Slavery and abolition in Guyana
By Winston McGowan
August 1, 2002
Today Guyanese and many residents of the English-speaking Caribbean celebrate one of the most momentous events in regional history. One hundred and sixty four years ago African slaves in Guyana and the rest of the British Caribbean were freed and embarked on a new life.
The presence of Africans in Guyana as slaves dated back to the early decades of the seventeenth century, when they were brought here by Dutch traders and settlers. This important development was one facet of what historians call the transatlantic slave trade, the forced migration of millions of Africans from West and, to a much lesser extent, East Africa to the Americas between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As elsewhere in the Americas, slavery in Guyana was a cruel institution under which the victims suffered serious disabilities for which they usually could obtain no redress. These disabilities included long hours of hard work, especially for field slaves, insufficient clothing, poor housing, food which was deficient in both quantity and nutritional value, unsatisfactory medical attention, severe, often sadistic, punishment, and for females, sexual exploitation.
Slaves could escape from servitude by only one of three means, namely, death, successful flight or rebellion, and legal manumission. Manumission, either by paying their purchase price to their owner or as a reward by their master for what was considered meritorious service, was, however, extremely rare. Thus as late as 1825, only 44 slaves were manumitted in the united colony of Demerara-Essequibo and 11 in Berbice at a time when Demerara-Essequibo had a slave population of about 72,000 and Berbice one of about 21,000.
Inspite of the evils of slavery, the institution for a long time had widespread support in Europe, being encouraged by governments and sanctioned, surprisingly, by the Christian church. This situation of support, approval and toleration, however, eventually changed.
In the latter half of the eighteenth century Caribbean slavery began to come under increasingly serious attack from two sources. One of them was an essentially, secular intellectual movement centred in France known by historians as the Enlightenment and led by renowned thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau who stressed ideas such as the liberty, equality and fraternity of the human race. The second source was a humanitarian movement in England which emerged out of a major evangelical revival there.
The first major success by the new anti-slavery protesters was gained in the British Isles in the 1770s, when slavery was outlawed in England in 1772 and in Scotland in 1778 by judicial decisions. These decisions in the English and Scottish courts, recognising the freedom of slaves in these two countries were made in the famous Somerset case in England in 1772 and the less known Knight case in Scotland in 1778. It was obviously somewhat easy to secure the abolition of slavery in these countries where there was an abundance of free labourers and only about 14,000-15,000 slaves. Time proved, however, that it was much more difficult to abolish slavery in the Caribbean, where the institution was pervasive and considered indispensable to the economy.
Opposition to slavery became, more intense and better organised in the 1780s when British humanitarians in 1787 formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, led by men such as Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and William Wilber-force. Their initial focus was an attack on the Atlantic slave trade not on slavery itself. They conducted a systematic campaign on two fronts, seeking to sensitise the British public to the evils of the trade and endeavouring to persuade the British Parliament to abolish it. Eventually their relentless efforts were successful, for in 1807 the British Parliament declared the slave trade illegal for all British nationals and subjects.
This success emboldened the Society to seek their ultimate objective, namely, the abolition of slavery. This goal was not achieved until 1833 when the British Parliament passed an Abolition bill which stated that slavery would be abolished in British dominions with effect from 1st August 1834.
This momentous decision, taken somewhat reluctantly by the Parliament, was influenced by at least four major considerations apart from the continued strong humanitarian pressure. Firstly, the British government was motivated partly by the failure of a policy it had been pursuing since 1823 to persuade the authorities and slaveholders in the Caribbean to improve the lot of the slaves. Among the reforms, which it had recommended, were the prohibition of the flogging of women, the cessation of the use of the whip in the field, the provision of religious instruction for slaves, the recognition of slave marriages, a reduction in the length of the working day, the provision of better food and clothing for slaves, and compulsory manumission. The policy of reforms, however, encountered strong opposition from slaveholders and the authorities in Guyana and other British territories in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica and Barbados.
The decision to abolish slavery was also prompted by economic considerations. By 1830 the British West Indies and Africa had begun to feature differently in British thinking. The British West Indian economy, based mainly on sugar production, was being seen increasingly as one on the decline. Soils, especially in the older British colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica, were becoming exhausted and sugar prices were falling on the international market. As a result, the West Indies increasingly was being regarded as a region with much less economic value to Britain than before.
On the other hand, Africa was no longer being seen in Britain as valuable for its supply of slave labour to the now somewhat depressed Caribbean economies. Rather it was being valued especially in two new ways considered vital to the British economy which was in the process of being increasingly industrialised, namely, as a supplier of raw materials such as oils and cotton and as a market for British manufactured goods.
This new thinking meant that it was now more in Britain's economic interest to have Africans remain in their homeland to produce these materials and purchase these goods than to be taken as slaves to the Caribbean.
The decision to abolish slavery was also prompted by the fear generated by the resistance of the captives witnessed especially in two of the most massive slave rebellions ever seen in the Caribbean - in 1823 in Demerara and 1831 in Jamaica. These uprisings convinced many residents in Britain that once slavery continued, violent slave resistance would occur, causing much loss of life and considerable damage to property in the Caribbean.
The final impetus to abolition was political. In 1832 a new parliament was elected in Britain under a new reform Bill which altered electoral requirements. The new ruling party and parliament which came to power demonstrated soon that they were more committed to reform than their predecessors. It was they who took the decisive action which resulted in slavery being abolished partially on 1st August 1834 and finally and completely on the same date in 1838, after the slaves had been required to endure four years of a modified form of slavery termed "apprenticeship".