Slavery and indentureship
Stabroek News
September 28, 2001

Once again the debate about indentureship being the same as slavery has raised its head, this time triggered by Dr Prem Misir in a column entitled 'Ethnic-class cleavage and closure,' [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] published in the Sunday Chronicle of September 23. There really should be no debate; the two things were not "the same phenomenon," and it is unfortunate, perhaps, that a government spokesman who as far as anyone is aware is unfamiliar with the primary sources relating to the history of slavery in this country should have elected to pronounce on it. As Mr Eusi Kwayana said a long time ago, we really should not be in a competition for suffering. Nevertheless, when the information is available, we should be aiming for historical accuracy.

It is absolutely true, of course, that indentureship was exploitative and a source of suffering, and that it emerged from a background of slavery. It is true too that the system was coercive, and Dr Misir rightly cites the labour laws and their application in support of this. It is also true that the indentured labourers often lived in the same logies which their African predecessors had occupied, but all these similarities - and others - still do not make for identical institutions under different names.

The first key difference, of course, is the fact that slaves had no moral or legal personality; chattel slavery meant exactly what it said. The laws of all the plantocracies, Guyana included, regarded slaves as technically property, in the same category as tables and chairs, although it must be said that since it is impossible to suppress the intrinsic humanity of any human being, this inevitably led to all kinds of contradictions in practice. However harsh the conditions of indentureship may have been, the labourer was always legally human.

Secondly, the indentured labourer operated on the basis of a contract which sooner or later came to an end. The condition of slavery in contrast was a permanent condition and only death, permanent escape or manumission could bring that condition to an end. Under the Dutch manumissions were very rare indeed, and were not very common under the British either until the end of the slavery period. Furthermore, slave status was an inherited condition; anyone whose mother was a slave, was themselves a slave.

As far as treatment is concerned, it must be understood that the system of slavery while inhuman in all its forms, was more brutal in some territories than others and was more brutal at some periods than others. The comparisons with indentureship in this regard, mostly refer to the apprenticeship era, or perhaps even the preceding years covering amelioration. But apprenticeship was hardly typical of the norms of slavery which prevailed under the Dutch (1620s-1781; 1784-1796; 1802-1803) and for the first quarter century or so of British rule.

Pass laws aside, which first go onto the statute books in the 1730s in Berbice, and laws dealing with cohabitation between slaves (African and Amerindian) and Europeans which date back to the seventeenth century, there is remarkably little slave legislation as such until rather late. What this meant in practice was that until the 1770s, planters were more or less a law unto themselves where their slaves were concerned. If perchance they were brought before the Court of Justice in either Essequibo or Berbice for gross maltreatment of one of their bondspeople, they got little more than a slap on the wrist. Certainly nothing much happened to the planter of Helvetia, who whipped two women - an African and an Amerindian - to death in 1762 for not preparing his food as he wanted, or to Planter George and his friends who tore up Nouakoe's back with a saw. And every schoolchild knows the standard punishment for escapees who had the misfortune to be caught and returned to the plantation.

One cannot compare a situation of labour laws, however repressive, with that of an absence of legislation where every planter could 'punish' according to whim or sadistic inclination.

Owing to the barrier of language, the Dutch records are not easily accessible to angolphone researchers; however, there is a little in English to give a small glimpse of what the eighteenth century 'punishments' were like and perhaps just a flavour of how slavery operated here. The Roth translation of JJ Hartsinck, for example, which records the punishments meted out to the leaders of the 1763 Uprising, has been available for decades. And Alvin Thompson's Colonialism and Underdevelopment covering the Dutch period has been around for several years.