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Related: Don’t mess with history (Part 1)
In order for the second portion of Mr. Thomas’ sentence to make sense, it should have been separated from the first part in the form of a new sentence. This sentence would then have read somewhat as follows:
[Black African slaves were] captured and transported from Africa into what became known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved and made into property.
Such a sentence, though still poorly written, would make some sense — until we begin to think about it seriously. First! Mr. Thomas does not see fit to provide us with a basic piece of information. Who captured the (millions of) slaves?
1. There is a huge body of historical, sociological, ethnological, and anthropological literature on slavery and the use of alcohol in pre-colonial Africa. There is now no doubt that African chiefs along with their ‘slaves’ were the ones who captured the vast majority of the African slaves that were transported to the Caribbean and the Americas during the Atlantic Slave Trade. We also know that native African traders brutalized their ‘brothers and sisters’ through long marches to the sea, and sold them to European and American slave traders. In exchange, those now conveniently ‘blameless’ African traders received European goods, baubles, trinkets, guns, prestige, power, and importantly, rum. Assuming, especially in an historically important state of affairs such as a demand for reparations, that there should always be a sense of fair play, the questions must be asked: Why are Africans and their descendants, particularly from West and West Central Africa (from whence most of the slaves originated), not included in this claim for reparations? Is it possible that racialism lies at the heart of the justification for excluding Africans from the demand for reparations? While we are at it, we should also take note of the fact that the ‘rum’ of that early time, which the African forefathers loved so much, was produced from Caribbean molasses, the waste of the sugar production process. Ironically, those early slave ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, who had been dumped, with the assistance of their African forebears, into the Caribbean, were the ones who introduced the European colonialists to the fermentation process that turned molasses into rum.
2. The European plantation owners soon added the distillation process that would turn the mild rum into ‘strong rum’. This strong rum was, in turn, shipped to such places as England, Ireland, and North America. In North America, particularly in the United States, long before the birth of whiskey, when diluted, this rum played a major role in destroying the social cohesion of the native communities as a result of its introduction to them during the fur trade. Kill Devil, as Americans appropriately called it, was the primary agent which was used to dispossess North American Indians of their dignity and land. The process was so effective that it was then used, again mostly by Americans, to transform the African slave trade into the booming, triangular Atlantic Slave Trade of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. From its humble beginnings, the rum trade continued to grow; during the days of slavery, it was the only product that challenged the ascendancy of sugar but, interestingly, now that sugar has been debated historically ad nauseum, rum’s little-known history is only beginning to be written in recent years. We are beginning to realize now that, for most island colonies, in years when the price of sugar dropped disastrously, their foreign trade earnings from molasses and rum was greater than that from sugar and, in those years, rum and molasses were the products that kept their plantations from going into bankruptcy. From my perspective, African slaves in the Caribbean, albeit unknowingly and under extreme duress, played an important (possibly negative) role in the colonizing process of the new world but, definitely on the positive side, their most lasting, long-term contribution is today’s world-wide annual 2 to 3 billion dollar rum industry which, of course, is now owned, managed, and controlled mostly by American and European mega-corporations.
3. According to Mr. Thomas’s sentence, the slaves were transported from Africa to an unstated place. If Mr. Thomas had stuck to the requirements of the committee he leads, this was the place where he should have inserted ‘St. Vincent and the Grenadines’. Instead, he catapults himself and the reader, away from the place he should be concentrating on, into the complexities of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which covers a very large geographic area with a variety of different types of slavery and slave experiences. Mr. Thomas totally ignores, or does not seem to know, that the experiences of slaves under different colonial regimes were quite different, based primarily on the varying imperial structures, the differences in land topography in the slave areas, and the main produce of the colonial enterprises. We know, for example, that slavery of the kind that existed in the older Caribbean sugar plantation colonies, during the period under discussion, did not exist in most colonies: in most of the Spanish and Dutch Caribbean regimes, it was either non-existent or extremely mild, compared to that of any older British island colony; in Barbados it was notoriously extreme, compared to that of New England, South Carolina, and every British slave colony in the Caribbean; in French Canada (Quebec), it was virtually non-existent, compared to slavery in Haiti, Martinique, or Guadeloupe.
