|DEFINING FREEDOM FROM
BELOW: THE SAUTEURS PROTEST OF JANUARY 11,1848
Tuesday, January 11,1848 is inscribed in the
institutional memory of our country. Or it should be,
for it was on that mighty day one hundred and sixty- one
years ago, when hundreds of labourers from various
estates (plantations) in the St Patrick's area came to
the town of Sauteurs to protest against a
planter-imposed wage reduction and the many ordeals of
the post-emancipation "free labour" regime: The march on
Sauteurs was the dramatic high point of an industrial
action that was initiated on December 22, 1847, and it
was too the dawn of collective political life in
Coming just nine years following the abolition of
chattel slavery in Grenada and the rest of the "British
West Indies", the protest pitted ex-slave workers-"labourers"-
against their former masters on a sliver of ground that
was hallowed in an earlier contest, which gave the
little town its name and a battle- bruised memory into
THE FIRST BATTLE OF SAUTEURS
That earlier contest took place during the French tenure
and it ended in victory for France, for Christianity and
for European civilization: it spelled the destruction of
the Kalinagoes ("Caribs"), who pelted themselves into a
militant martyrdom while the French stood upon the
scrubby promontory and watched as the azure waters below
turned crimson with the blood of "savages" ."Sauteurs"
(Jumpers)! the crowed crowed the French with Gallic
The French victory at "Sauteurs" brings to mind a
comment by French philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960).
Speaking of the Republican defeat at the hands of
Francisco Franco's (1892-1975) Nationalist forces in the
Spanish Civil War (1936 -1939), Camus noted that he and
others of his generation "learned that one can be right
and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that
there are times when courage is not its own recompense".
Two hundred years following the defeat of the Caribs,
Sauteurs had once more become the stage for an epic
encounter- history has this peculiar way of repeating
itself as Karl Marx observed in his Eighteenth Brumaire
of Louis Napoleon (1852). Marx noted, by way of
'correcting' Hegel, that in their first and second
outings, historical figures and historical events tended
to come as tragedy and as farce, respectively. The
comment was meant to make fun of Louis Napolen ,the
wimpy nephew who was strutting about in Uncle's
(Napoleon Bonaparte) jeweled bicorne. First came the
uncle (tragedy), and then came the aping nephew (farce).
THE SECOND BATTLE
Separated by two hundred years from the First Battle,
the Second Battle of Sauteurs was no farce. For here was
a instance when hundreds of self-organized men and women
rose up in a bid to redefine their "emancipation" in a
manner that was in keeping with their aspirations. Above
all else, the self- mobilized labourers sought to put an
end to the social, economic, political and legal
arrangements that secured their dehumanization during
the evil days of bondage.
The labourers' views were patently at odds with those of
their former masters, who believed that cheap and docile
labour was an indispensable requirement, if they were to
stave off financial ruination. And financial ruination
loomed rather large in the 1840s, especially in the wake
of the British Parliament's enactment, in 1846, of the
Sugar Duties Act, bringing to an end the regime of
preferential treatment for West Indian sugar. With the
end of mercantilism and the coming of a new politics of
trade- free trade, West Indian sugar was forced to
compete (without protections) against European-grown
beet sugar, and also against slave produced sugar from
Brazil and Cuba.
It bears noting that Britain's 1846 Sugar Duties Act
came just before the "Commercial Crisis" of
1847-1848,which saw the collapse of 13 West India houses
and the demise of the West India Bank. These events put
the Grenadian planters in a foul mood; they became more
desperate to balance their books at the expense of the
To guarantee a cheap and docile labour supply and
prevent the growth of an independent peasantry, the
planters secured the passage of a series of new laws
that criminalized labourer breaches of their contracts
of employment: such laws were enacted on the morrow of
emancipation- the law of masters and servants, for
instance, was enacted in December 1839
Significantly, Grenada's masters and servants law had
its antecedents in fourteenth century England when, in
the wake of the the Black Death, lawmakers sought "to
compel service by the idle , curb movement by
agricultural servants and artisanal and manufacturing
workers , suppress their wage demands by fixing rates
and by making annual hiring the norm, and tie workers to
their employers for the duration of their contracts and
to their social status for the duration of their lives".
(Hay and Craven, 2004).
In the face of their employers' many designs, the St
Patrick's labourers determined to put their feet down.
They demanded a good price for their labour power and
even more importantly , they sought every means of
coming into land ownership, reckoning that land was the
principal means of citizenship and the key concomitant
This estimation of the value of land led to the creation
of set of tenurial traditions, including "family land"
and "undivided property". And within those customary
tenurial arrangements the economic value of land often
ran (and still runs) a distant second to its symbolic
value. A quite similar phenomenon in Jamaica caused
Edith Clarke to comment: "Land has not only a real but
an almost mystic significance". (This attitude to land
is very much a feature of the Grenadian social
imaginary, a matter that economic planners and
agricultural reformers must grapple with).
