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DEFINING FREEDOM FROM BELOW: THE SAUTEURS PROTEST OF JANUARY 11,1848


Caldwell Taylor

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 post-emancipation Grenada.


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 bargain.

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 pride.


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 labourers.


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 of freedom.


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 their employers.


THE COLLISION


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 colonial legislature.

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 than real.

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 firepower.


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 CARIBBEAN


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 Macbean.


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 usable.

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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