The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of I-Witness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]
The ideas of the Enlightenment, which first expressed themselves in the American Revolution, came back to haunt France in the French Revolution, from 1789 to 1795. Since members of the Garifuna were frequent visitors to Martinique and Guadeloupe (even educating some of their children there) they were fully aware of the revolutionary ideas behind the French Revolution. The constant loss of territory to the British must have become a burning issue in their consciousness, fuelling more resentment as they witnessed the rise in sugar production and the growth of the slave population to 11,533 by 1787. In 1789, under the governorship of James Seton (1787-1798), they started selectively burning plantations and mill works, unleashing the beginning of a terror which succeeded in halting the development and spread of plantations. In 1794, when the French revolutionary Jacobin, Victor Hugues, arrived among the Garifuna, his earnest cry of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all peoples resonated with them. His supplies of arms and additional forces emboldened their desperate desire to regain control of their Yurumein. The final struggle, the Second Carib War, began. For the most part, it was brilliantly fought by the Garifuna/French alliance, except for their not carrying through with their offensive at critical moments in the campaign. The war was eventually won by the British but, astonishingly, that war could not have been won without the tremendous input of the rangers, the faithful, black slaves who, faced with the possibility of British defeat, agreed to take up arms against what they judged as the more discordant enemy, the Garifuna/French alliance. Their extremely violent and incisive actions, more effective than any British manoeuvres, brought about the decisive and final rout of the Garifuna. Their decision to throw in their weight with their British masters and their not having turned their arms against their enslavers after they had routed the Garifuna, screams out against a ‘folk history’ that attempts to put them in bed with the Garifuna but, their actions also suggest that these black seasoned slaves, who were mostly trusted by their masters, could not have been subjected to the type of extreme abuses that Mr. Thomas is suggesting. (See more at http://thevincentian.com/debating-european-genocide-and-slavery-p5665-110.htm)
Although Chatoyer was killed in 1795, the war lasted until 1796 and ended with the deportation of the humbled Garifuna in 1797. The jubilation among Vincentian plantation owners that followed the departure of the Garifuna soon turned to dismay when, later in the same year, they were confronted with the disturbing news of William Wilberforce’s not so colonialist attempt, in the far away British Parliament, to bring about an end to slavery. But, St. Vincent was not the only island where the French Revolution had backfired as a result of the actions of black slaves. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and the birth of an independent Black nation in the Caribbean, more so than the American and French Revolutions, was a wake-up call to the British people. At the same time, it was a devastating blow to France; it had lost its largest, most developed, and prolific sugar colony. To the British traders and their Vincentian planters, however, under the governorship of William Bentick (1798-1802), this was a blessing in disguise especially when the attempt to end slavery was unceremoniously aborted; it caused a reinvigoration in sugar exports from St. Vincent and the British colonies in the Caribbean. In 1802, freed at last of the Garifuna impediment, and delighted by the nepotistic succession (from father to son) of the next new Governor, Henry William Bentick (1802-1806), Vincentian plantation owners and new colonists rushed to purchase the new crown lands which had resulted from the confiscation of all Carib lands. The confiscated lands amounted to a total of 16,640 acres, of which, 5,262 acres were set aside for the veterans of the war. The veterans, also including a number of Americans, were allowed to ‘use’ (not ‘own’) the lands. They set about clearing the lands and establishing plantations in the hope of later ownership.
But, in 1807, at a time when most of the land was cleared, it was learned that all of that land (6000 acres) had been granted earlier to yet a third American war veteran, Colonel Thomas Browne. When Browne moved to claim the lands, the veterans were served with eviction notices but, as a result of a negotiated settlement, Thomas Browne received only 1600 acres (the Grand Sable estate, formerly owned by Joseph Chatoyer) plus a preposterous payment of £25,000 pounds sterling, by the government, an amount of money which was raised by the outright sale of the lands to the veterans. The lands in question turned out to be, historically, the richest for sugarcane production in St. Vincent, in that it included such estates as Turama, Orange Hill, Waterloo, Lot No. 14, Rabacca, Langley Park, and (significantly) Mount Bentick. Other than that, most of the rest of the land devolved into the hands of a selection of the more prominent and successful planters. At this stage, one would have to ask – where, in the case of the reparations debate, would one place the role of the American Loyalist soldiers and their descendants throughout the process of land sales and distribution (there were many more than mentioned here)? Should they and their soldiers who played such a momentous and controversial role in the early developing land history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines be considered simply — British colonialists?
