Emancipation – a new beginning
The Jamaica sugar planter in the mid-18th century was a man marked for his great wealth, ostentation, and excesses. In 1771, a popular play opened in London. In the opening scene, there was a bustling preparation for a planter’s return to London from Jamaica.
A servant theorised: “He is very rich and that’s sufficient. They say he has rum and sugar enough belonging to him to make all the water in the Thames into punch.”
With all the unrest in the slave colonies, the fortune of farmers had waned, and in the first quarter of the 19th century, the down-turn was evident. “Colonial property will no longer be deemed as collateral on loans,” announced the factors in London who had always given the planters credit. Furthermore, the Society of Merchants informed the estates that they were overdrawn on their accounts and that restitution had to be made or their land would be foreclosed.
Meanwhile, the abolitionists had been taking their fight to the floor of parliament and they were gaining ground. To all but the abolitionists the writing was on the wall. It would be just a matter of time before slaves would earn their freedom. The guile and illegality of slavery as perpetrated by the planters was wearing thin, and it was getting more difficult to hold the slave in bondage.
William Wilberforce had dedicated his life to fighting for freedom for the slaves. The Abolition movement gained momentum in Britain as sugar fortunes declined as the fortunes of the planters waned.
Others joined Wilberforce in Britain in the fight for the abolition of slavery; Thomas Fowell Buxton, Dr. Lushington, Zachary Macaulay and Granville Sharp. Those men and hundreds of others like them, saw the injustice that was slavery and were determined to put an end to it.
Emancipation Day, August 1, 1834, was, for the most part, a day for church and thanksgiving, and that was where many of the slaves were heading. They went to church in their thousands, some from the evening before, so that when the clock struck midnight on July 31, they were already in church giving thanks.
The pastor of the Baptist Church in Falmouth, William Knibb, stood with his eyes fixed on the clock. The church was packed to capacity. As the clock’s hands reached a few minutes before midnight, William said in a solemn voice: “The hour is at hand; the monster is dying.” He kept repeating this same message until the stroke of twelve, and then he said: “The monster is dead; the Negro is free.”
The entire scene was one of fervent gratitude and anticipation. For most of the assembly it was like awakening from a dream. The same thoughts were swimming in everyone’s mind: Was it all over? Could slavery come back? Was it really happening? There was an air of general disbelief that the scourge of slavery was no more.
William held a mock burial in the churchyard, where chains and fetters were interred with great solemnity. Members of the congregation took turns pouring shovels of dirt into the grave, on top of the last vestiges of physical artefacts associated with slavery.
The freed slaves sang lustily the words of a song composed especially for the occasion:
“Ye favoured sons of Africa race
Your glad Hosannas sing
Bring forth your sweetest, noblest lays
To Christ our Heavenly King
Who out of love and pity great
Brought freedom’s blessing here
And banished slavery from her seat
In this our island fair.
Our fathers groaned beneath the weight
Of slavery’s grief and fear
Taskmasters over them were set
Most cruel and severe
They laboured hard without reward
Through sunshine and through rain
Till freedom spake and gave the word
O, break my people’s chain.”
It was not easy for the planters to accept that after all the years of ill-treatment the slaves would not murder them in their sleep. They feared reprisals and bloodshed, and so they were pleasantly surprised when nothing of the sort happened. The slaves were so gracious for their freedom, they never retaliated with any of the violence and aggression they had felt their whole lives from their masters.
The freed slaves were at liberty to hire their services out to planters for a wage. Some planters had allowed them to continue living in the same huts they had always occupied on the estate where they had worked. Other planters who were angered by their slaves’ new-found freedom, evicted them from their estates the moment they were free. That new state of uncertainty had not been foreseen. The British government had compensated the estate owners for the loss of their businesses and their slaves, but the slaves were left to fend for themselves.
The freed slaves no longer wished to do the menial work which had been forced upon them in slavery, so they deserted the land. As a result the church bought up large acreages of land that was going cheap, and sub-divided it into small parcels, which was sold to the slaves with moderate and affordable terms. Such sub-divisions were known as ‘free slave villages’, the first of which to be established was Sligoville, located in St. Catherine. The sale of the sub-division was organized by Governor Sligo, who was sent from England to Jamaica to oversee the emancipation process through to the full freedom of the slaves. Other subdivisions were set up by the churches in St. Elizabeth, Manchester and Westmoreland.
Some planters refused to sell their lands, in order to keep the slaves dependent on them for work. Many estates were foreclosed by merchant banks, and others were taken over as crown lands in discharge for taxes and debts.
With the labour crisis in Jamaica, another source of labour had to be found to take up the work the freed slaves had relinquished. The British looked to India and China to fill that gap.
Extracted from 50 Jamaican History Stories by Richard Guy – send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org