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Posted August 6th. 2003 - by Moses V. Nagamootoo

August 1 is observed in Guyana as Emancipation Day. It is a celebration of freedom in 1838 from slavery of Africans on the Guyana colonial plantations.

In its Preamble, the 1980 Constitution of Guyana pays homage to the "indomitable spirit and unconquerable will" of our forefathers who, "by their sacrifices, their blood and their labour" bequeathed to us this dear land of Guyana. It salutes those "immoral leaders who, in the vanguard of battle kept aloft the banner of freedom by the example of their courage, their fortitude and their martyrdom".

In the epic struggles", says the Preamble, our forefathers displayed "relentless hostility to imperialist and colonial domination and all other forms and manifestations of oppression."

At the core of those struggles is a single word - sugar, the mere mention of which in Guyana elicits two other words - slavery and indentureship.

In different historic periods, our African and Indian fore-fathers, watered the sugar cane with their blood, sweat and tears. Little wonder that Dr. Eric Williams, in his book Capitalism and Slavery, observed: "Strange that an article like sugar so sweet and necessary for human existence should have occasioned such crimes and bloodshed."

The socio-economic system of slavery was ushered by the switch from tobacco to sugar as the main crop in the Caribbean. That resulted in the infamous slave-trade. Some 15 million Africans were shipped as slaves across the "Middle Passage" to the so-called "New World" between 1518 and 1807.

The period of early colonial expansion signaled the dawn of the era of capitalist production. Karl Marx wrote of it as "the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in miles of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest an looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins".

In the name of wealth and capital accumulation unspeakable crimes were committed by slave-traders, Africans suffered in many ways-as victims forcibly uprooted from their land of birth, as chatted slaves inhumanly exploited on the plantation, and as Black whose culture, features and colour were used to rationalise the despicable trade in "human cargoes" from the African continent.

The chains of slavery were galling. In The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James refers to the "crack of the whip, the stifled cries and the heavy groans of slaves… who saw the sun rise only to curse it for its renewal of their labours and their pains". On the plantations, slaves were worked like animals, cruelly punished and constantly terrorised. They received the whip with more certainty than they received food, according to C.L.R. James.

Slavery was a life from which few really expected to escape. The Guyana experience as well as elsewhere in the West Indies, showed a prevailing pattern of a vicious circle of punishment, resistance, escape, capture, punishment. The masters acted in the only way they knew: more cruelty and more punishment; the slaves reacted in the only way open to them: sullenest, non-cooperation, passive resistance and escape which alternated with sabotage and revolt.

John Smith, the English-born Demerara martyr, described the cruelties which led to the 1823 uprising. When sick, he testified, slaves have been commonly neglected, ill-treated, or half-starved. Their punishments have been frequent and severe. The whip has been used with an unsparing hand. Earlier, in 1763, similar specific grievances resulted in the Berbice rebellion.

While not every slave was a Spartacus (a rebel slave during the Roman Empire) or even potentially one and the system bred many collaborators (as the imperialist capitalist system did in more recent times), slaves throughout the West Indies rebelled when they could. Such resistance, Melville Herskivits asserts in his Myth of the Negro Past, may be traced as far back as the slave ships. Michael Carton insists that there is a continuum of slave resistance from the moment of capture in Africa to the overtly bloody Afro-Carib revolts in the West Indies.

If the first skirmishes took the form of White-Black confrontation, the pattern that subsequently unfolded was underlined by class considerations. The fact of the matter is that there was an "antagonistic and irreconcilable relationship" between the two main social classes under slavery - masters and slaves. One Jamaican slave described that relationship as "the life of a dog" while the Jamaican martyr of the 1831 revolt, Samuel Sharpe, poignantly demonstrated the irreconcilability of the relationship when he defiantly said: "I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery."

Throughout the West Indies, African slaves shared a popular ideology of freedom sometimes referred to as the politics of slave resistance. The Afro-Guyanese experience - the 1763 Berbice and 1823 Demerara slave revolts - proved Herbert Aptheker, US Black history scholar, correct when he submitted that "resistance, not acquiescence, is the core of history".

In some cases, as in Berbice and Haiti, the objective was the total seizure of power and the replacement of the European controlled state by a Black state. Other rebellions like the Maroons of Jamaica and the "Bush Negroes" of Suriname, had a more limited objective: the establishment of autonomous village communities within an overall white-controlled territory.

In the face of great odds, superior forces and arms, our early revolutionaries proved they could not easily be intimidated. Leaders such as Cuffy in Berbice, Quamina in Demerara and Damon in Essequibo led heroic struggles for freedom.

That struggle was to continue under indentureship after the arrival in 1838 of the first batch of East Indian immigrants - the year apprenticeship under the chattel slavery system ended. The new system of indentureship was in reality wage-slavery. Many of our immigrant ancestors were deluded into accepting a myth for a dream that immediate prosperity awaited them in the "promised land" across the "Kala pani" (dark water). But they were worked on the colonial plantations as mules, housed in hovels, brutally treated and culturally oppressed. At a time when sugar made the West Indies "the jewel in England's crown", the immigrants because mere instruments of labour on the gear-box of European capitalism.

If the revolts of the slaves helped to break-up the slave system, the resistance of the indentured immigrants resulted in the imposition of a more developed capitalist system in Guyana.

As was captured in the Preamble to the 1980 Constitution, slavery and indentureship and the concomitant resistance to the colonial plantocracy formed the historic backdrop of the evolution of our nation-state. What is not captured in those lofty words were the sufferings and sacrifices of Africans under slavery.

Africans came out of the past with scars on their backs and fury in their hearts.

All the more why Emancipation should be a sweet word on the lips of every Guyanese of African ancestry!

Hail up!

(The author is Guyana's former Minister of Information, now in private practice as an Attorney)


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