The addition of new land spurred the development of large estates and the result was clearly evident in the amount of sugar being exported: 11,200 tons in 1807 under the governorship of George Beckwith (1806-1808), and 14,403 tons in 1828 under the governorship of Charles Brisbane (1808-1829), the peak year historically for sugar production in St. Vincent. However, it is very interesting to note that, between 1817 and 1831, tiny St. Vincent was not only a sugar colony; it exported a shocking quantity of rum to Britain – 2,821,512 gallons. A huge amount of this rum ended up in British Canada where, in the form of the ‘white man’s milk’, it contributed to actively destroying the social structure of Canadian native peoples, just as it had done in the United States earlier. This was accomplished through the actions of British and American fur traders, abetted by Caribbean plantation rum trading families, many of whom had found a base of operation in our beloved St. Vincent. As would be expected, during this boom time, the imported slave labour force grew in tandem with the amount of sugar and rum being produced; by 1812, 10 years after the land sales began, there was an astounding 24,920 slaves in St. Vincent.
But, interestingly, the enumerated numbers for 1832, twenty years later, showed a diminished number of slaves – 22,997. After 1834, this number is the one that the slave owners put forward in their claim for compensation. Their declared value per slave was £58 pounds sterling and they wanted a total compensation of £1,341,492 pounds sterling for their ‘valued property’. Instead, they were paid £592,509 pounds sterling at £26 pounds sterling per slave – their pay-out was 45 per cent of what they sought. Even more astounding, the official count of slaves for St. Vincent and Bequia, one year after the enumerated count, in 1833, the last year before emancipation, showed a total of only 18,794, instead of 22,997, slaves. (Perhaps, as a result of doing an official count, the awakened British government officials were very much more aware of the planters’ shenanigans and subterfuges than the planters themselves had thought). From my perspective, by not dealing with the facts as they pertain to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, by lumping the applicable number of slaves (18,794, not 22,997) into the entire British Caribbean colonial slave population compensation figure (673,953 slaves) and, by publishing the number of £20 million pounds sterling (which applies to the total number of British Caribbean slaves), Mr. Thomas has engaged in an act of holistic subterfuge that very much resembles that of the planters at the time of emancipation. In so doing, he has undoubtedly succeeded in increasing the power of his ‘folk history’ in the minds of uninformed Vincentians while also creating an unacceptable distortion of our actual history.
Mr. Thomas further claims that “the British slave owners were guaranteed an abundant supply of free labour, which was critical to the productivity of their plantation in agriculture, industry and commerce.” If this was the case, how would Mr. Thomas account for the significant drop in the number of Vincentian slaves between 1812 and 1833 – (from 24,920 to 18,794)? If the plantation owners were ‘guaranteed an abundant supply’ of slaves, why did the guarantors not supply more ‘free‘ slaves or why did the plantation owners not buy more slaves to increase their production numbers even further? One obvious answer is that there was no such guarantee by anyone or any government; the buying and selling of slaves was purely a business transaction between the slave trader and the slave buyer. In particular, the buyer bought more slaves only when his business needed more labour. But, the more appropriate answer to such a question lies in the historical record. In 1807, when Mr. Wilberforce’s 1797 aborted act was revised and finally passed as the Abolition Act, it immediately began to bear fruit. With the selling and purchasing of imported slaves being summarily abolished in the British Caribbean colonies, the effect on the plantation owners was immediate. (The 1812 number of slaves [24,920] did not continue to grow and, by 1832, the number had dropped to an enumerated number of 22,997 [inflated by the plantation owners] instead of an actual tally of 18,794). Apart from an increasing death rate, which should have appeared among the seasoned slaves who had entered the island with their owners and, given that the birth-rate among slaves was very low, a significant decrease in the slave population could be acceptable at this time. But, the combination of higher death rates and lower birth rates do not completely explain the loss of 6126 souls (24,920-18,794) over a period of 20 years. The historical proof that the planters may have played a role in obfuscating the numbers becomes evident when one looks at the considerable increase in the number of manumissions recorded in the St. Vincent court records during the period 1819-1833; in effect, the plantation owners began unloading responsibility for their slaves by getting rid of the less productive among them — the elderly and infirm. In my opinion, this is a critical point in the sociological study of slavery in St. Vincent that, as far as I have been able to determine, has not been undertaken. What was the total number of slaves manumitted during that period and what happened to these people after their manumission?
