On Wednesday we will celebrate Emancipation Day. And it is worth celebrating, not just by the descendants of those from whom the shackles of slavery were removed on August 1, 1838, but by everyone. This date marks one of the great divides in our history. The society which came after it set the contours for our modern arrangements as we know them, which is not to say that before then our local universe was unfree and after it, it became suddenly free. There were all kinds of impediments to our evolution towards the recognition of human rights, not the least of which were indentureship and colonialism.

The first major change to follow the end of enslavement was the composition of the population. It was in the nineteenth century that Guyana took on the characteristics of the multi-racial, multi-cultural society which we recognise today, although it must be said that the three colonies which went to comprise this country were never confined to only two racial groups at any time in the post-Columbian period, unlike most of the other West Indian territories. The Indigenous people also played an active role in Dutch colonial society, and not quite in the way they are popularly depicted either.

The assumption has always been that the Indigenous nations acted as the custodians of the plantation system, and were the ones who recaptured runaways for the planters. However, this is at best a partial truth, and applied mostly towards the end of the slavery period; in addition, it only involved a limited number of groups. For much of the enslavement era the Indigenous people did not recapture maroons, or police the plantations. It has to be understood that in Dutch times there were four ‘free’ nations, who were given the guarantee they would not be taken into slavery. However, theoretically, members of other nations could be and were enslaved, and sometimes found themselves in the same position as the Africans.

They lived in the same conditions, endured the same punishments, were subject to the same horrendous brutalities of the system, and tried to run away, just as the Africans did. A few of them also joined their African colleagues in outright rebellion. Even some of the free Indigenous groups who lived in the forest would sometimes help African runaways who had escaped, and the first uprising we have on record here comes from seventeenth century Berbice, and represented combined action involving free Arawaks and enslaved Africans.

In addition, there was a local Indigenous slave trade, which for the most part was prosecuted by the Caribs, who sold their captives largely in Suriname, because this country had too limited a plantation system to buy a large number of them. Nevertheless, there were quite a few on the plantations of Essequibo in particular, many of whom were women and children. The men were often sent to hunt and fish for the plantation, if they were not required to clear bush when new fields were being laid out. Indigenous enslavement was finally abolished by the Dutch in the 1790s. It should be recognised, therefore, that the Emancipation anniversary should also have particular resonance with many Indigenous groups, and not just with the Africans.

The story of Guyana is often seen as the story of unfree labour within the context of a monoculture, but that oversimplifies things. By the time indentureship held sway, sugar indeed dominated the economic and political life of our local world, but in earlier periods, the account is a little more complicated. In the earliest days, when the Indigenous people supplemented the produce of the plantations, this country’s second most important export after sugar was annatto, used to colour Dutch cheeses, and supplied entirely by the nations. The various Indigenous groups supplied many other things as well, including fish, which relieved the Dutch of the onus of having to import it in order to feed the enslaved. Fish supplies were the responsibility of the Warraus, who in the case of the Essequibo plantations ran a fishery in the Orinoco, which eventually the Spaniards destroyed.

In earlier times, trade with the Indigenous peoples was so important to the Dutch, that the Essequibo authorities had Africans with good language skills go into the interior to barter for various items. We know that in the case of Berbice, six Africans came with the very first Dutch settlers, although what happened to them is unknown. It may be that in Essequibo too, Africans arrived at the same time as the Dutch, because when a visiting Dutch boat put into Demerara at the end of the 1620s, the crew came across an African trading with the Indigenous people on the instruction of the Essequibo authorities. Since he presumably had acquired one or more of the local languages, he must have been there for some time.

While sugar was Essequibo’s main crop, the same was not true of Berbice when the Dutch were there; that colony grew more coffee, cotton and cacao for many years than it did sugar. In fact, Coffy of 1763 fame, and his military chief, Accara, did not come from a sugar plantation at all, but from one which grew cotton and probably coffee as well. During periods when there were hostilities with the United States, and southern cotton was not available in the UK, then the planters here turned their hands to cotton growing, rather than sugar cultivation. Anyone who looks at early maps of Georgetown will see that its expansion in the early part of the nineteenth century was at the expense of cotton production, and not sugar.

However, considerably before indentureship became the planters’ preferred form of labour, sugar had taken over our coastlands, and it has maintained its stranglehold grip until recent times. Considering all the suffering it has been associated with down the centuries, its demise now in such a painful fashion will perhaps make this year’s Emancipation anniversary a little more poignant than usual.

Emancipation was the first major step in transforming this part of the world into a modern society, and in recognising the intrinsic humanity of the people who live here. We still have a lot to learn about respecting the intrinsic humanity and the rights of others, not just in how we go about diminishing the sugar industry, but more especially in how we operate in the political arena.

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