4. St. Vincent and the Grenadines was the last colony in the Windward Islands (perhaps in the entire Caribbean) to fall under the sway of slave traders and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Because of its late entry into that world and, particularly, due to the actions of the obstinate Garifuna, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines experience with slavery was very short; it was one of the least painful and exploitative of the British slave societies in the Caribbean. Because it was not totally institutionalized and socialized and, because the plantation owners were dependent on the slaves, not only for economic but, more importantly for their very survival through a devastating war, the relationship between the plantation owners and the slaves in St. Vincent was very different than the situation in Barbados. The almost two hundred years which preceded the British taking control of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, allowed the plantation owners of Barbados to institutionalize their form of slavery and to socialize the brutality which they meted out to their slaves. This was not the Vincentian experience under early British rule when the slaves were not exposed to the Garifuna culture. The later imported slaves of St. Vincent also did not share the Garifuna culture, hence, they could not have lost that culture. They consisted of a mixture of a very varied group of West and West Central African cultures and religions but, given the short time they were in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, they could not have completely ‘lost’ their ‘culture’(s) and ‘religion’(s). With regard to their African ‘history’, (in terms of what is denoted as history) that was largely unwritten at the time and there is no evidence to support a possible argument that they were aware of their nonexistent African ‘history’. Even if we accept the presence of an oral tradition of history, that history would have been as disjointed as their differing tribal backgrounds. I cannot, therefore, accept the rambunctious statement being made by Mr. Thomas that, with regard to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery, somehow, brought about “the loss of our culture, history and religion.” The culture that developed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is, I believe, a culture that came after slavery; it is a post-slavery synthesis of all the cultures that were already present in the society during slavery. In order to understand that culture, one has to deconstruct the society and the mix of cultures and determine how the different cultures interacted with and influenced the evolving society.
From 1626 to 1763, mostly under the influence of the French, St. Vincent and the Grenadines was not a sugar colony. The French inhabitants, mainly from Martinique and Guadeloupe, specialized in developing and working small plantations. Theirs was not a system based on monoculture; instead, they grew several crops such as coffee, cocoa, tobacco, indigo, cotton, and ground provisions. They, along with their family members and one or two slaves labored, day after day, to clear the land and to build small plantations which provided them all with food and some currency. Unlike the British merchants and traders who entered the scene after 1763, their main goal was not to amass exceptional wealth in a short period of time and then to hightail it back to France. Except for the added production of arrowroot as a consumption staple, theirs was an agricultural system much more akin to that practiced by the Garifuna who, once they recognized the difference in scale between the French and British approach to their treatment of the land, ended their wars with the French and, thereafter, did not hesitate to incorporate aspects of the French system into their own. This type of experience for the slaves, in the same way that it was for the Metis, that mixture of North American Indians with French Canada of the time, was much more familial and in greater accord with their African traditions and heritage. If they had been exposed immediately to the punitive, exploitative, destructive, and dehumanising regime experienced by Barbadian slaves, they would have, more than likely, sided with the Garifuna during the Second Carib War.
The basis of this manner of looking at the French relationship to their slaves is statistically borne out by the fact that, in 1763, after almost a century and a half of the French living in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, when the British assumed control of the territory, there were about 1300 French men, women, and children and only 2700 slaves – a ratio of roughly1 to 2. Based on this documented fact and the more familial basis of intercourse between the French plantation operators and their slave(s), I cannot accept that the earliest (the French) experience of slavery in St. Vincent and the Grenadines “brought unspeakable pain and suffering to our people” as reported by Mr. Thomas. Rather, the French experience in St. Vincent and the Grenadines should have resulted in the beginnings of two mixed-race groups of people – white/carib and white/black. (Thus far, I have not been able to uncover any research on such a subject pertaining to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.) More significantly, my argument with regard to French interaction with other races in its colonies will likely form part of the basis which France can and will use, in any court, in our day, to lessen any legal claim for reparations that would be brought against it by any British collection of islands. Similarly, Holland can present an argument of no slavery (as described by Mr. Thomas), based on the history of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao and most of its early colonies, which could result in the reduction of a claim for reparations that might be brought against it. Incidentally, does anyone wonder why the French or Dutch former Caribbean colonies, except maybe Haiti, have not rushed to join the demand for reparations?