It should be noted here that Abolition was not brought about by the direct actions of British Caribbean governments. It was certainly vociferously opposed by most of the West Indian planters and their powerful members and representatives in the British Parliament. Abolition was the result of the disheartening effect of the American Revolution, closely followed by the totally confusing French Revolution, and the many unsuccessful rebellions that occurred on different Caribbean islands at the time. As a result, the growing enlightenment ideas began to create uneasiness in the minds of the vast majority of a rudely awakening British people. They began to realize that there was a massive immorality in their traders which had been ably abetted by their government. In effect, the British people had finally decided to end the tremendous hold that the free-trade traders, financial institutions, insurance agencies, merchants, and plantation owners had held over the government of Britain for over 200 years. Regretfully, it is from the descendants of these British people that Mr. Thomas and his mentors are now, mainly, trying to extort a huge amount of a compulsory payment — mulct!!!
The Abolition Act, imposed by an embattled British government, was the first signal to the plantation owners in the Caribbean that slavery might be coming to an end; they would no longer be able to purchase new slaves from the slave traders. But, the Abolition Act was also the parent of the Amelioration Acts which the British government forced the colonial governments to pass. The St. Vincent Amelioration Act was passed on the 16th of December 1825, under the governorship of Charles Brisbane. Among the main benefits to the slaves, that act prohibited the use of the whip on slaves, encouraged and allowed them to marry and gave them the right to bear witness in capital cases but, in other minor details, that act was far more lenient to the slaves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines than the acts passed in most other British Caribbean colonies, including Barbados. To those slaves who had not been manumitted and who were still on the plantations, the Amelioration Act was an unforeseen relief; at last, under the influence of a different kind of governor, Charles Brisbane, (their longest serving governor) they were beginning to see some semblance of recognition of themselves as possible human beings, not just as ‘property’. Instead of jumping for joy, it seems that they quietly accepted the beginning improvement in their status and began to look forward to other signs of changes in their lot; they continued to work on the plantations because they had very few immediate choices and, despite their decreased numbers (but also possibly because of their genesis of hope), the volume of sugar production continued to rise, peaking in 1828, while Brisbane lay dying.
To the plantation owners, on the other hand, the Amelioration Act and their response to it, as is evidenced in their increased number of manumissions, was a sure sign that they knew their days of absolute power and very cheap (not ‘free’ as per Mr. Thomas) labour had come to an end. As they had anticipated, as a result of the enforced relaxation of control over their slaves, between 1828 and 1833, sugar production on the 112 existing plantations took a downward tumble — by 32 per cent. (Has anyone undertaken the necessary research to discover whether members of those families still exist in St. Vincent and the Grenadines or not?) As far as I can determine, by going back to the 1833 list of plantation owners, (a tiny example would be the family of Christopher Punnett, Esq.) one would realize that most of these families are still there. They are no longer ‘white’; they are now a kaleidoscopic mix of shades of ‘black’ colorations. For the most part, they are now upstanding members of the civil service and the powerful middle class that look down upon, exploit, and show disdain for the impoverished poor. I doubt that they are fully aware of the effects of the Carib bone flute, the instrument that engendered their own transmogrification, and released an embryonic social purgatory that transformed and devoured its members as per Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock. These families hold the keys to the paper trail that would detail the separate social struggles of plantation owners and slaves in the years before and after slavery. But, until we access whatever little remains of their private and/or official torments, we will not begin to understand the social gorge that developed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines after slavery officially ended.
