Now as well as Then: What did emancipation really mean?

Each year we celebrate Emancipation. Do we know anything about what happened back then? I certainly was not taught anything real about it in school. Emancipation was simply equated with the Abolition of Slavery Act, which was passed in 1833 and came into effect on August 1, 1834.

What strikes me as most interesting is that even the anti-slavery groups seemed to be ultimately more concerned by potential losses by the planters than for the welfare of the enslaved. It is true that the Bishop of London, Beilby Porteus, had decried back in 1783 the treatment of the enslaved, especially in the Anglican Codrington plantation in Barbados. He may have been more concerned about adding them to the Anglican flock, the Anglican Church having been pro-slavery all along.

The Abolition of Slavery Act came about as a result of several factors. The Slave Trade, as Eric Williams so clearly pointed out, created enormous wealth in England in the form of banks, ships and the basis for the Industrial Revolution: It was therefore time to move on to economic activities now more profitable than slaving. Slave revolts in the British Caribbean, not to mention the Haitian Revolution and the numerous Maroon attacks on Dutch slave plantations in Suriname, made life more difficult both for the planter and the colonial Government. There was also a group of abolitionists who kept pushing the envelope, while insisting that Emancipation would not diminish the supply of labour available to the planters.

When the Act kicked in in 1834, it came with some very interesting provisions. It came with a vagrancy law that made it illegal for the now nominally free to leave the plantations where they were “apprenticed” for the next four years. They were also not allowed to own more land than was necessary for a garden plot. The nominally free could also be whipped, as before, without any redress. Additionally the nominally emancipated had to provide 40.5 hours free labour to the planters per week.

On top of that, planters were offered 20 million pounds or I billion sterling in today’s monies. Interestingly, the apprenticeship, by which the “emancipated” had to work for free, was to top up the 20 million to a level acceptable to the planters. The planters promptly invested in London bonds or the English property market, instead of ploughing that money back in to the Caribbean. Sugar production fell and some planters left sugar production altogether.

The newly emancipated were not happy either, so in Trinidad and Guyana (as well as Suriname, although slavery was abolished there later) there were strikes on the plantations. This led the colonists to import over 96 thousand indentured labourers from India, and in the case of Suriname, Indonesia as well.

Emancipation also led the British to establish the colony of Sierra Leone partly to house enslaved Africans taken off American and European ships at sea, as well as those who had fought with the British in the American War of Independence. They were to add Lagos, and later all of Nigeria, to this beginning. This led to other European countries establishing bases in West Africa, leading up to the scramble for Africa, which occurred later in the nineteenth century.

West Africa had been deprived of several millions of its population, both in the hunt for slaves, as well as the shipping of the enslaved across the Atlantic pond. It was therefore relatively easy to colonise, even in spite of the valiant effort of the Ashanti against the British or Samory Touré against the French. Samory was one of the unsung warriors of Africa. He divided his army into three flanks. The central flank lured the French into attack, while they protected the populous and burnt every bit of food on their retreat.

Once the French had advanced far enough, the two flanks on the sides attacked the French and decimated them. Samory was able to move his population some 300 miles in the process, while manufacturing primitive guns in the hinterland. The French called for a meeting and kidnaped him in the manner they had previously used with Toussaint L’Overture.

The second phase of the colonisation of the African had begun, this time in the motherland. Europe was now emancipating the space left by the departed African population. It took well over a century for a Jamaican poet to voice the new definition of emancipation. It was Robert Nesta Marley, who wrote: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” That indeed is genuine emancipation.

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