May - August, 2006
By Merle Collins
The following is the text of an Emancipation Day talk given at Roxborough Catholic Church, St. Paul's, before the mass on Sunday 4th August, 2002.
August 1st is a day of great importance to our lives. It is the day on which we should take time to remember the struggle of our ancestors for emancipation, that is, for freedom from enslavement. There are two major dates to think of when we mention emancipation: 1st August 1834 and 1st August 1838. The Abolition Act, saying that slaves (the people enslaved) would be made free, was passed in Parliament in 1833. By that Act, from 1st August 1834, anyone who was a slave would stop being a slave and become an apprentice. That is, Parliament said, you would be made free but we're not giving it to you right away. We will have a period of four years for domestic and other workers and six years for agricultural workers, preparing you for freedom and giving the people who used to "own" you a chance to catch themselves and prepare to do without your free labour. So between 1st August 1834 and 1st August 1838, all workers would be apprentices, giving some free labour still (40 and a half hours), but they can't make you work more than 15 hours overtime a week, they can't sell you again, they can't beat you, children under six immediately become free, unless they have none to take care of them and then they will have to remain as apprentices with the "owners"), the owners could say look, they don't want your services any more and let you go free, but if they do that and you're over 50 or you're infirm and can't take care of yourself, they would still be responsible for your upkeep, they could still send you out to work with other people, as they used to do before, but they can't separate family members against their will any more, they have to continue to be responsible for your upkeep (food, clothes, etc., such as they provide), they have to continue to provide you with provision grounds, the little plot for you to grow your own provisions to live by, you can't be made to work on Sundays and must be given time for religious worship, you have to give forty and a half hours free labour, and other things. The point is, apprenticeship wasn't full freedom, but it was supposed to be an improvement and it came with the promise that full freedom was coming for some 1st August 1838 and for others 1st August 1840. This was the case for all slaves throughout the British Caribbean. This was a British thing. Those enslaved in Martinique and Guadeloupe continued to be designated slaves until 1848, those in the Dutch colonies until the 1860s, those in the Spanish until later, those in the United States also not yet because they were independent and doing their own thing, so that the white American masters were saying to Britain, you're too foolish, but it's alright, when you gone and make your sugar so expensive by having to pay black people to grow cane, we will sell you cheap slave-grown sugar. So 1st August 1834 was the beginning of a process of emancipation for us out here in the Caribbean.
Now because our British education didn't really teach us much about slavery, people sometimes have almost a feeling of guilt, as if is black people do something wrong and so we have to be ashamed about this slavery business, so sometimes people say things like my ancestors weren't slaves, non. Most likely they were and that is not something to be ashamed about. It's something to be angry about, a positive kind of anger to make you count your blessings and struggle for understanding of self. It's possible that your ancestors came after slavery, when free black people were brought in, some captured and released from ships run by the Spanish or Dutch or others, but they were on their way to slavery in those cases, and others were brought in recruited directly from Africa. But generally part of that trade in human beings cycle. And sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that only agricultural workers and domestics were slaves. No. Carpenters, seamstresses, seamen, people in other trades. And even if you were black and for some reason or the other happened to be free , had purchased your freedom or whatever, you'd better have your free paper on you, otherwise they could pick you again. At the time of emancipation, the population of Grenada was listed as 800 whites, 3,800 free coloured and 24,000 slaves. The proportion of those figures was more or less the same throughout the Caribbean. Barbados had the largest actual number of white people. 14,950 whites, 5,100 free coloured and 82,000 enslaved. Still, you hear the numbers of those enslaved. So throughout the region, that is our story.
So what happened 1st August 1834? Now people weren't happy about this half free situation. The general feeling seems to have been; we struggle hard enough, we want freedom, not this half baked thing. So on that date, 1st August, 1834, some workers showed their dissatisfaction by protesting when they went to the estate in the morning. 1st August 1834 was a Friday. No official joy, of course, because the planters very vexed about this road to becoming free business. People turned out, and the papers say that generally the field workers made a lot of noise, quarrelling about this half free business - they were "vociferous in their discontent", is how the papers put it. The newspaper (The Grenada Free Press) said: "As far as our information reaches, the field people on many estates turned out lazily in the morning of Friday last and were vociferous in their expression of discontent at the supposed mockery of calling them free, while they "must work still". Threats of striking were made amongst some of them, but on two estates only, and those next to the town and under the very guns of Richmond Hill - did they actually refuse to do their work." You hear the paper? Those right under the guns of Richmond Hill refusing to work. You could tell what those editors thinking. Those two estates were Mount Gay and Tempe. In fact, there were also disturbances on Woburn estate and on an estate in St. Andrew's I haven't yet identified. In Mount Gay and Tempe, the field labourers refused to work, and the paper says they "were very insolent and abusive to the white people when they endeavoured to prevail upon them to go to the field." In the end, the constables were called, they still defied the constables, the constables took them to Government House, they still defiant, they were arrested and charged. And other people followed from the estate, pelting the constables, quarrelling about their freedom, etc. In the end some workers got gaol terms and were beaten and put on the treadmill as punishment. So that was 1st August 1834, slaves become apprentices, they don't like what that means, and they protest. So what you see there is that our ancestors struggled right down to the end, making themselves ungovernable, so that freedom would not be a question. We are standing here today on the backs of all of those who struggled like that for their survival as people - notice I didn't say decent people, just people, because the black enslaved weren't considered people, they were chattel, things white people owned.