During 1833, under the governorship of George Fitzgerald Hill (1831-1833), the expected, but unwanted, hammer came crashing down on the plantation owners’ grand colonialist design; The Emancipation Act, ending enforced servitude in all British Caribbean colonies, was passed in the British Parliament and became effective on 1 August 1834 throughout all British Caribbean colonies. That too was welcomed rather quietly by Vincentian slaves as they looked out toward a bleak horizon in which they could envision only an unknowing, uncertain, and frightening apprenticeship future. They certainly did not demand that the British government compensate them for their years of enslavement. Unlike Mr. Thomas with his 20-20 vision informed by his 21st century ‘wisdom’, even in their supposed ignorance, the slaves of the time instinctively knew that such a response from them would have been foolhardy. In my opinion, this is another critical point in the sociological study of slavery in St. Vincent that has not, as yet, been explored to the extent that it should have been done by now. How did these people react to freedom? How did they force their government and the plantation owners to end the apprentice experiment? How did the relationships between whites, mixed-race and freed individuals, and blacks evolve after slavery? Where did the slaves go after they left the plantations? What did they do for a living? What type of family life did they have or develop? Did they establish ‘free villages’ and where were those villages? How and when did they begin to own a tiny piece of land? What was the effect of importing indentured Portuguese, East Indian, and later African labourers on the evolving social structure of St. Vincent and the Grenadines? These are some of the questions that should have been asked and answered by the Reparations Committee but, they were not asked and, with regard to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I can find very few sociologically based studies that answer such questions and those that I have found seem to be not celebrated and remain in the private purview of only those few who have had the privilege of pursuing a university education in this ‘useless’ subject called history.
The slaves were free, at last!! But, what was the meaning or significance of freedom to the vast majority of these people who had never had the means or had never been allowed to fend for themselves economically on a national or international scale? Like the Haitian nation and its totally ‘black’ people (in Haiti, mixed blood people were deemed black and no white people were allowed to remain), they had no family or friends abroad with whom they could begin to trade; they were still harnessed to the controlling coat tails of the British traders and the local administrators that had held them, definitely in lesser bondage than their slave ‘brothers and sisters’ in other Caribbean islands but, nonetheless, still in captive bondage. They, very much like the long suffering people of Haiti, accepted their fate, in the hope that someday, somehow, they would be able to find a place in a more amenable community of nations.
Thus far, it is obvious to me that, compared to the undifferentiated and probably much maligned agglomeration of so-called ‘British’ plantation owners, the slaves who were dropped off at St. Vincent, beginning in about 1804, did not have an easy life there; during the 30 years that they lived under a less stringent form of chattel slavery, theirs was a life of hard work with almost no returns, very little enjoyment or play, and unending frustration (as it continues to be for a large percentage of uneducated and poor Vincentians today). If, however, one were to unilaterally and wilfully apply the collected and documented cases of abuse, recorded in Barbados and other Caribbean colonies (but not yet in St. Vincent and the Grenadines) over almost 200 years and, if one were to project, in the absence of appropriate research, that the same situation and circumstances were applicable to St. Vincent and the Grenadines (as Mr. Thomas has done), one could present a case much like that conjured up by him. But, I would venture to suggest that the historical review presented here does not indicate ‘unspeakable pain and suffering of our people’ or ‘loss of our culture, history and religion’ of the kind that Mr. Thomas is suggesting. Moreover, if other former British Caribbean colonies (especially the Ceded Islands: Dominica, Grenada, and [Trinidad and] Tobago) should make the mistake of adopting the same approach as Mr. Thomas and his uninformed committee and, if they were to present an unsupported case, based on folk history, to Britain or any other legal jurisdiction, their case for reparations would go up in an embarrassing puff of smoke that would stifle the potential of future generations of people living on or emanating from these islands.
