes, British Caribbean planters were peeved at the idea that they were expected to acquiesce quietly to the proposals. Having, for the most part, been allowed some degree of autonomy, they resented being dictated to. In their own estimation they had been doing a good job given their circumstances. They perceived the amelioration proposals as an indictment against them. They further resented the fact that this indictment emanated from a network of ‘self-righteous, anti-establishment spies’ who were also dangerous instigators of slave unrest.
Planters also resented the potential of the proposals to create social upheaval. The empowerment of the supposedly ‘inferior’ slave with ‘rights’, and the opportunity to become more of a human being, must have been particularly offensive to those who assumed that they had the God-given right to rule over others.