And so the labourers' quest for sovereign individuality
was based on views that called for a new paradigm of
agrarian relations. They wanted a good price for their
labour power and they wanted their own piece of ground.
These ambitions set them on a collision course with
The Sauteurs protest was the high-noon of a "strike
action" that predated the trade union in Grenada by
roughly one hundred years. Lacking the specialized idiom
of the trade unionist, the labourers would have used the
word "war" to describe their resistant response to the
tyranny of the estate owners and their allies in the
It was war because they, the labourers, were trying to
smash the chains of official Emancipation.
It was war even though the fighting was more symbolic
It was war, because this was a confrontation between a
hard-headed plantocracy and "reconstituted peasantry"
that was sowing a new definition of freedom.
The angry labourers waved leafy branches-signifying
defiance -they made obscene gestures and extemporized a
barrage of 'carisos' of ridicule and recrimination,
so-called "banter songs". It bears stating that banter
songs are "woman songs," and we have every reason to
believe that women were in the forefront of this
protest, giving it lyrical ,moral, emotional, spiritual
and ideological leadership. Banter songs are simple
refrains that "give des faux" or fatigue"; they poke fun
at the "enemy".
It is more than likely that the banter songs heard at
Sauteurs on that historic day were sung in French creole
(French patois). Some of these songs would have recalled
the horrible cruelties of slavery and others would have
articulated the labourers' sense of freedom, justice and
fairness. Doubtless all of these songs would have been
richly peppered with parables and other sayings- La lin
couwee, jew barray*, comes to mind.
In the face of labourers' carnivalesque subversion the
colonial state deployed stipendiary magistrate Romney, a
Roman Catholic priest and a posse of soldiers.
Ultimately the colonial state and its planter allies
prevailed and the majority of the St Patrick's labourers
were driven back to work.
But going back to work was neither defeat nor surrender;
frankly, it was a sensible response to superior
Going back to work was also no defeat because the action
at Sauteurs opened the new day of collective political
life in post-emancipation Grenada, and placed the
country in the mainstream of early post-emancipation
agitation in the West Indies.
SAUTEURS IN THE CONTEXT OF THE POST-EMANCIPATION
The Sauteurs protest was contemporaneous with strike
activities in Trinidad, British Guiana (Guyana), Jamaica
,St Vincent, St Lucia and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Significantly, it came just four years after Charles
Mckay formed his Free Labourers' Association on the
banks of the Couva River in neighbouring Trinidad. Even
more significantly, it foreshadowed Jamaica's Morant Bay
Rebellion (1865) and St Croix's great "Fireburn"
(uprising) of 1878, which was led by a coterie of
warrior women- "Queen" Mary Thomas, "Queen" Susanna
Abrahamson, "Queen" Agnes Salomon and "Queen" Mathilda
And the 1848 Sauteurs protest was in step with events
elsewhere in the Caribbean: In May of that year the
enslaved masses in the French colonies of Martinique,
Guadeloupe and Guyane (French Guiana) rose up and freed
themselves before their respective governors could take
delivery of an emancipation decree sent from Paris.
Also, on July 2, 1848, the slave workers on the island
of St Croix initiated a rebellion that would bring about
the immediate abolition of slavery in St Croix and the
other two Danish islands, St Thomas and St John. Led by
the immortal Buddhoe, the slaves workers gathered at the
entrance to St Croix's Fort Fredricksted and chanted:
"free us now or we will burn the whole island" Governor
Peter Von Scholten heeded the chants and went on to
proclaim the abolition of slavery without so much as
checking in with his superiors in Denmark. Von Scholten
subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown! General
Buddhoe, the leader of the slaves, was later banished
from St Croix; he took refuge in Trinidad, arriving
there on the morning of January 8, 1849. Some say
General Buddhoe left Trinidad and went to Grenada, where
he died. Was Buddhoe born in Grenada as
some have intimated?
SAUTEURS AND EVENTS FAR BEYOND THE CARIBBEAN
The Sauteurs Rebellion also jibed with events taking
place in England, where Chartism, likely the world's
first working class labour movement, was completing
itsremarkable ten -year run.
THE MEANING OF SAUTEURS PROTEST
Why are we recalling an event of one hundred and
sixty-one years ago?
Well, the Sauteurs protest is an important item of of
our political experience, and experience is to political
knowledge what good soil is to farming. In fact,
political maturity is impossible in a place where
experience and tradition count for nothing.
Sauteurs is our history. It is a teachable moment and we
must go back to it - and to other teachable moments,
including March 2 (Fedon), "Sky Red", March 13, and
October 19-in order that we may review our triumphs, our
failures and our shortcomings. There is no other way,
for we educate ourselves to the extent that we draw
lessons from our past: the past is as dynamic as it is
Ultimately, Sauteurs is the first day of collective
political life in post-emancipation Grenada.
* The moon runs but daylight catches up to it.
January 10, 2009
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