After 1764, St. Vincent and the Grenadines suddenly entered into a different age. With the arrival of George Maddison as Lieutenant Governor, the French immigrants, mainly living on the Leeward coast, were informed that the land they had developed was not theirs to own; that, if they conformed to the British ways, they could remain on the property for a maximum of 40 years but only on the basis of leasehold rights under the new regime. In addition, they were not allowed to purchase new land unless, like Mme Lacroix during the Second Carib War, they ‘affected’ support for the British. This was obviously an insult to the vast majority of French inhabitants, made even more poignant when they learned that General Robert Monckton (hero of the Seven Years War in North America and the one who had captured Martinique and St. Vincent) was not of their ilk; he had obviously been exposed to and had imbibed the land grabbing tendencies of American Loyalists and had been granted, free of charge, 4000 acres of land on the Windward side of the island. His grant was massive, encompassing the area from Stubbs to Biabou and reaching up to the mountain ridges of the Mesopotamia valley. To add insult to injury, the land surveyor, John Byres, arrived in St. Vincent and began dividing up Carib (Garifuna and Kalinago) land into parcels which were to be auctioned to ‘British’ settlers. In this initial land grab, Byers himself emerged with the largest parcel of 471 acres which was only a few acres less than the maximum (500 acres) allowed under the auction. More particularly, the President of the Commission for the sale of lands in the Ceded islands, William Young, a native Antiguan Royalist (much quoted in historical works, through his son’s words), arrived at the same time as Byers. He emerged with the ownership of 2 plantations in St. Vincent and 3 in Dominica, in addition to the huge plantation he and his family already owned in Antigua. Of course, it is not surprising to see his son showing up later as Governor of Grenada.
The main conditions of sale were as follows: 20 percent payable at the time of purchase, 10 percent payable each year for 3 years, and 20 percent payable for the following 3 years. Maddison and the British colonial administration were fully aware of the need to control the size of plantations, primarily because of the social problems surrounding excessive land ownership by a few planters in Barbados and other islands. Despite this, it is interesting to note that several purchasers (William Young was not the only one) managed to buy more than 1 parcel of land, presaging the process of land speculation and agglomeration which soon developed. In order to relieve the pressure of a lack of land for small, white farmers and poor settlers from Barbados and elsewhere, in St. Vincent the British government tried to institute a policy of catering to poorer white immigrants from such places as Barbados; in each parish, a meagre 800 acres of land, limited in size from 10 to 30 acres, was set aside for the poorer class. Their land was inalienable for 7 years but most of it ended up in the hands of the larger plantation owners. The land auction itself was a great success in that the British Treasury pocketed £162,854 pounds sterling for the sale of 20,538 acres of land that it had not bought from the Caribs. However, the icing on the cake in these early land transactions, was that the British/American Loyalist, General Robert Monckton, never developed his 4000 acres; he pocketed £30,000 pounds sterling from the sales, and hightailed it to Britain instead of the United States.
