By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On August 1, 1834, enslaved Africans in Canada and elsewhere in the British Empire were freed from chattel slavery. While the Africans in Canada, Antigua and the Bahamas were immediately freed on August 1, 1834, the Africans in the other British colonized Caribbean islands and British Guiana on the South American continent were informed that they had to endure up to a further six years (domestic workers four years and field workers six) of semi-slavery before they would finally be free.
Instead of complete freedom the Africans were, in effect, indentured labourers tied to their former owners. They were compelled to provide 40 hours a week of unpaid labour on the plantations where they had been enslaved. Any work after the 40 hours was supposed to be paid labour but who was there on the plantations to ensure that this was done?
The British government called the system an apprenticeship. In theory the apprenticeship period was a time for the Africans to be “trained” for a life of freedom. In reality it was a system rife with abuse of the Africans and more exploitation of their labour. The terms of apprenticeship was made for the planters which included the fact that the plantation owners had no responsibility to provide the “apprentices” with food, clothes, medical care and housing.
The Africans were compelled to pay rent for the inadequate housing on the plantations and feed and clothe themselves and their families from the pittance they were paid for work over 40 hours per week. Naturally, the plantation owners ensured that the work to run the plantation was done during that 40 hours so not much paid work was available. The Africans resisted and eventually the six years of apprenticeship was reduced to four years and they were finally freed on August 1, 1838.
One of my favourite stories of resistance starting on Friday, August 1, 1834, is the resistance of enslaved Africans in Trinidad. On that day, a group of Africans gathered at Government House in Port-of-Spain to listen to the British governor George Fitzgerald Hill proclaim their freedom. Instead, the Africans were told that they were obliged by law to serve as “apprentices” for up to six more years living on the estates and plantations where they were enslaved.
The Africans were not amused and loudly voiced their displeasure and disagreement with being subjected to six years of “apprenticeship”. Hill sent the militia out to intimidate the group but the furious Africans stood their ground, recognizing that the “apprenticeship” system was a scam used by the White plantation owners and the government representatives in the Caribbean to use free African labour for a further six years. In spite of the presence of the militia, the protest continued until nightfall when the protesters strategically withdrew because they were not allowed to be in the town during the night.
On Saturday, August 2, when the group of protesters returned to Government House, Hill gave the order to arrest them. There were scuffles with the militia and some of the protesting Africans were arrested, tried, sentenced to “hard labour and flogging” and taken to the Royal Jail.
Their incensed compatriots were forced to flee but returned on Monday, August 4 to continue the protest. The numbers had swollen by then and more clashes with the militia took place. Some of those who were arrested that day were publicly flogged in Marine Square. The protests continued the entire week before it was quelled, but several of the Africans refused to return to the plantations and instead “squatted” in districts known today as Belmont and East Dry River.
It was such protests that forced the British to abandon their plan to coerce the Africans who had worked in the fields to endure six years of apprenticeship. Africans throughout the region protested their continued enslavement under the apprenticeship system and on August 1, 1838, slavery was abolished in all the British colonies.
On July 25, 1838, Governor Hill called an emergency session of the Council of Government to seek approval of a special proclamation he had drafted which ended the apprenticeship period for Africans in Trinidad on August 1, 1838, whether they worked in the fields, homes or were skilled workers.
The plantation owners received reparations for the loss of their property due to emancipation. The British government paid the plantation owners 20 million pounds, an amount which is estimated to be the equivalent of 200 billion pounds today. A report from a recent gathering of Caribbean countries (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/25/slavery-reparations-caribbean-nations_n_3654231.html) where “Reparations” was the topic includes this quote:
“Caribbean officials have not mentioned a specific monetary figure but Gonsalves and Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica, both mentioned the fact that Britain at the time of emancipation in 1834 paid 20 million pounds to British planters in the Caribbean, the equivalent of 200 billion pounds today.”
Dr. Verene A. Shepherd is a Professor of Social History and University Director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies and Chair of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGPAD). Dr. Ralph Gonsalves is Prime Minister of St. Vincent & the Grenadines.
The British government has resisted calls for reparations to be made to the descendants of enslaved Africans whose ancestors’ blood, sweat, tears and unpaid labour enriched generations of White people who continue to enjoy those riches into the 21st century.
The evidence is there that the British and other European tribes benefitted financially from the slave trade. Although the British did not begin the trade in Africans (the Portuguese began this barbaric trade, quickly followed by the Spanish and other European tribes), it was the British who almost monopolized this dreadful system for centuries supported by the British monarchy.
Guyanese historian, Dr. Walter Rodney, has powerfully portrayed this in his 1973 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, where he wrote:
“Some attempts have been made to try and quantify the actual monetary profits made by Europeans from engaging in the slave trade. The actual dimensions are not easy to fix, but the profits were fabulous. John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains.”
In Canada, where slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834, there is a lack of recognition that Africans were enslaved here. Many Canadians are ignorant of the fact that Africans were enslaved in Canada beginning in 1628 with the sale of a six-year-old African child who was given the name Olivier LeJeune by his enslavers. The lives of enslaved Africans are not well-documented but we do know about Peggy Pompadour and her children Amy, Jupiter and Milly, who were owned by Peter Russell (acting Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada 1796-1799) and his sister, Elizabeth.
Marie-Joseph Angélique, who was hanged in Montreal on June 21, 1739, is probably the most well-known because of the work of Dr. Afua Cooper, who brought Angélique’s story to life in her 2006 book, The Hanging of Angélique. Africans were enslaved throughout this land and the many advertisements for buying and selling Africans as well as for their capture and return to their “owners” are documented in the Canadian newspapers of the time.
August 1, Emancipation Day, was the end of chattel slavery for Africans in Canada and the day has been celebrated for more than a century here in Canada as well as in other former British colonies. Not many books have been published about that history, however, for those people interested in learning about this history one of the more recently published books (2010) is Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada, by author Natasha Henry, which documents the celebration of August 1 in Canada.