1st of August, 1838
‘O ye first of August freed men who now liberty enjoy
Salute the day and shout hurrah to Queen Victoria;
On this glad day the galling chains of slavery were broke
From off the necks of Afric’s sons who bled beneath its yoke.
With hearts and voice you should rejoice, to God the glory give.
Now freedom is your happy lot, as freedmen you should live
Your minds you ought to cultivate as well as till the ground,
And virtuous actions imitate wherein true bliss abound.
To your masters then you’ll fill a glass and drink with grateful glee,
And to all those of the same class who nobly set you free.
Then you should sing God Save the Queen, oh may she live forever;
Great Britain your true friend has been – forsake you may she never.’
Simon Christian Oliver (1838)
This is an historic poem. It is a very significant document on the Anniversary of Emancipation from slavery in the Caribbean. It holds some importance to Caribbean and Guyanese literature, perhaps in spite of, and perhaps because of it being quite unremarkable as verse in celebration of liberty.
As a document marking the end of an era and a great rite of passage for the enslaved Africans it is unique. It stands out as a rare work written by a black poet at that time, since such writers were not normal outside of the white elite. It is also unique as such a poem on the subject of Emancipation. Simon Christian Oliver is the first native black writer known to Guyanese literature and the second oldest resident Guyanese writer on record. He is preceded only by one other poet in the history of British Guiana – a member of the white elite known only as ‘Colonist’. That gives Oliver a distinguished place in the development of Guyanese literature in the nineteenth century.
‘Colonist’ commented on the poor state of Guianese literature at the time, since there was a paucity of local writers. But Gemma Robinson points to the error of that view since Oliver was there; describing him as a significant discovery. His significance is commented upon by Robinson as well as O R Dathorne, N E Cameron and David Dabydeen. Other poets of note in the nineteenth century would have been Thomas Don and Egbert Martin (Leo), with Walter McA Lawrence going into the early twentieth century. Both Robinson and Dabydeen discussed a number of institutions that would have contributed to the development of the national literature, but none of them included Emancipation as a contributing factor. Yet that event would have helped to open the way for poets such as Don to emerge, and provided a subject for poetic preoccupation. Oliver then, went on record as documenting the historic occasion in verse.
Oliver was a free black, a schoolmaster said to be living in the village of Buxton. In 1838, however, Buxton might not have existed as a village by that name, since the historical accounts date the founding of Buxton as 1840. One hundred and twenty-eight former enslaved workers pooled their money to purchase the New Orange Nassau Estate to establish the free village which they then called Buxton, in honour of Thomas Fowell Buxton, a British parliamentarian who was a prime mover in the Abolitionist movement. Oliver was said to have been wealthy and educated. In Caribbean history, he was preceded by another free black poet, Francis Williams of Jamaica, born of free and wealthy black parents. Sources state that he was sent to be educated at an English school and then at Cambridge University, although other sources say there is no evidence to confirm that. Without a doubt, though, he received an English education and wrote poems in Latin in praise of British governors and colonialism, causing him to be described as an imitator of Roman poet Horace.
That therefore helps to fix Oliver in the history of West Indian poetry, and the significance of his Emancipation poem. As a celebration of liberty the verse raises serious questions because of its decidedly colonial quality. It is Victorian verse like the trend of West Indian poetry for the next 100 years, so Oliver cannot be quite crucified for that. As a general trend, most of the poetry right up to 1940 tended to imitate English Romantic and Victorian verse. However, the poem is more in praise of the colonial system than in praise of emancipation – there is no expression that the colony was well rid of slavery. It is not progressive. The praise and the glory goes to the Queen, the planters and colonial rulers, and God.
Praise of God is not surprising, and in fact, standard in a Christian society. Praise of the Good Queen Victoria was also common at the time, since the enslaved gave her the credit for the abolition of slavery. What put Oliver’s verse in the same light as those of Francis Williams is the glorification of “your masters” and “all those of the same class who nobly set you free” in his address to the former enslaved. The whole tone of the poem seems to observe a position in which the emancipated slaves are not finally claiming their place as humans equal to those who colonised and enslaved them. There is no hint that they have achieved or deserve equality. On the contrary, the poet cast them in a continued inferior position – persons for whom the planter class in their great benevolence and kindness, have done them an undeserved favour in “nobly setting them free”. The poem beseeches them to be eternally grateful.
Just as Williams wrote odes to governors and colonialists, and revered the white ruling class, gratefully accepting an inferior social and intellectual position in the eighteenth century, so do we find Oliver pledging allegiance and eternal gratitude in the nineteenth. The loyalty to Britain is stronger than a wish for a free society in British Guiana and for any sense of independence among the people. Of interest is Oliver’s advice that “your minds you ought to cultivate as well as till the ground”. He plays poetically on “cultivate” and “till the ground” while admonishing his “Afric sons” to improve themselves intellectually.
A similar call was to be made some 60 years later by Joseph Ruhomon in his call to the people of India – “those in British Guiana” to “improve themselves”. Similarly, Ruhomon’s vision was one of India, and much less one of British Guiana.
The homage to Queen Victoria is also fairly standard. Even the oral poetry created by the post-Emancipation workers themselves revere her as their liberator. An excellent example is the Jamaican traditional song “Aagas Maanin” (“August Morning”) which seems to celebrate both Emancipation and Victoria’s golden jubilee, widely celebrated in the Caribbean in 1888.
“Aagas maanin come again
Queen Victoria set we free”
While that hails Emancipation, several lines regale the Queen and her milestone:
Queen Victoria Jubilee”
This song has long been one of the theatrical pieces performed by the folk to celebrate the First of August. The song accompanies a stately costumed dance with the playing of the gumbay drums. The costuming is regal, complete with the royal crown indicating a preoccupation with crowning and monarchs in folk traditional performances even quite outside of any reference to Victoria. The other side of it is the use of the gumbay drum, one of the African derived folk drums of nineteenth century Jamaica, which even historians and anthropologists associate with obeah (see Martha Warren Beckwith, Verene Shepherd and Franklyn Knight).
The roots of this drum is therefore deep although in contemporary times it has lost its spiritual connection. Elsewhere in the Caribbean it is used in secular celebrations such as the junkanoo in the Bahamas and the Gumbay or Goombay in Bermuda. Its appearance will always suggest the past significance of the traditions that use(d) it. This is, therefore, quite another side of the Emancipation celebrations as opposed to what Oliver has written.
The gumbay drum was a fossil still seen in the Jamaican jonkunnu in the early-middle twentieth century and it is known that the original jonkunnu was spiritual ritual. The Bahamian junkanoo is a carnival with extremely elaborate and spectacular costumed bands, while the Goombay of Bermuda is a smaller masquerade dance, also with no current spiritual content.
While there are many performances to mark Emancipation, some of them demonstrate a strong belief in the monarchy. But their sense of independence and liberation is strong, despite the praise of Victoria. Quite on the other hand Oliver’s very significant poem written for the occasion is admonishing the “1st of August freedmen” to ensure that they remain servitude.