Although Trinidad and Tobago is the first country in the world to officially celebrate Emancipation, Trinidad had the lowest percentage of enslaved Africans in the New World, as well as one of the shortest periods of slavery.
British anthropologist Daniel Miller, in his book Modernity, notes that "much of the evidence suggests that the sheer number of alternative sources of immigration – ranging from free immigrants from Africa to demobilised American soldiers – probably make the direct descendants from Trinidadian slaves a minority within the African population overall." Three significant settlements of former enslaved Africans were a community of Mandingos who lived in Port of Spain; American ex-slaves, many of whom had fought for Britain in the war of 1812-1814, and who settled near Princes Town; and demobilised soldiers from the West India regiments who went to various villages between Arima and Manzanilla.
But the island also had an above-average proportion of Africans who had been born on the continent rather than in the Caribbean.
As Table 1 shows, the Caribbean's main territories had nearly two centuries of slavery, whereas Trinidad had just 37 years. This meant that most of the black population on the island was, at the time of Emancipation, African-born rather than Creole. Moreover, whereas the majority of the populations in other Caribbean colonies were enslaved Africans, only half of the Trinidad population was. Population records from 1813 show that 54 per cent of the black population was African.
These records also allowed physiological comparisons between the African and the Creole blacks, which showed that those born in Trinidad were significantly taller than those born in Africa, implying that the Afro-Trinidadians were healthier. Historians Kenneth Kiple and Virginia Kiple, in an article titled "Deficiency Diseases in the Caribbean", note that, "West Indian diets were at least more protein laden than those of West Africa and were probably of better overall quality."
Trinidad was also different from other Caribbean colonies in having a significant free mixed (called "coloured") group. UWI historian Carl Campbell in an essay titled "Trinidad's Free Coloured in Comparative Caribbean Perspectives", writes: "The free coloureds of Trinidad had no limit set on the amount of land or slaves they could own; they were not subject to any special taxes; marriages between whites and coloured were not legally prohibited, though they were socially disapproved," adding, "On the whole, the free coloureds of Trinidad seemed among the least disadvantaged in the Caribbean."
Table 2 shows the proportion of enslaved people and the racial profile of the island nine years before Emancipation.
Campbell also notes that, while the statistics do not record the number of free blacks in the island, "Some free blacks owned houses and lots in Port of Spain and small plots of land in the countryside." He adds, however, that, "There is no indication that free blacks participated in the struggle of the free coloureds to gain civil equality."
The first Emancipation in Trinidad was peaceful, save for one small protest in Port of Spain. Historian Bridget Brereton, in her book A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962, writes: "Emancipation Day – 1 August 1834 was calm; but a crowd of apprentices gathered in Port of Spain near Government House shouting 'Point de six ans!' ('Not six years more!') and complaining absolute freedom had been denied them. On the next day, the crowd reappeared. Some were arrested for breaches of order, and 23 were publicly flogged but [Governor George] Hill resisted pressure to declare martial law and removed the regular troops from the city to avoid provoking trouble. There was no disorder anywhere else in the island."
On October 13, Hill published a notice in the Royal Gazette, addressed to "The Freed Men and Women of August 1" which said: "I am sorry to say, you do not prove yourselves worthy of the names of Free People – nor do you at all respond to the expectations which I had formed of you, which were that, after a short relaxation, natural and allowable, in your new state, you would see the necessity of providing a surplus for yourselves and families by the full labour of your hands, and thence endeavoured to raise yourselves in your grades of society, by the savings of your wages...I hear that some of you, contrary to your duty, content yourselves with irregular labour – that your Masters cannot depend on your contracts of monthly hiring..."
This Apprenticeship scheme was supposed to continue for four years for domestic slaves and six years for field slaves. The Emancipation Act stated that, for this period, the former masters "shall be entitled to the Services of such apprenticed Labourer as would for the Time being have been entitled to his her Services as a Slave if this Act had not been made." As August 1, 1838 approached, rumours started circulating that the continuation of the Apprenticeship period was a ploy by the planters to keep the former slaves working on the plantations. On July 7, Hill issued a proclamation to explain that they would not be entirely free until 1840. The proclamation referred to the "feelings of interest and solicitude entertained by Her Majesty...for their welfare, religious and moral improvement" and said that "this feeling has been much increased by the quiet, orderly, and industrious behaviour by which they have, in general, been distinguished since the commencement of their term of Apprenticeship on the 1st of August, 1834." Nonetheless, the scheme was still ended in 1838 by the British government since it wasn't working and because of lobbying by activist groups in England.
After 1838, the labour shortage caused Trinidad planters to offer wages higher than in other British Caribbean colonies. The average pay was 30 cents per task, but by 1841 wages in Trinidad were as high as 65 cents. In 1841, the planters even banded together to reduce wages for the 1842 crop, but the labourers refused to accept the cut and the planters were forced to relent. Only after 1846, because of financial crises, did wages drop from 50 cents to 30 cents. But the labourers didn't depend on the plantation alone for earnings.
Brereton, in an essay titled "The Development of an Identity", writes: "...the ex-slaves and their children became petty traders and artisans after 1838...They formed a kind of 'respectable', ambitious, potentially mobile working class, and their children might well achieve that climb to middle class status."
Now, 178 years after Emancipation, how has this group progressed? Table 3 gives a statistical profile of Trinidadians of African descent.
They are equitably represented among professionals, under-represented among senior officials and managers, and over-represented among murder victims and prison inmates. Head of the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC), Khafra Kambon, last week said that there is an "in-built bias against the African" in the society, while ESC education officer Tracy Wilson, speaking about government funding for the annual event, said, "We will not agree that we have to be self-sufficient to assist this government or any other in keeping the society."