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SLAVERY ON THE PLANTATIONS

In the Beginning - a Multi-National Trade
The first African slaves are thought to have been introduced into what is now known as Guyana by Dutch settlers in the mid-seventeenth century. As plantations expanded on the coast of Guyana, more slaves were brought from West Africa in ships owned by the Dutch West India Company. There were occasions, too, when planters bought slaves smuggled from the West Indies by English traders. Auctions were held in Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara. Entire families were auctioned, but the buyers showed no concern over family ties and so they would often be split. Local Indians were involved in the slave trade and, back in Africa, Arab and African slave traders also played their part in this trade of misery.

The Cruel Drudgery of Daily Life
On the plantation, the slaves were housed in buildings usually with thatched roofs and walls of old wooden boards, wattle and mud. The floor was bare earth and there was no furniture save what basic bits and pieces the slaves managed to make or acquire over time. While the slaves were provided with some food by the master, they also grew subsistence crops of vegetables, plantains, and root crops on small garden plots. However, they could only do their farming on Sundays when they had no work on the plantation. On Sundays they could also took the opportunity to fish in the canals, rivers or the sea. Each adult slave was given one pound of salted cod fish every Sunday by the plantation owner. A child received less. On special holidays, an additional allowance of about half a kilogram of beef or pork, some sugar and a drop of rum might be given.

The work day of the slaves began before dawn. They were marched to the fields by slave drivers who controlled them with whips. Slave drivers were themselves slaves - trustees - who were specially selected by the plantation owner. An overseer supervised the entire operation. Around midday they were given an hour's break. The day's toil ended at about 8pm. The slaves who worked at the sugar mills during the grinding season had to work even longer hours. Slaves were punished in various cruel and inhuman ways, but whipping was the most common form of punishment.

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Management of the Slaves
The plantation owners used various methods to maintain complete, and often harsh, control over their slaves. Their principal method was that of "divide and rule". Members of the same tribe were dispersed to separate plantations to prevent communication between them. The aim behind this was to make it more difficult to organise any rebellions or bids for freedom.. This separation, however, created a problem of communication, since the plantation had groups of slaves speaking different languages. Soon a new language, known as Creole-Dutch, developed and this became the common tongue among the slaves. Later, when the British took control of Guyana in the nineteenth century, English words were injected into the language and it became the basis of the Guyanese Creolese language.

The Class System
Christian missionaries preached to the slaves on Sundays. It was thought, perhaps, that a weekly dose of religion would make the slaves more docile. Another means of control was the creation of a class system among the slaves. (Not unlike the class system that existed in England, perhaps, although without the overt "slavery" label.). Field slaves formed the lowest group, then there were the factory slaves who worked in the sugar boiling process. Higher up the social ladder were the artisan slaves such as blacksmiths, carpenters and stonemasons. These slaves also had opportunities to earn money for themselves. Towards the top of this class system were the drivers who were specially selected by the planters to control the other slaves. The domestic or house slave had a special place in this arrangement, and, as they worked in the master's house and perhaps received better treatment, they held other slaves in contempt. The slaves on the lowest rung of this social ladder were the ones who rebelled, as they had the least to lose, and it was the domestic slaves who reported their schemes and plans to their master.

Then there were divisions based on colour. In the early days, it was relatively easy for a pure African to rise to the level of a driver. However, racial mixing, and thus skin colour variations, occurred through the birth of children resulting from the sexual union of a white man and black woman (to create a mulatto), a white man and mulatto woman (mestee), and a mulatto man and a black woman (sambo). Some slaves of succeeding generations thus had lighter complexions, and the planters discriminated in favour of them. These slaves with white fathers or white relatives were placed in positions above those of the field slaves.

Of course, the Europeans occupied the highest rung of the social ladder, but they found willing allies amongst the mixed or coloured population who occupied the intermediate levels. The pure Africans generally remained at the lowest level.

Personal Wealth and Leisure
There was little of either. Except for the earnings enjoyed by the artisan slaves, most of the slaves depended upon earning money by selling surplus produce from their allotments and the sale of livestock that they reared. On Sundays, the leisure day afforded to the slaves, village markets were held and the slaves bartered and sold their produce. The markets were also opportunities for the slaves to socialise and swop news and gossip. At the end of the season's crop and at Christmas and on public holidays the slaves were allowed to hold dances. Slaves were also allowed to purchase their freedom through the process of manumission (setting a slave free), and women who bore the children fathered by planters might also be set free.

