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The emancipation process in Trinidad

By Bridget Brereton

As we saw in my last article, not all people of African birth or descent in Trinidad were enslaved. But most were. How did the end of slavery happen?

The Haitian Revolution was a tremendous shock to the whole system of slavery, and the heroic struggles of the Haitians between 1791 and 1804 began the real struggle for freedom. The enslaved in the British colonies also rose up in revolt—Tobago 1802, Barbados 1816, Demerara (Guyana) 1823, and Jamaica 1831. These rebellions, and the terrible reprisals which followed, helped to convince many in Britain that it was too dangerous to maintain slavery in the colonies.

And it was not only the rebellions. Everywhere, every day, every way, the enslaved resisted the system. They ran away, repeatedly, and created Maroon settlements wherever they could, especially in hilly or remote areas. In Trinidad these included Diego Martin, and on the isolated East Coast—hence Brigand Hill near Manzanilla, for instance.

They disobeyed orders, harassed overseers, refused tasks, broke estate equipment and machinery, went on strike, answered back. They risked floggings but they ensured that the slave system was chipped away and undermined bit by bit.

So the resistance of the enslaved was one reason for emancipation. Also important were changes in the British economy. By the early 1800s Britain was industrialising, and the Caribbean planters were far less important to her economic progress than before. So the slave-owners had fewer powerful allies at home. The new manufacturers and the middle-classes generally had no interest in propping up Caribbean slavery.

There were also shifts in the thinking of many people in Britain. Religious people came to believe that slavery was un-Christian. (Remember back in the 1700s good Christian Brits had had no problem with slavery, so it took a change in thinking fuelled partly by an evangelical movement at home). Others were less moved by the religious argument, but were persuaded by economists that slavery was inefficient and incompatible with a modern, industrial economy such as Britain was now developing.

Finally, thousands of men and women, in Britain and the colonies, who wanted to see the end of slavery, mobilised politically and put huge pressure on the British parliament and government. This culminated in intense and broad-based campaigns in 1830-33 which saw the passage of the Emancipation Act in 1833.

The Act became law on August 1, 1834—Emancipation Day. But while this did technically mark the abolition of slavery, all the formerly enslaved, except children under the age of six on August 1, were declared to be "apprentices" obliged to work for their former owners without wages for three-quarters of the defined working week. Although the apprentices had some rights not enjoyed by the enslaved, the system had much more in common with slavery than with freedom.

This is why that first so-called Emancipation Day (August 1, 1834) was such a bitter disappointment. There was a near-riot on that day in Port of Spain, as the apprentices gathered to express their fury that they hadn't been truly emancipated. According to the leading newspaper of the time: "It was decided by the slaves that the King had freed them right out, and that the apprenticeship was a job got up by their masters and the Governor. Their masters were dam tief and the Governor an old rogue, and the King was not such a fool as to buy them half-free when he was rich enough to pay for them altogether."

So when hundreds of new apprentices gathered in the area of Woodford Square on August 1, they were in an angry mood. "Point de six ans! (Not six more years!)", they shouted, complaining loudly that they were not given "full free". The militia and the troops were called out, and over 50 of the "ringleaders" were sentenced to floggings and in some cases jail.

Partly because of the resistance by the people all over the Caribbean to this disastrous apprenticeship scheme, partly through pressure from abolitionists in Britain and in the colonies, it was ended by the government in London two years early, in 1838. On August 1, 1838—the real Emancipation Day—apprenticeship ended and the former apprentices gained "full free" status. In Trinidad, 20,656 apprentices were freed on that day.

But they were freed with nothing. It's well known that Britain sweetened the pill of emancipation by awarding an outright grant—not a loan—of £20 million (a huge sum in 1834) to the former owners as compensation for the loss of their property—just as the state must pay you if it takes your land to build a road.

Except for a tiny handful of abolitionists, no-one suggested that the freed people deserved any compensation in cash or land. They should just be grateful for the "boon" of freedom. So emancipation came with no money, no land, no loans, no education. And the structures of planter control and white power remained intact. These facts guaranteed that the road for the formerly enslaved would be long and hard after the formal end of slavery.

• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad

and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades

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