As a young boy approaching my teenage years, 55 years ago, mystified and alone, I was rudely detached from my family and my comparatively ‘free’ Dutch heritage and thrown into what I viewed then as a sort of continuing form of bondage in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Despite the uneasiness of my introduction to my new homeland, in the years I spent there, I fell in love with its variety, astonishing beauty, considerable natural bounty and, most of all, its endearing, stubborn, but (sometimes) very cantankerous people; I gave up my sense of attachment to my place of birth and became, in all respects, a Vincentian. But, somewhere along the way, I began to suspect that there was a huge disconnect between my view of the society I was in and the history I was reading in Mr. Ebenezer Duncan’s text book at the St. Vincent Boys’ Grammar School. In my view, the massive amount of poverty, the abundance of illiteracy, the overpowering ignorance, and lack of opportunity that I saw there, one hundred and twenty-five years after the end of slavery, did not fit with the very simplistic history that I was exposed to while at school. For years, I have tortured myself, searching in the archives and libraries, on distant lands, for documented evidence that would resolve my doubts about the history I was taught then. My search has led me to what I am propounding here; it is (I think) a much profounder, more sensible, understanding and appreciation of the largely unwritten history of slavery in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
As I see it now, the problem in St. Vincent and the Grenadines lies, not with slavery but, with what came after emancipation. After slavery, there must have been some effects that came into our cultural makeup that are holding us back; it is amazing that, shortly after leaving St. Vincent and settling in different parts of the diaspora, for the most part, Vincentians bloom and advance to levels of success they could not have imagined before they left St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I suspect that the change in them is not simply a matter of greater economic opportunity. I suspect that their divergence comes from exposure to other cultures that broadened their horizons and made what seemed impossible in St. Vincent and the Grenadines possible on distant shores; that process is somehow related to the reason why I feel an abstruse need to correct or redirect the direction in which Mr. Thomas and his mentors are trying to lead Vincentian society. I do not dislike or hate Mr. Thomas; indeed, I have read most of his inconsequential discourses in The Vincentian over the years but I have never met the man. What I cannot understand is this: after the end of slavery, after crown colony rule, after associated statehood, after independence, and after the so much vaunted ‘education revolution’ of recent years, why has St. Vincent and the Grenadines not yet produced an historian (or a few academicians) who is willing to promulgate a deeper, more meaningful, sociological research methodology to the history and politics of St. Vincent and the Grenadines? Works of that nature began to appear in Barbados not long after Emancipation; they were the result of the insistence by Barbadians, colonialists and ‘labourers’ alike, that provision be made for their children to be educated in Barbados and, of all places, Britain. Over time, education led to a sense of pride and empowerment and that combination is what made Barbadian society boom ahead, appearing somewhat like a hated ‘Little Britain’ to many other Caribbean peoples by the mid-twentieth century. Because of its different approach, that tiny island, which had so much less natural endowments than St. Vincent and the Grenadines, has been a twentieth century powerhouse in the evolving Caribbean world. Works of that nature was needed then and, more so, is needed now in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Works of that nature would have redirected and led the generations preceding Mr. Thomas away from the retrogressive path they proposed and that he is continuing to follow. Works of that nature, in a very short time, would have expanded and empowered the simplistic, uninformed thinking patterns that have caused most Vincentians, educated and not, to make choices politically, economically, and socially that do not enhance their society. Works of that nature would have put an end to bellicose and grandiose attempts by our so-called ‘leaders’ to lead us in directions (beginning in the 1960s and persisting to this day) that are not the political, sociological, or economic preferences of the majority of ‘our people’. Statements such as the following, published under the name of Jomo Thomas, would then not be allowed to go unrequited by a cantankerous people:
My life will never be the same again. I know our ancestors are proud that we celebrated their strength and courage. I know they will imbue us with their positive energy as we charge the former colonial powers with crimes against humanity. Europe has a case to answer. It is our historic responsibility to ensure that the former enslavers fess up to their crimes and engage us in a developmental conversation.
Perhaps with the passage of time and, assuming that the battle for reparations is eventually won, Vincentian and other historians might look back on the date of his introducing the resolution as having had some kind of ‘historic’ significance. Until then, however, I cannot help but bristle at Mr. Thomas’s apparent ignorance and abuse of historic details, his disgusting ostentation, and his so recognizable drive for self-aggrandizement. On the other hand, if the reparations battle is lost, (at a ridiculous and unjustifiable expense) I would expect that, at that time, Mr. Thomas and those who gave him the ‘signalled honour’ would do us the favour of lowering their disgraced heads in abject shame.
For the time being, we have arrived at the historical point where the slaves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have gained their freedom. But, we should have learned, a long time ago, that freedom itself does not come freely; one has to pay a price, One has to sacrifice for ONE’s liberty; it is so important that the powerful, the middle class, and the poor in that society finally recognize their weaknesses, accept their callings, acknowledge their strengths, and direct their overall energy into the nurturing and growing of those strengths, toward a valued sense of one-ness. Unfortunately, that ONENESS will not be achieved by propounding a divisive racialism in the very disgruntled society that, sad to say, St. Vincent and the Grenadines seems to have become.
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].