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THE END OF SLAVERY
In Britain, the campaign for the end of slavery gained popular support and momentum. It was expected that slaves in the British colonies would soon be set free. On the 28 August 1833, the House of Commons passed the Emancipation Bill which had been introduced by Thomas Buxton.

  • The Act of Parliament, which came into effect on 1 August 1834, stipulated that:
  • Immediate and effective measures would be taken for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies.
  • All children born under the passing of the Act, or under the age of six shall be free.
  • All slaves over the age of six years would have to serve an apprenticeship of six years in the case of field slaves, and four years in the case of others.
  • Apprentices should work for not more than 45 hours per week without pay, and any additional hours for pay.
  • Apprentices should be provided with food and clothing by the plantation owner.
  • Funds should be provided for an efficient Stipendiary Magistracy, and for the moral and religious education of the ex-slaves.
  • Compensation in the form of a free gift of 20 million English pounds should be paid to the slave owners for the loss of their slaves.

See also the project undertaken by University College London (UCL) Legacies of British Slave-ownership.

The Emancipation Act ended just the first phase of a long and bitter struggle against a system which transformed people into beasts of labour with few, if any, human rights. The slaves were regarded as mules and even the offspring of a European and an African female slave was called a "mulatto", meaning literally a "young mule".

However, it would not be all plain sailing, the slaves were told of their forthcoming freedom and waited eagerly to be free. The British Governor had informed the slaves of the date of their freedom even before the Act was published in the colony on 19 October 1833. However, he failed to explain clearly to the slaves the implications of the apprenticeship system which was to succeed slavery as part of the transition to full freedom. There were some planters who were unwilling to comply with the Emancipation Act, others in Berbice announced their intention to remove their slaves immediately to neighbouring Suriname before the Act came into force so as to avoid its effect. Suriname did not abolish slavery until 1863. The apprenticeship condition forming part of the Act bound most of the freed slaves to their former masters until 1840. It required them to work on the masters' estates seven and a half hours each day for six days each week of the year.

On news of their emancipation, the slaves were either too overjoyed to note this binding condition, or did not fully understand what it meant. Their masters, who were, in the main opposed to emancipation, avoided any discussion about the changed status and made no preparations for the changed status of the slaves on 1st August, 1834. The long-awaited day finally arrived. It was a public holiday and many Africans who were now Christians attended religious services, followed by much merrymaking late into the night. But a rude awakening awaited the ex-slaves the next day when they were ordered back their workplaces. This caused great confusion since they failed to understand how they could have gained their freedom and still be forced to work for their former masters. There was disorder on the East Coast of Demerara and disquiet throughout the colony in this first week of freedom. The Governor appeared in various places to address workers and explain the obligations which now fell upon them. The planters called for martial law, but the Governor refused this request. Confusion and disorder broke out on the West Coast Demerara, eventually some order was restored and a degree of understanding dawned on the workers.

1838 - 1st August, "Full and unqualified liberation of the Negroes". Finally, with the end of slavery, the plantation owners in Guyana received compensation from the British Government for the loss of their slaves. For each slave they received an average of £52, for a headman or driver, they received as much as £230. The ex-slaves, who had laboured long and hard in appalling conditions to produce wealth for others, received no monetary compensation - but they did get their freedom. And that was more than what was on offer elsewhere at the time.

Britain, once one of the major parties to the slave trade, was active in trying to stop the slave trade. However, slavery still continues in some parts of the world today.

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An Antidote for the Slave-Trade
(Illustrated London News, No. 1, w/e Saturday 14/05/1842)
We submit to the amputation of a limb for sake of life; we hang a man for the benefit of society; we remit punishment, for the sake of truth, when evidence is furnished against accomplices. The appliances for obtaining and rendering justice must be coincident with its demands. For national crimes there must be national remedies. Those nations that dare the world's scorn deserve the world's execration, and when humanity bleeds it behoves the humane to act with energy. The slave-trade is now indelibly branded by civilized Europe as infamous in those nations that allow it iniquitous towards man, and a wicked defiance of the Almighty.

There are no guilty deeds without guilty men. The hardened piratical crew of a slaver are not the only, nor indeed the chief sinners. The breeders and owners of slaves; the builders, owners and equippers of slave-ships; the rascal dealers in our race, the bargainers for blood upon the coast, the marketing buyers in America, Cuba, Brazil; the inhuman taskmasters in each exacting, not only sweat from the brow, but blood from the flesh. These are the things that Europe execrates.

