By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On Thursday July 31, 1834, Africans who were enslaved by the British were anticipating the end of their enslavement on the following day, Friday August 1, 1834.
Unfortunately, most of them were sorely disappointed when they gathered on August 1 to hear the announcement that they thought would free them from chattel slavery. Africans in Antigua & Barbuda and Canada were freed on August 1, 1834. Africans who had been enslaved by the British in several Caribbean islands, including Barbados, Dominica, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and Grenada, in British Guiana (Britain’s sole South American colony) and in British Honduras (Britain’s sole colony in Central America) were subjected to a system of “apprenticeship” which lasted from 1834 to August 1, 1838.
Africans were forced to continue living on the plantations of the White people who had enslaved them and were forced to work 40 hours a week without pay (paid a pittance for work over 40 hours) as “apprentices”. They were forced to pay taxes and rent for the dreadful hovels in which they dwelled on the plantations.
In 1838, two White Britons, Thomas Harvey and Joseph Sturge, documented the brutality of the “apprenticeship” system when they published The West Indies in 1837: Being the Journal of a Visit to Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados and Jamaica, Undertaken for the Purpose of Ascertaining the Actual Conditions of the Negro Population of Those Islands.
Harvey and Sturge wrote: “A new kind of slavery under the name Apprenticeship; an anomalous condition, in which the negroes were continued, under a system of coerced and unrequited labour.” They also observed that: “the planters have since succeeded in moulding the Apprenticeship into an almost perfect likeness of the system they so unwillingly relinquished. An equal, if not greater amount, of uncompensated labor, is now extorted from the negroes; while, as their owners have no longer the same interest in their health and lives, their condition, and particularly that of mothers and young children, is in many respects worse than during slavery.”
The enslavement of Africans by White people who transported them to Europe and the “New World”, as horrific as it was, did not begin with the British. No, that dubious honour goes to the Portuguese, who began that barbaric practice in 1441 when 10 Africans were kidnapped by Antão Gonçalves, a Portuguese sailor.
A group of Portuguese sailors under the leadership of Gonçalves (sometimes spelled Antonio Gonsalves) and Nuno Tristão was sailing along the coast of West Africa and happened upon an isolated group of Africans. They took the opportunity to kidnap these unfortunate people and transported them to Portugal, where they were presented as gifts to the Portuguese monarch. So this first kidnapping of Africans by the Portuguese was a crime of opportunity.
In his 1996 book The Negro in the Making of America, African-American historian, Benjamin Quarles, wrote: “The modern traffic in African slaves began in the mid-fifteenth century, with Portugal taking the lead. In 1441, Prince Henry the Navigator sent one of his mariners, the youthful Antonio Gonsalves, to the West Coast to obtain a cargo of skins and oils. Landing near Cape Bojador, the young captain decided that he might please his sovereign by bringing him gifts. Taking possession of some gold dust and loading ten Africans on his cockleshell, Gonsalves made his way back to Lisbon. Henry was greatly pleased by the gold and the slaves, deeming the latter of sufficient importance to send to the Pope. In turn, the Pope conferred upon Henry the title to all lands to be discovered to the east of Cape Blanco, a point on the West Coast some 300 miles above the Senegal. Thus began a new era.”
In 1444, another unscrupulous Portuguese kidnapper, Lançarote de Freitas, arrived in Lagos, Portugal on August 8 with 235 captive Africans. The Portuguese cemented their position in Africa on January 19, 1482 with the arrival of 12 sailing vessels loaded with men and materials to build the fortress, El Mina. From that time the Portuguese were on a mission to exploit Africa and Africans. Information from the 2010 book, The Progress of Maritime Discovery: From the Earliest Period to the Close of the Eighteenth Century, by British writer James Stanier Clarke, makes the intent of the Europeans who entered Africa frighteningly clear. Stanier Clarke wrote about the uninvited arrival of the Portuguese in Africa on January 19, 1482: “Early on the ensuing morning the Portuguese commodore landed with his followers, who had weapons concealed in case of resistance.”
The Portuguese were ready and willing to slaughter any African who objected to the occupation of their land. They came well prepared to occupy Africa as Stanier Clarke writes in The Progress of Maritime Discovery that: “The requisite materials from the stones of the foundation to the very tiles of the roof, were accordingly shipped on board a squadron consisting of ten caravellas, and two transports: which carried five hundred soldiers and one hundred workmen.”
By 1482, when the Portuguese monarch sent Diego d’Azambuja to build El Mina, which would include a dungeon where Africans were imprisoned before being forced unto the slave ships, Africans were being regularly kidnapped and taken to Europe. The infamous “Door of no return” is worse than Dante’s Inferno in the minds of many Africans in the Diaspora when we think of the horrors the Europeans visited upon our ancestors.
The British joined the lucrative trade in Africans in 1562 after a British pirate, John Hawkins (1532-1595), hijacked and plundered a Portuguese ship as it was taking Africans to sell in Brazil. Hawkins kidnapped 300 Africans from the Portuguese and transported them to the Caribbean, where he sold them to the Spanish colonizers in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). His criminal venture was so profitable that the British monarch Elizabeth (1533-1603) decided to go into business with him. In 1564, Elizabeth became partners with Hawkins in his piracy by giving him command of her ship, the 700-ton Jesus of Lubeck and the 300-ton Minion. Together with three other ships – the Swallow, the Tiger and the Salomon – owned by other investors, Hawkins set sail on his voyage of piracy with royal approval on October 18, 1564.
On this voyage the pirates, led by Hawkins and his cousin, Francis Drake, captured hundreds of Africans resulting from their piracy of Portuguese slave ships. They sold the Africans to Spanish settlers and returned to England to share the spoils with their investors, which included Elizabeth.
Other British pirates joined Hawkins and Drake, including Walter Raleigh and Martin Frobisher. These unconscionable criminals who traded in human beings were celebrated in Britain. The British eventually became the largest traders in Africans and at one point monopolized the trade.
In 1833 the British parliament passed the Emancipation Act, which would set enslaved Africans free on August 1, 1834. When Africans realized on August 1, 1834 that they had to serve a further six years until 1840 in a system (apprenticeship) that was slavery in all but name there were protests (documented) in British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere.
The result of the protests was that the “apprenticeship” system was abandoned in 1838, two years before it was supposed to end. Many Africans were brutalized, maimed and killed during those four years of protests against the “apprenticeship” system.
Gaining eventual freedom from chattel slavery on August 1, 1838 was the result of Africans uprising and protesting against the system, it was not automatically granted to our ancestors. In 2014 as we commemorate 176/180 years since Emancipation we continue to protest the racial profiling that is a result of a centuries-old White supremacist culture.