The effect of these land deals began to show itself in the rise of the sugar industry in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In 1766, there was a miniscule shipment of 35 tons but, by 1770, the amount shipped was 1930 tons. The colony continued to flourish through the Lieutenant governorships of Joseph Higginson (1764-1766), Lauchlin McLean (1766), and Ulyses FitzMaurice (1766-1772). Obviously, this is the period when large amounts of African slaves should have begun to be introduced into St. Vincent. For the most part, however, the arrivals were trusted and seasoned slaves who came to St. Vincent from Barbados, Antigua and, possibly, St. Kitts with their owners. Presumably, most of these slaves were from Barbados, since a number of Barbadian farmers, whose land had become less productive, had bought rich, virgin lands in St. Vincent. The new colonists, for the most part, cannot all be lumped under the term English colonists. They consisted of a horde of Scotsmen (who were the real builders, historically, behind British trade colonial expansion throughout the world). Those who did not have the luxury of being able to bring in seasoned slaves, (the poorer classes of immigrants, as well as some very landless, but experienced, overseers from plantations on other islands) would have had to purchase new slaves from the slave traders. To this point in the historical record, there are no reliable statistics showing the number of slaves that were in St. Vincent. But, given the number of slaves extant with the French, it is likely that the total slave population on the island had grown to five or six thousand. Most of these early slaves of ‘British’ plantation owners were involved in the arduous tasks of clearing the fields and planting the sugar-cane and, by 1774, the almost 800 British colonists, located mainly on the southern shores of St. Vincent (around Kingstown and Calliaqua) were able to ship a total of 3,130 tons of sugar. This early success spurred demands by the colonists for more land in neighboring Garifuna territory. As a result of the parceling out of Monckton’s land, however, some Garifuna land, based on the Treaty of 1763, was actually being developed by colonists. When the government attempted to cut a road through portions of those lands, the obstinate Garifuna rebelled but, unfortunately, they lost the ‘skirmish’ of 1772-1773 (The First Carib War) and, as a result of the treaty that ended the altercation, they had also formally forfeited a major portion of their former lands. The boundary of their new lands was moved further north by the land grasping government – from the Colonarie River to the Byera River. From that point, a line was drawn across the mountains to the Wallibou River on the leeward side of St. Vincent. All lands north of that line was then considered Carib country. From 1772 to 1776, under the Lieutenant Governorship of Valentine Morris and, later (1776-1779) under his Governorship, the dysfunctional relationship between the Garifuna and the local government of ‘British’, Scottish, and American plantation owners continued, with little or no increase in sugar production and likely little or no increase in the number of slaves.
During the American Revolution (1765-1783), France allied itself with the Americans and, in 1778, it declared war on Britain, captured St. Vincent and brought it back under French control. Before the war declaration, however, the only garrison on the island was a 450 man, poorly trained force, from the 60th Royal American Legion, under the command of another North American, Lieutenant Colonel George Etherington, who was, like Monckton, a Loyalist of the Seven Years War in North America. Etherington’s military career in North America had been shattered as a result of his own inanity; he had left the area’s most important fur trading and military fort (Michilimackinac) unguarded, relaxingly surrounding himself with his unarmed forces while enjoying, as a spectator, a lacrosse game between two local Indian groups. At a very strategic moment, the Indians, led by the participants in the game, attacked and took control of the fort. In order to lessen the blight on his career, this is the man who, somehow, showed up in St. Vincent, two years later, as leader of an American Loyalist brigade but, more particularly, he had been granted land in Garifuna territory at the northern end of St. Vincent. The Garifuna were not happy with this second land grant since it was a breach of the 1773 treaty. In 1779, when St. Vincent was still under the governorship of Valentine Morris, instead of being in place to defend the island, Lieutenant Etherington made the same mistake as at Michilimackinac; he and most of his men were busy working on clearing his estate, far away from the invading French forces and their Garifuna allies. Confronted with the mass of Garifuna and French fighters, when he finally arrived back in Kingstown, his cowardly advice to Governor Morris was that he should surrender instead of fight. As a result of this dereliction of duty, St. Vincent fell back under French sway from 1779 to 1783, with the French Governors (Marie-Charles, marquis du Chilleau , Dumontet [1779-1781], Duplessis [1781-1782], and de Feydeau [1782-1783]) (suspecting that the island would be returned to British rule when peace was declared) making no real changes to British rule and governance. During this period, in 1780, a hurricane inflicted serious damage to the cane fields, thus limiting sugar production for some time but, while St. Vincent was under French control, mercantilist rules did not allow its reduced sugar production to be shipped to England. Thus, in 1781, when sugar prices in London peaked at one of its highest levels, St. Vincent did not share in its benefits and, by the time St. Vincent was restored to British rule, in 1784 under the governorship of Edmund Lincoln (1783-1787), the London price of sugar had plummeted to 50 percent of its 1781 value. Thus far, it seems clear that the first two decades (1764-1784) of the sugar industry in St. Vincent and the Grenadines cannot be considered as having been very profitable for the plantation owners, but thanks to the obstructionist Garifuna, the importation of a large African slave labour force did not materialise.
Anatol Leopold Scott
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].