The sailor on a slave-ship is not so criminal as the owner of the cargo and owner of the ship. He seeks bread - his employers gold, through the sacrifice of blood. The sailors now employed in that trade feel that they are in desperate course; many of them, if they could and had the inducement, would quit it tomorrow. Now, every British port in the British colonies offers an asylum for any kidnapped African, and restores him to his natural freedom; and it may be hoped that, ere long, all other countries, not excepting those who still uphold slavery, will also become such asylums.

Can an inducement be offered for the crews of these slave-ships to carry the slaves into one of these ports, instead of taking them to countries where they would be bought and sold as slaves? If the different colonies can now subscribe to pay the passages for free immigrants, and of free negroes, to the colonies, it would answer as well to subscribe to meet a reasonable gratuity to the crews of slavers, and accomplish, thereby the captives' freedom.

The cry from the colonies is for free combined labour, because the manumitted blacks work now mostly for their own account, and chiefly in occupations hitherto neglected. Free emigration cannot be resorted to in any sufficient degree from Europe to tropical climes, nor is it desirable; and spontaneous emigration from Africa is prevented by the convulsions in which that country is kept through the slave-trade.

Now, if we combine a remedy for the honest demands and necessities of a drooping agriculture, and, at the same time, apply a final cure to the evils of Africa; and if the interest of humanity can be combined with those of the planters, not only of the West Indies, but of the very shareholders of Brazil and Cuba, whose existence is periled by further importation of slaves, why should we hesitate to do it?

By these means self-interest would be made to act as a useful assistant in the cause of humanity. The greater risk for the owners of slave-trading vessels to lose their property by the turning of their crews against them would deter them from embarking in such hazardous speculations.

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Fighting the Slave Trade - Then and Now

Am I not a man and a brother?Anti-Slavery International is the world's oldest human rights organisation with its roots stretching back to The Quakers, who petitioned Parliament against the slave trade as early as 1783 and in 1785 a similar petition was submitted by the inhabitants of Bridgwater in Somerset, England. It was the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, organised in May 1787 and the first abolitionist society, which set the movement on its modern course. This society was at the forefront of the movements to abolish the slave trade. In 1805 a Bill providing for the abolition of the slave trade to conquered territories was passed by both Houses of Parliament. The following year this was superseded by a stronger measure that outlawed the British Atlantic slave trade altogether.

William Wilberforce (see below), a native of Hull in the East Riding, led the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807.

After 1807 British anti-slavery entered a new phase. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was replaced by the African Institution, whose principal aims were to ensure that the new British legislation was enforced and that other countries followed Britain's example. The first of these objectives was soon realised and Britain did enforce its legislation. However, the British were unable to sway foreign powers to agree. Despite the efforts of the African Institution and the British Government, the Congresses of Paris (1814) and Vienna (1815) failed to reach specific agreement, not least because of French opposition. The Aix la Chapelle (Aachen) Congress in 1818 also failed to reach agreement on abolition. Reports from the West Indies suggested that conditions on the plantations had not significantly improved since 1807.

The situation called for more direct action, namely an attack on the institution of slavery itself. In 1823 leading members of the African Institution organised a new body, the Anti-Slavery Society. The Anti-Slavery Society called for the adoption of measures to improve slave conditions in the West Indies, together with a plan for gradual emancipation leading ultimately to complete freedom.

Abolition, when it came, did not mean instant freedom for slaves. Instead, they had to continue serving the same masters under a system many considered an alternative form of slavery: 'apprenticeship'. This lasted between six and 12 years, during which many were badly mistreated. Growing public pressure in the United Kingdom led Parliament to abolish apprenticeships on 1 August 1838, three years before the date set by the Emancipation Act.

British anti-slavery was one of the most important reform movements of the 19th century. Ironically, it was the British who perfected the Atlantic slave system during the 18th century. It has been estimated that between 1700 and 1810, British merchants transported almost three million Africans across the Atlantic. That the British benefited from the Atlantic slave system is indisputable, but, there were also many in Britain who found the whole concept of slavery abhorrent and it was the British who led the struggle to bring the Altlantic slave trade to an end.

