It was Dr Winston McGowan writing in ‘History this week’ in our Thursday edition, who finally brought a professional historian’s perspective to the debate in our letter columns on the distinction between slavery and indentureship. It is worth emphasizing again that at a fundamental level the two institutions were structurally different, which is not the same thing as to say that those who were indentured were not subject to exploitation and various forms of abuse; they were. However, as Dr McGowan says, they were brought here under contract, which depending on the decade concerned had a duration of about five years, while the enslaved were condemned to a lifetime sentence. More than that, the status of anyone born in any of the plantation colonies was determined by the mother. This guaranteed that slave status was inherited and passed down the generations, since it was only in exceptional circumstances (and barring escape, in this country that meant for the most part very exceptional circumstances) that freedom was ever attainable. Thus was the degradation not just of individuals but an entire people assured, with the expectation it would be in perpetuity.
It is also worth reiterating the point made by several correspondents in addition to Dr McGowan, and that is that slaves were the property of their masters, and did not have what historians call a ‘legal personality,’ unlike indentured immigrants. In relation to issues of treatment, ‘History this week’ rightly points out that the disciplining of slaves was left largely to the owners, while indentured workers who fell foul of their employers were brought before the magistrates’ courts. These were guided by laws which admittedly were heavily skewed against the defendants, but which were nevertheless limited in terms of their sphere of punishment. The brutality of the planters in the slavery era bears no comparison in a general sense to their behaviour of their counterparts – however unsavoury – during the decades of indentureship. In addition, the barbarity of the punishments handed down by the Courts of Justice in the 18th century especially, has simply no equivalent in the post-slavery period.
Finally, on this subject, Dr McGowan dispels the myth that the oceanic voyage from India could be compared with the Middle Passage, and he cites the difference in the mortality rates between the two as part evidence to support his point. It might be added that had the conditions of African transport applied to the much longer voyages from India (and moreso, China), very few, if any, of the indentured immigrants would ever have arrived alive.
The contention that indentureship and slavery are similar has arisen on more than one occasion over the last few years, but one suspects that it is a political point which is being made, and not a historical one. For one thing, the debate seems to centre on Africans and Indians, when, as several of our website commentators have observed, indentureship was an experience shared by Portuguese, Chinese and even Africans, more especially those taken off Brazilian slavers intercepted by the Royal Navy. While this is generally known, what is less well known is that for its part slavery was not an exclusively African experience in this country; under the Dutch Amerindians were also enslaved, although not those from the Arawak, Carib, Akawaio or Warrau nations. Their treatment and ‘punishments’ were the same as those of their African brothers and sisters, the main difference being that abolition for them came forty years before the act of 1833.
The history is clear, so what precisely is to be gained by a falsification which will inevitably be challenged by historians with some acquaintance with both systems? Are we to assume that there is a feeling by some of those close to the ruling party that greater suffering somehow confers a moral advantage which could potentially translate into political consequences? If so, it would indicate a certain defensiveness – unnecessarily, it should be said, because history should not be confused with politics. Of course, politicians and those who move in their penumbra are good at hijacking history for political ends, but diminishing the enormities of slavery for the sake of stymieing any claim which could conceivably be made to a superiority of suffering, so to speak, seems nothing short of ludicrous. In any case, as Mr Kwayana said when this issue raised its head the last time, we really should not be in competition over suffering.
History is what it is, and while our current problems have their origins in the past, they have to be solved in the present. Everyone who was born on this soil has a right to be here, whether his or her ancestors arrived thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, or in comparatively recent times. Were it the case that the first-comers had rights superior to all the others, then the Warraus would inherit the Guyana earth, since they have been here for at least seven thousand years and perhaps longer. And similarly, a greater burden of historical suffering does not confer a right to dominate any other group, any more than a superiority of numbers does.
The problem is that the asseverations of the governing party notwithstanding, this is not a society whose various ethnic groups have worked out satisfactory accommodations for occupying the political space of the nation; that is yet to be achieved. And negotiating the terms of those accommodations is in no way related to what kind of housing slaves or indentured immigrants had, or the nature of the punishments to which they were subject or the conditions of their transportation to this country.
There should be no quarrel in the society about the grand sweep of the larger aspects of history as far back as the indentureship and slavery periods, although historians between themselves will continue to have their own technical disputes about evidence, how events should be viewed, etc. However, these are genuine historical debates, and not political ones. The recent past, that is to say the period since the Second World War, is in a different category of course; in that instance there is no accord about its larger aspects.
The reason quite simply is because the issues it raises are ones that are very much current and have not yet been settled, and as a consequence they have been subject to a considerable amount of myth-making. Whether a more honest appraisal of the events of the last six decades by historians as opposed to politicians seeking to impose their own orthodoxies on the public account, would assist with our present problems is perhaps moot. (It should be noted that the process of historical reappraisal has already begun.) It may be that only with some movement on the political front, would it become possible to create something approaching a national narrative of the period from the end of the 1940s onwards.