THE END OF SLAVERY
The campaign for the end of slavery gained momentum in Great Britain and it was expected that slaves in the British colonies would soon be set free. Finally, on the 28 August 1833, the House of Commons in England approved the Emancipation Bill which was earlier introduced by Thomas Buxton.
The final Act, which would come into effect on 1 August 1834, stipulated that:
(1) Immediate and effective measures would be taken for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies.
(2) All children born under the passing of the Act, or under the age of six shall be free.
(3) All slaves over the age of six years would have to serve an apprenticeship of six years in the case of field slaves, and four years in the case of others.
(4) Apprentices should work for not more than 45 hours per week without pay, and any additional hours for pay.
(5) Apprentices should be provided with food and clothing by the plantation owner.
(6) Funds should be provided for an efficient stipendiary magistracy, and for the moral and religious education of the ex-slaves.
(7) Compensation in the form of a free gift of 20 million English pounds should be paid to the slave owners for the loss of their slaves.
The Emancipation Act successfully ended one phase of a long and bitter struggle against a system which transformed people into beasts of labour with absolutely no human rights. Actually, slave society regarded the African slaves as mules and even referred to the offspring of a European and an African female slave as a "mulatto", meaning literally a "young mule".
As one phase of Guyana's colonial society came to an end, an equally difficult period began. The slaves were told of their forthcoming freedom and waited with eager joy to throw off their cruel chains and, in some cases, even more cruel masters.
It will be recalled that the East Coast Demerara rebellion of 1823, led by Quamina and implicating Rev. John Smith, was largely fuelled by the feeling that the planters were deliberately withholding news of the impending freedom of the slaves. In 1833, however, Governor James Carmichael Smyth did not make the same mistakes as John Murray did ten years earlier when he failed to make public a circular from Britain proposing certain improvements in the conditions under which slaves lived and worked in British colonies. It was this document which the slaves mistook at that time for the Emancipation Order, a mistake which precipitated the slave revolt of 1823.
Governor Smyth, however, had informed the slaves of the freedom date fixed by Britain even before that Act was published in the colony on 19 October 1833. However, he did not explain clearly to the slaves the implications of the apprenticeship system which was to succeed slavery.
There were some planters who were unwilling to comply with the Emancipation Act. Some Berbice planters announced their intention to remove their slaves immediately to Nickerie in Suriname before Emancipation Act came into force so as to avoid its effect. Suriname did not abolish slavery until 1863.
It must be noted that attached to the Emancipation Act was the condition which bound most of the freed slaves to their former masters until 1840 and which required them to work on the masters' estates seven and a half hours each day for six days each week of the year. On news of their emancipation, the slaves were either too overjoyed to note this binding condition, or did not fully understand what it meant.
Their masters, who were generally bitter about it, and in opposition to emancipation, avoided all discussions and preparations for the changed status of the slaves on August 1, 1834.
The long-awaited day, Friday 1 August 1834, finally arrived. It was a public holiday and many Africans who were now Christians attended religious services. Others danced in their homes, in their yards and in the streets and the merry-making continued late into the night.
But a rude shock awaited all the ex-slaves early the following morning when they were ordered back to the fields and other workplaces. This caused great confusion since they failed to understand how they could have gained their freedom and still be forced to work in their detested old posts.
But this condition was part of the Emancipation Act - an Apprenticeship period of six years - where the freed slaves were compelled by law to serve their old masters just as they had done when they were slaves. The masters were required to provide moral and religious education for the ex-slaves, but the planters' hostility to the Emancipation Act as a whole really meant that they would treat this six year period as an extension of slavery, even though the working hours were greatly reduced to seven and a half hours a day instead of the nine and ten hours they formerly demanded of each slave.
There was disorder on the East Coast of Demerara and grumbling throughout the colony in this first week of August. The Governor appeared personally in various places to address workers and explain the obligations which now fell upon them.
The planters called for marital law, no doubt hoping to by-pass the Emancipation Act altogether. But Governor Carmichael Smyth refused this request.
Confusion and disorder broke out on the West Coast Demerara and on August 8 four women were sentenced to the treadmill for riotous behaviour and refusal to work. Five men were sentenced to two days each on the treadmill, and thirty-nine strokes with the cat-o'nine-tails.
The Governor visited West Coast Demerara and brought some amount of order and understanding to the workers.
With the end of slavery, the plantation owners in Guyana received very high compensation from the British Government for the "loss" of their slaves. For each slave they received an average of 52 English pounds, which was the highest amount paid in any British colony. For a headman or driver, slave owners received as much as 230 English pounds. On the other hand, the ex-slaves, who had laboured to produce wealth for the planters and the colonial Government, received not a single cent in compensation.