And you know, people hear more about Wilberforce and the British parliament and others than about the enslaved themselves who fought hard for their freedom. They fought in various ways - running away, women at times running with their children, pretending to be sick, rising up in revolt - to oppose their enslavement, and after sympathetic people in Britain were able to convince the public that not only was slavery inhuman but it was also no longer as profitable as it once was, the British parliament finally decided, first, that the slave trade, the capture of Africans in Africa and transportation to the Americas, was to be stopped and then that slavery itself was to be abolished.
So you know about 1st August 1834, that part of the process, and then the next stop in this process was 1st August 1838 and that was the date that full emancipation (freedom under the law) began - 1st August 1838. Remember that it was supposed to be 1st August 1838 for some and 1st August 1840 for others. In the end, all through the Caribbean, the local legislatures passed Acts saying, finish with the whole thing 1st August 1838. In Grenada, the Island Abolition Act was passed 8th June, 1838. (Antigua, I believe, was the one which did away with apprenticeship altogether). But for us here and for others throughout the region, 1st August 1838 was Emancipation Day for everybody. Can you imagine how these people who were so recently called slaves (people could sell them, your daughter could be sold to a planter here who decide he going to Jamaica- so when you see somebody in Jamaica today who looking just like you, don't fraid, might be your family in truth) all of that, can you imagine how these people felt on 1st August 1838 to know that after all their struggles, this was a beginning? The newspapers say that here in Grenada on that day, things were quiet. No major celebration, not a lot of noise. And we say, well, that must be where we get the attitude from. Thing burning you, major thing happening in your life, but not a lot of noise until somebody really juk you. And the newspapers you reading from those days, The St. George's Free Press and the Grenada Gazette were not papers with the point of view of the enslaved. So official documents were not recording the point of view of the slaves, but they say our ancestors were quiet and you say, I wish I could hear what was being said in those so-called nigger yards, in the little houses on the plots, on the estate, in the domestic quarters, in houses wherever the recently enslaved were, among the free black and free coloured population who, even if they weren't slaves themselves still, had relatives who were and in any event wore the skin that was the badge of slavery.. The paper says (January 2nd, 1839). "To the praise of the late apprentices be it recorded, that not one act of violence throughout the colonies, (not just in Grenada, you know, throughout the colonies!) as far as we recollect, marked their passage from a state of bondage to that of freedom. The day of emancipation was generally spent in religious duties - the commencement of their new career in life was thus happily begun." So it wasn't a fete atmosphere on that date. It was a thoughtful atmosphere. A time for meditation and prayer. After years of captivity sanctioned and promoted officially, they were giving thanks for freedom. People were tired after years of struggle for survival and they were quietly giving thanks. It wasn't any big holiday, of course. The planters obviously wouldn't give a holiday for something they were so vexed about and perhaps that is what we inherited, a disregard of our big day because it was disregarded officially. Because the birthday of British royalty was a big thing for the planters, it became a big thing for us, and because nothing about us - African history, emancipation day, nothing about us was a big thing for the planters who said they owned us, we come and think we're nothing in truth, so that we inherited this attitude of not celebrating ourselves.
The St. George's Free Press and Grenada Gazette says that on that day, "the last vestiges of slavery and apprenticeship, were for ever abolished". We know that is not true. A lot of those vestiges still exist, but certainly on that day, legal chattel slavery (slavery sanctioned by law) was abolished. It would take years of struggle on different fronts (like this one here, amazingly in the church) to abolish the last vestiges of slavery. I say "amazingly in the church" because when one considers the history, it is also to be celebrated that the climate in the church here today is such that it is possible to commemorate the struggle of our ancestors within this building. We - the church included - have come a long way since 1st August 1838. Because we know the church doesn't have a nice history where slavery is concerned. As one writer put it, "before clamping the Negroes into chains, the Spaniards were very careful to baptize them all into the Kingdom of Heaven. "(Jackdaw No. 12). In fact, some people today, so far away from the pain and struggle of our ancestors, even echo one of the arguments of the times, that it's a good thing that Christianity came to save those savages from Africa. That is ignorance. However the church may have transformed itself and however much we may have transformed ourselves within it, the ugly face of the thing was that the church condoned the enslavement of human beings for profit. Which means, taking people, putting them in those little caves on the coast of Africa, forcing them on to a boat when they don't want to go and they bawling or pulling back, packing them up like books on bookshelves in the ship, even throwing a cargo overboard at times because you losing so much already that if you throw the cargo overboard the insurance money might be better (and that cargo was some of us, you know), and you're telling me it was alright to do that in the name of Christianity? That was the beginning - Spain and the catholic church. In 1493, by papal decree, the trade in slaves was given to Spain. And this was a question of profit and power, so Britain thought it its duty to defy the papal decree, so the English church (church and state were closely entwined) got into the act. Sir John Hawkins, wealthy, religious, was the first English slave trader. After his first slaving voyage in 1562, Hawkins is said to have been the wealthiest man in Plymouth, after the second, he was the wealthiest man in England. So this was about big money, not care for the souls of black folk (to borrow Du Bois's phrase). To move forward, we have to critique ourselves, critique our church if it deserves criticism. Realize, too, of course, that by one of those seeming contradictions of existence, on the 1st August 1838, our ancestors went to their various churches.
