Embracing our history of slavery and indentureship
Applauding the heroic efforts of Sir Hilary Beckles on the issue of reparations at Westminster recently, Sunity Maharaj, in noting the “greatest danger facing us is our fear of history”, observed Caricom’s initiative on the issue offers all of us “a path... coming from our different places of pain, regret and suspicion, to walk together...” (Express, August 3.)
In fact, if we embraced our history fully, we would find the places from which we all come are not as different as we have been led to believe. To begin with, the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 did not end slavery throughout the British Empire on August 1, 1834. Certain territories were specifically excluded, in particular India, where there were still conservatively estimated to be eight million to nine million slaves, as late as 1841, according to the contemporary account of Sir Henry Bartle Frere.
Indeed, out of deference to the powerful lobby on behalf of the “Honourable East India Company”, as it was officially known, emancipation did not occur in its vast enclaves until Britain’s eventual passage of the Indian Slavery Act of 1843. By then, the transportation of indentured labourers to British Guiana had commenced in 1838, and would be extended, following emancipation, to Trinidad from 1845.
And those who imagine slavery and indentureship were the exclusive experience of ancestors of the two major ethnic groups in Britain’s Caribbean colonies should think again. This could readily be assisted by consulting the acclaimed scholarly works of Dr Williams, regarding the Chinese, Portuguese, Syrian and other indentured labourers, who preceded Indian Arrival Day.
Significantly, the term indentured “servants” has frequently been preferred by British historians for non-East Indian “labourers”.
Moreover, following the Irish uprising of 1641, it was estimated by Dr William Petty, Physician-General to Cromwell’s army, that as many as 100,000 Irish men, women and children were transported to the colonies in the West Indies and North America, not as indentured “servants”, but as slaves, during the episode lamented by Irish Catholics as the curse of Cromwell after the passage in 1652 of the Act for the Settlement of Ireland.
There are indeed more skeletons than imagined in our well-hidden historical cupboards, to unite us all, in truth, on the path to mental freedom.