Anti-Slavery International is the name by which the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society is now known. They continue to campaign against slavery throughout the world. Slavery continues to be colour-blind as far as slaves and slavers are concerned. The evil trade has lasted century upon century and still flourishes today.

Click to enlarge

William Wilberforce of Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire.
He led the parliamentary campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire.

In 1982, Hull became the first city in the western world to twin with a third world city - Freetown in Sierra Leone, which was the world’s first colony for free Africans. It was set up in 1792 by Wilberforce and his fellow anti-slavery campaigners. He was involved with the founding of the Trustee Savings Banks (TSB), the creation of the National Gallery and the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Read more about this great Yorkshireman here.

The War of 1812 - American Slaves Flee to the British

During the war between Britain and America, thousands of American slaves escaped to the British because of their offer of freedom, or they just fled in the chaos of war. The British settled a few thousand of the newly freed slaves in Nova Scotia. The Americans protested that the failure to return the slaves violated the Treaty of Ghent; after arbitration by the Czar of Russia the British paid $1,204,960, in damages to Washington, which reimbursed the slaveowners. (source: Wikipedia)

The Royal Navy Takes on the Arab Slave Traders.
A BLOW FOR FREEDOM

Click to enlargeOur Jack Tars are happily engaged in no war with the enemies of their native land, but they have this year struck more than one good blow against the inhuman slavers who still carry on their infamous trade on the east coast of Africa. The crew of her Majesty's ship Nymph, Captain Mears, have in particular distinguished themselves, as we learn from the Times of India of Oct. 30. No less than nineteen dhows have been captured by the Nymph and 640 slaves liberated.

The particular action depicted on our front page occurred near Zanzibar. In the early morning news was brought to the Nymph that a dhow was embarking slaves. The first and second cutters, under the command of Sub-Lieutenants Clarke and Hodson, were accordinly ordered away, the Sultan having previously given permission to Captain Mears to take the dhow. The boats' crews boarded the dhow, and Mr. Clarke proceeded to take her in tow, upon which a volley of musketry was fired from the shore by the Arabs, which killed a seaman named Mitchell, and severly wounded Mr. Hodson, who was struck on the elbow with a bullet, which passed down his arm and out at the palm of his hand.

On the boats' crews boarding the dhow, most of the Arabs jumped overboard and swam ashore, but a man, supposed to be the captain, made an attempt to cut the cable for'ard, so as to allow of the vessel, which had a stern-fast, being hauled ashore. Mr. Clarke endeavoured to prevent this, and was immediately attacked by the man. Mr. Clarke had emptied his revolver, but wounded him with a sword cut on the shoulder just as the Arab thrust his spear through Mr. Clarke's thigh. The fellow on doing this jumped overboard, but had scarcely swam a dozen strokes when he was shot by the seamen.

By two o'clock the fighting was over, and the dhow and her slaves were alongside the Nymph. It is satisfactory to know that the Admiralty have marked their sense of the conduct of Mr. Clarke and Mr. Hodson by promoting them for gallantry.

The Penny Illustrated Paper, London, Saturday, December 4, 1869.
~~~

Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard. (Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Africa_Squadron).

 

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European Slavery
From the late 16th to the early 19th centuries, Europe was terrorised by the Barbary pirates, who attacked shipping and coastal villages, taking European captives back for sale to the slave markets of North Africa. British sailors, Italians, Irish villagers and many others from across Europe found themselves sold into a life of misery after being seized by Barbary Corsairs. Few slaves saw their homelands again.

Soldiers, and others, captured during wars, often found themselves consigned to a life of misery without hope, often there was no escape from servitude.

Slavery, of course, has been with mankind for a long time and is still present. It is not just something that used to happen, and it is not confined to one continent, race, civilisation or culture. Read more about the slave trade on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery.

 


Sources include :

1. The Guyana Guide - guyanaguide.com.
2. The Guyana Story By Dr. Odeen Ishmael, guyanaca.com.
3. Illustrated London News, No. 1, w/e Saturday 14/05/1842.
4.. The Penny Illustrated Paper, London, Saturday, December 4, 1869.

5. Wikipedia.
6. Anti-slavery International.
7. British Broadcasting Corporation.

See also the project undertaken by University College London (UCL) Legacies of British Slave-ownership.

 

Negro Apprenticeship Petition
Anti-slavery Banner.

Click to read PDF file.
Products of Slavery
Click image to see more (PDF file).










Slavery on the Plantations & Elsewhere
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