What we are commemorating today is emancipation day - this means that from that date no one- time so-called master could any longer say that is my slave and mean it legally. Nobody could force you to work on their estate because they had bought you in a slave market of some kind and you belonged to them. For years before that, some people had saved in various ways to buy their freedom, to buy freedom for their children, some had worked on the plots the estate had given them to work, sold things in the market, put by penny and penny for year after year and finally managed to buy out their mother, their sister, their child, their son, themselves. So that is what we have to commemorate - those struggles and that beginning. p;p;
Without emancipation on the 1st August 1834 and the 1st August 1838, we could not have had a Bishop Darius today. You crazy? Before that and for long after that, black people weren't even considered people. The fact that today we have black laity, black nuns who are not only confined to the kitchen but who are principal of the convent and provincial of the order and black priests and now a black Grenadian Bishop in the catholic church is part of the triumph of the emancipation process, because emancipation was not just about one day but the day must be recognized as the beginning of a process which is still continuing. Because the fact that people whose ancestors were once slaves are now in influential positions does not necessarily mean that the original colonial attitude has been changed. It does mean, though, that the process is continuing, that we are in a position to continually be more alert to our stories and to the possibilities of the human spirit. We're in place, and if we don't do it as individuals with the authority and perhaps with something of the power, people could remind us and strike against us and shake us up and tell us that, hey, you are there because they, our ancestors, were in the position they were in and you need to recognize them and recognize the day that began all of this for all of us and do something about changing the colonial mindset. Every little victory we celebrate for ourselves in our personal and professional lives - common entrance, school leaving, O and A Levels, degrees, professional qualifications as lawyers, doctors, whatever, we are celebrating 1st August, 1838.
Consider it. On this day of meditation and prayer, as you give thanks to God, think of where we have come from. While slavery was legal, it was legal for people to sell their slaves to pay a debt. People (the white planters, that is) could be sold out if they owed money, and selling out then would mean selling their horses, their acres of land, their slaves. So our ancestors could be sold just like that because things bad with their owner.
Consider this: a newspaper here in Grenada, on Saturday April 17th 1824 says that On Thursday the 29th, at the dwelling house of Dr. Anthony Raynaud, the following things would be offered for sale: Household furniture 30 dozen old Madeira wine some excellent claret and a Negro servant, about 30 years old. Terms will be made known on the day of the sale. Or this announcement on October 16th, 1824. For Sale, a Healthy Negro woman, an excellent seamstress, and House Servant, with her two children, one a stout girl of seven years of age, and the other a fine infant of 10 months. Or the fact that a Negro male slave named William is being offered for sale (8th April 1824) because Julien Lussan was bringing an action against Jeffrey Bent. or that they picked up a Negro Man, who says his name is John Joseph, and that he is free, because he could not produce his free papers so they figured he was lying (his colour condemn him, you see), so he is kept in gaol while this announcement is made (27th March 1824) so ïf the said Negro Man be not claim'd, or sufficient evidence produced to prove his freedom within six weeks (from the date hereof), he will then be sold to defray gaol fees and other expenses. Or someone put a notice in the paper to sell "the following negroes, saying that nothing wrong with them. They're being sold "merely for want of money". Cumba, a washer and Ironer, 45 years old Charlotte, her daughter, 27, a complete seamstress and House Servant Joe, her son, 23, a carpenter ,Anne her daughter, 18, a seamstress and House servant Eliza, her daughter, 4 years old Catharine, 7 years old Harriet, 7 months (and these two are Charlotte's daughters). An entire family, put up for sale in March 1823 (8th March 1823) because their owner broke. And you wonder, who was that? Who buy them? One person or different people? I wonder if somebody buy Charlotte daughter Catherine, the 7 year old one, to prepare her for breeding? I wonder who buy the 7month old Harriet? They sell her with her mother or somebody buy her and give her to somebody else to nurse because is not the mother they want?
Can you imagine what freedom meant to those people? This is what we are celebrating today, what we are commemorating. We are understanding that we are standing on the backs of our ancestors, who had a struggle we can only imagine. When we truly begin to understand and think about that, begin to be educated about ourselves, we must celebrate emancipation day and celebrate, commemorate and value the struggles of our ancestors.
We give thanks today as our ancestors did on the day of their legal freedom from chattel slavery - 1st August 1838.
© Merle Collins. Grenada, August 2002
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