The Culture of Resistance in the Post Emancipation Period in British Guiana
By Mellissa Ifill
August 16, 2001
One of the most striking features gleaned when examining the history of Caribbean societies is the persistent, continuous resistance by those who were exploited to colonialism and all attendant characteristics such as forced labour, tremendous social inequity and authoritarianism. Consequently, the history of the region is replete with accounts of explicit and violent forms of resistance such as riots and rebellions in addition to those subtler, covert and often non-violent resistance strategies. All these acts of self-defence and defiance, on individual and collective levels, on the plantations or off, contributed to the survival of the peoples of the Caribbean region.
Resistance began from the time of capture on the African continent, continued over the sea voyage to the Americas and on the plantations of the Caribbean, where millions of workers were given the task of producing sugar and other agricultural commodities for European and subsequently North American markets and customers. Completely new societies were constructed, which were rooted in colonialism and slavery and consolidated by oppression, intimidation and conflicts that centred on, though not restricted to, the labour process.
These structures of oppression and intimidation were endemic in the system. Although slaves secured legal emancipation in 1838, they remained oppressed and in bondage socially, culturally, economically and politically. Consequently, the struggle for complete emancipation persisted after 1838.
Africans employed a number of strategies in their attempts to carve out an independent and completely free existence. A significant number of ex-slaves purchased villages and lands and attempted to create their own economic structures that were independent from the white-owned plantations, while some others moved into the urban areas to seek employment and into the hinterland as porknockers. Those who remained and worked on the white owned plantations organized themselves into task gangs and offered their labour to the most competitive employer. By purposely generating a labour shortage, they produced conditions that persuaded planters to offer competitive wage rates.
After the abolition of slavery, and with the ex-slaves continuing their resistance struggles to acquire complete freedom, the plantocracy was forced to reconsider a number of other forms of labour extraction, such as wage labour and the indenture system. This latter manifestation of forced labour relied on a number of new immigration schemes between the 1840s and 1930s that created, especially in British Guiana, Trinidad and Suriname, ethnically diverse societies in which workers who had cultural and physical differences had no choice but to compete with each other for jobs, lands and economic opportunities.
The African plantation workers in Demerara and on the Essequibo coast successfully resisted attempts in the early months of 1842 by the plantocracy to impose a number of harsh, arbitrarily derived "Rules and Regulation" which included a reduction of their wages. This 1842 strike represented the first major open conflict between the African labourers and the planters since emancipation. The labourers refused to work on the plantations until the new arrangement had been abandoned. In excess of 20,000 labourers withdrew their services from the plantation for over two months. Largely because of their cooperation and the superior strategy employed, the labourers successfully defeated the planters in this their first major confrontation after the abolition of slavery. As a consequence of this strike, the industry in both Demerara and Essequibo was crippled. More significantly, this strike clearly revealed the cooperation, organisation and militancy of the workers a mere four years after legal emancipation. Even though a number of labourers turned up for work on a few estates that had not approved the new rules, production soon ceased on these estates.
This resistance strategy used by the ex-slaves was reinforced by support from other immigrants who were given the task of doing any/all work on the estates, particularly those from Sierra Leone. The latter labourers immediately requested repatriation because of the proposed changed labour conditions. The support of the African workers, by a small number of immigrant groups, resulted in the planters' position being made even more desperate.
Conditions in the colony resumed some degree of normalcy by March 1842 after the workers were given the old wages and allowances. This unsuccessful effort by the planter class to introduce a reduced wage rate, and the total resistance to such an effort by the African labourers in early 1842, signalled in no uncertain terms to the planters that their choices were to either meet the conditions demanded by the African labour force or to acquire an alternative that was both inexpensive and submissive. The plantocracy determined that it was in dire need of an alternative labour force to force the costs of production down through the payment of reduced wages.
With the support of the colonial office, and through the use of public funds raised through taxation, the planters in British Guiana introduced increasing numbers of indentured immigrants into the colony. Between 1841 and 1855, some 23,301 Portuguese were brought from Madeira and 22,355 Indians were brought into the colony. This had the desired effect of reducing wages and numerous ex-slaves were faced with the reality that they were unable to maintain their households on small subsistence plots.
In 1847-48, widespread open confrontation between the plantocracy and the African labourers resurfaced once again. The African workers were angered that they were being increasingly taxed to fund the immigration schemes, the primary purpose of which was to secure a reduction in wage rates. Moreover, on a number of bankrupt plantations, employers had not paid their workers for tasks completed. Within this context, the attempt by some planters to considerably reduce wages saw fierce resistance from the African workers who withdrew their labour. Several properties were destroyed by fire and the planters believed that the Africans were responsible for setting them. Unlike 1842 when the African workers received support from the immigrants from Sierra Leone, the new immigrants refused to withdraw their labour and accepted the reduced wages in 1848. As a consequence, while production during this period declined significantly, mills nonetheless continued to operate and the sugar industry was not crippled. After approximately three months, Africans began to return in significant numbers to the estates and accepted the reduced wages since the strike action did not have the anticipated impact.
To further frustrate the efforts at creating an independent existence by the freed Africans, the planters and the colonial administration initiated a number of measures including indiscriminate expulsions, harsh rents and the refusal of farming and grazing privileges on plantation lands. Moreover, it appeared to the Africans that the colonial administration and the planters in their use of discriminatory indirect and direct taxation specifically against Africans by ensuring that the greater burden fell on them while on the other hand, encouraged the growth and development of other ethnic endeavours.
These measures bred added resistance from the Africans - some of which targeted other ethnic groups who they perceived were being treated in a special manner by the colonial administration. For instance, African attempts to engage in the retail trade were stymied by the requirements that they acquire licences, which discriminated against the Africans and in favour of the Portuguese. Moreover, Africans, unlike the Portuguese, were unable to obtain goods on credit and there was also evidence to suggest that the Portuguese traders were involved in overpricing and other deceptive practices. Such malpractices angered the Africans who responded by attacking the property of the Portuguese community in 1848 in Berbice and in 1856 in Demerara and Essequibo and again in 1889 in Georgetown.
The efforts by the Africans to enhance their existence and secure complete emancipation were continually obstructed by the planter class, which was determined to maintain their social, political and economic dominance in the colony. The planters, with the colonial administration firmly in their corner, employed a number of strategies to maintain the status quo including the introduction of competing immigrant groups, the imposition of direct and indirect taxation and the destabilization of the village economy. Despite the measures used by the planter class, and the relative disadvantaged position faced by the Africans, the latter continually utilised resistance - overt and subtle, violent and non-violent - in their attempts to achieve complete emancipation.