No one can be absolutely sure when the first enslaved Africans were brought to our shores, but we do know that when the first Dutch arrived in what was to become the Colony of Berbice in 1627, they brought six Africans with them. Exactly what happened to them no one knows, but we do know that the Dutch themselves were in a very bad way within two years of their arrival, and were saved by the Amerindians who gave them food.
It could be, however, that Africans were brought here even earlier than 1627, since the Colony of Essequibo was founded before that of Berbice, although the precise date of its establishment has never been determined beyond doubt. What can be said is that when a Dutch boat sailing along this coast put into the River Demerara in 1629, the crew encountered an enslaved African there trading with the Amerindians on behalf of the Dutch Essequibo authorities. Since he presumably had some mastery of what was probably the Arawak language in order to trade, and clearly was trusted to go into the interior on his own, it is perhaps reasonable to speculate that he must have been in the colony for some time.
The numbers of Africans in the Guyana Dutch colonies were always very small in comparison with those in Suriname and the larger British and French West Indian plantocracies, nevertheless, that did not affect their capacity for resistance. The enslaved in Berbice in particular were prone to revolt – as early as the 17th century they rose up in alliance with the Arawaks – and in 1763, organized one of the Caribbean’s most significant uprisings which threatened Dutch hegemony in the Guianas. For its part, Demerara is known for its large maroon community, which in due course fought with the British at the turn of the nineteenth century. Owing to the fact that the Spanish colony of what is now Venezuela bordered on Essequibo, the enslaved Africans and Amerindians of the latter colony preferred to take the option of escaping west, where at some periods the Spaniards would allow them to settle.
While these expressions of resistance made it abundantly clear that those held in bondage rejected their status, it was not until the nineteenth century that uprisings in the Caribbean began to have a direct impact on metropolitan policy as well as movements in Britain to end the institution of slavery.
Various underlying causes for the abolition of slavery are thought to have been at work, not the least of which was the fact that the British economy had moved away from reliance on the West Indian colonies, and the ruling classes especially did not feel the same economic imperative to indulge sugar interests. Cotton, by this time, was seen as more important, and cotton employed free labour. As the UK industrialised, new economic concerns were moving in the direction of free trade, and sugar was identified with an older mercantilist era. As it was, therefore, the West India lobby which had exerted such influence in the British Parliament during the heyday of sugar, went into decline.
There were various other underlying factors at work as well, including religious and intellectual ones, all of them symptomatic of a changing society which had shifted its attitudes in response to a new era. Those attitudes covered a range of concerns, of which slavery was only one.
Slave trade abolition
Where the active struggle in the metropolis itself was concerned, it was the Quakers who could perhaps be described as the pioneers of the abolition movement. This movement eventually came to encompass a range of groups, churches and individuals, who together mounted the first mass campaign in history. It utilized a variety of techniques, many of which set the standard for all subsequent pressure groups, and some of which, with adaptations, are still in use today. It might be noted that included among the speakers who went up and down the country to address meetings, were Africans who had personal experience of slavery.
The first target was the slave trade, which despite many petitions to Parliament and the introduction of bills, took a long time to get abolished. However, this was accomplished finally by an Act which received the royal assent on March 25, 1807. In what were then called the United Colony of Essequibo and Demerara, and the Colony of Berbice, the parliamentary Act did not abolish the slave trade, because these two territories did not come under the auspices of Parliament, but under the direct authority of the Crown. This was owing to the fact that along with one or two other West Indian colonies they had been ceded to the British during the course of the Napoleonic Wars. The end of the slave trade came a few months earlier in their case, therefore, since it was done by Order-in-Council in 1806, and was implemented on January 1, 1807.
With the official ending of the British slave trade, there were those who thought that slavery itself might wither away in due course, while others believed in an ameliorative, gradual approach. The enslaved in the Caribbean, however, had other ideas. The first of the great risings of the 19th century took place in Barbados in 1816, but it was the one in 1823 in Demerara which really galvanized the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
Its proximate cause was a circular from the Colonial Office setting out measures for ameliorating the conditions of the slave labour force. The colonies here boasting some of the most retrogressive planters in the West Indies backed in the case of the United Colony by an equally reactionary Lieutenant-Governor, did not announce the contents of this circular to the enslaved population, which suspected that freedom had been granted by the King, but that the planters were withholding it.
The case of a white minister who was also charged in connection with the rising became a cause célèbre in London, and it did not take long for the anti-slavery movement to be revived. It was committed initially to the mitigation and gradual abolition of slavery, but it was taken over by the radicals in the movement in 1827, when it was renamed the Anti-Slavery Society.
The cause got its second fillip from a major revolt in Jamaica in 1831, which caused the Anti-Slavery Society to disassociate itself from the gradual approach, and campaign to bring an early end to slavery. Two years later in 1833 slavery itself was abolished by Act of Parliament which came into force on August 1, 1834.
But this was not a simple act of emancipation; it contained some poisoned clauses. In the first place, the British government effectively bribed the planters by giving them ‘compensation’ of £20,000,000 for the loss of labourers, who were treated as property; this would be nearly £1 billion in today’s currency. The true victims, the enslaved, got nothing. It was paid for by the British taxpayer, and the amounts released varied according to the colony and the size of a planter’s holding. An enslaved worker in British Guiana (the United Colony of Essequibo and Demerara, and Berbice were combined in 1831 to form British Guiana), for example, was given a higher value than one in Jamaica. This was probably because the former was considered to have virgin soils and a higher production rate than the latter. In the end, £4,295,989 was paid to planters for British Guiana’s 82,824 enslaved.
In the second place, emancipation was not immediate; it involved an apprenticeship scheme whereby the enslaved had to work a fixed number of hours for the master; for time over and above that they had to be paid wages, or alternatively, they could choose to work on their own plots. The enslaved were divided into two categories: the praedials, ie, those who worked in the fields; and the non-praedials. The period of apprenticeship was fixed at four years for the latter group, and six years for the former.
This news caused disturbances in most of the colonies, including our Essequibo, although there was one West Indian territory – Antigua – whose Assembly decided not to bother with apprenticeship at all, and granted immediate emancipation on August 1, 1834.
As the date for the emancipation of the non-praedials approached, there was clear evidence the praedials unsurprisingly were very hostile to a further two years of servitude. Following an investigation of conditions, the Anti-Slavery Society wrote a scathing indictment of apprenticeship and the possible consequences of denying freedom to the praedials for two more years. This was sent to the British government which early in 1838 advised the colonies to emancipate all the apprentices including the praedials, on August 1 that year. It was the Trinidad Assembly which did so first, followed by some of the other Eastern Caribbean territories. British Guiana’s Court of Policy was more dilatory, but it too eventually followed suit, legislating to liberate its enslaved population, effective August 1.
There were fears on the part of the planters here that those who had been newly liberated would be raucous and behave in an unruly fashion on August 1. No such thing happened. The freed men and women of British Guiana for the most part attended church that day.
August 1 fundamentally transformed the society in all spheres of endeavour, as well as in terms of the composition of its population, creating the conditions for the evolution of the nation we know today.
(Postscript: It should be remembered that members of certain Amerindian nations were enslaved throughout the period of Dutch control here, securing their emancipation from the authorities in the Netherlands forty years before the Africans did so under the British.)