Dr. Fraser- Point of View
August 6, 2010
Sugar, Slavery and Emancipation in St.Vincent – A brief overview Pt: 2

The traditional view of Emancipation put the role of the humanitarians above everything else, so that the contribution of Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson and the others who constituted that body was highlighted. This was until the late 1940s when Eric Williams without denying that the humanitarians played an important role placed emphasis on the social, political and economic changes taking place in England.{{more}} In fact, Elsa Goveia, Guyanese historian, now deceased, gave support to this when she argued that “If the British West Indian Sugar Industry had not been in severe economic difficulties from the beginning of the 19th century it appears most unlikely that the humanitarians could have succeeded in abolishing either the British Slave Trade or British Colonial Slavery…” In recent times the role of the slaves has been highlighted, with Jamaican Richard Hart producing two volumes on the “Slaves Who Abolished Slavery”.

Not only was the Haitian Revolution identified as a major player but so were the rebellions in Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823) and Jamaica 1831. Missionaries came under strong attack from the belief that they played key roles in these rebellions. The case of John Smith who was put in prison in Demerara and others who suffered at the hands of the planters crossed the line. It was one thing to be attacking and prosecuting the slaves but when it touched their kith and kin then it was something else. William Shrewsbury, a Weslyan Minister in Barbados, had to flee to St.Vincent after his chapel was burnt, and Lumb, a Weslyan Missionary, was also imprisoned in St.Vincet for allegedly preaching the gospel without a proper licence. All of this impacted on public opinion. All of this was being played out in the context of an economy in Britain that was shifting from an agricultural base to one involving manufacturing.

The Act that brought an end to the Slave Trade was passed in 1807 to take effect in the colonies from January 1, 1808. The evidence shows that for the period 1815-1830 more slaves were sold in the Americas than in the last two decades of the 18th century. British goods were sold to the slave traders and British merchants purchased Slave grown produce, even though there was no direct British participation in the actual trade. Although the slave trade to the colonies was illegal the inter-island slave trade was still legal. The issue of Registration then became a critical one in an effort to ensure that slaves were not brought into the colonies. The St.Vincent Assembly like others in the colonies strongly condemned the efforts to introduce a Slave Registration Bill which they regarded as an effort by the parliament in Britain to intervene in their internal affairs. An Act to provide for a triennial return of slaves was eventually passed.

Interest in the conditions existing under slavery began to surface in the early 1820s and in 1823 the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery was formed. One of the key issues at this time was the matter of amelioration where pressure was being exerted on the slave owners to improve the condition of their slaves. Even the Society of Absentee Planters and Merchants recognised the handwriting on the wall and tried unsuccessfully to get the planters in the colonies to undertake major improvement in the lives of their slaves. Efforts by the British Parliament to get the colonies to pass Amelioration legislation created an uproar and strong opposition in St.Vincent until 1830 when its Parliament was able to pass legislation that was acceptable to the British Parliament.

While the movement for Emancipation took centre stage in England with numerous resolutions and pieces of legislation being taken to Parliament, the situation in St.Vincent became quite serious in 1833, to the extent that this was mentioned during the debates in the British Parliament. The slaves became agitated and the Governor had to visit the island in a warship to try to keep the situation under control. He left the 69th regiment to try and maintain calm but serious disturbances continued on the Carib Country estates, with slaves not turning out to work on time, going in large numbers to the hospital and letting their managers know that they were prepared to go to the Governor in the event of any punishment being meted out to them. A Committee that was set up to investigate the disturbances heard virtually the same story from the managers and overseers of the estates. Alexander Cumming, proprietor of Lot 14 and Rabacca, stated that the slaves were coming into the hospital in considerable numbers ranging from about 30-50 without any appearance of sickness. Other managers claimed that they were turning out to work much later than usual. Others claimed that threats were made to them. One slave informed them that although his master had bought him, he had worked long enough to pay him for what it cost. The manager of Lot 14 referred to what he described as a spirit of obstinacy and disobedience. There was also the belief that slaves from the different estates were meeting at night to coordinate their plans, prompted by the belief that the King of England had already freed them but that the planters were resisting it.

Finally the passage of the Act in England brought fury to the Assembly which protested what it considered an undue invasion of their rights. Reference was made to the millions they contributed to England. The protests continued until they were reminded that failure to pass an Act in their colony was going to prevent them from getting the compensation money on which they so greatly depended for cultivating their estates. Eventually on May 28, 1834, the Act for the Abolition of Slavery in St.Vincent was sent to Britain. On August 1, 1834, 18,102 slaves became apprentices. 2,959 children less than 6 years were freed immediately as were 1,189 persons who were aged or incapacitated. A total of £1,602,307 was paid to the planters for compensation. August 1, 1834, was a Friday and on that day, according to Ebenezer Duncan, the Methodist Chapel was filled with slaves who sang lustily Wesley’s hymn “Blow Ye the Trumpet, blow.” What the slaves got was a state of semi-freedom called Apprenticeship. ‘Full freedom’ only came in 1838 some four years later.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.