This coming Thursday, the 1st of August 2019, is Emancipation Day – the day on which we celebrate the anniversary of the 1834/1838 abolition of slavery in the British Empire. But it is also a day on which we should celebrate our heritage of Caribbean integration, for the truth of the matter is that the successful effort to achieve the abolition of slavery was very much a regional enterprise.
Make no mistake about it – while there were several economic, political and humanitarian factors that contributed to the decision to abolish the British slavery system, the most potent factor by far was the sustained and uncompromising rebellion against slavery in the Caribbean by our enslaved foreparents.
Indeed, the American historian, Michael Craton, author of the book Testing the Chains, has identified no less than 75 slave plots and rebellions in the British West Indies in the 200-year span between 1638, the beginning phase of British slavery in the Caribbean, and 1838, the year in which the slavery system finally collapsed in the British colonies.
Constraints of space would not permit us to outline all 75 rebellions and plots in this essay, but some of the most important examples follow:
1638: a Christmas-time rebellion on the island of Providence, involving hundreds of slaves.
1675: a “Coromantee plot” in Barbados designed to capture the island and install an enslaved Coromantee named Cuffee as King.
1690: slave uprising in St. Kitts to coincide with a French invasion of the island.
1730: the first Maroon War in Jamaica, involving Cudjoe, Nanny and many other leaders.
1735: island-wide Afro-creole plot in Antigua led by King Court and Tomboy.
1760: Tacky’s massive slave rebellion in Jamaica.
1763: Cuffee’s rebellion in Dutch Berbice (present-day Guyana).
1769: Chatoyer’s first Carib War in St. Vincent.
1785: first Maroon War in Dominica led by Balla and Pharcell.
1795: Fedon’s Rebellion in Grenada.
1796: the so-called “Brigands’ War” in St. Lucia.
1816: the “Bussa Rebellion” of Barbados, involving such heroes as Bussa, Nanny Grigg, Jacky, Cain Davis and Joseph Pitt Washington Franklin.
1823: massive rebellion in Demerara (present-day Guyana) led by Quamina and many others.
1831: the so-called “Baptists War” in Jamaica led by Deacon Sam Sharpe.
These rebellions sent such a forceful message of uncompromising hostility to slavery that in 1819, a full three years after the Bussa Rebellion of Barbados, the British Governor, Lord Combermere, was still writing to the Colonial Office and warning that “the public mind (in ‘white’ Barbados) is ever tremblingly alive to the dangers of insurrection”.
And this oppressive and formidable fear of a climactic Black rebellion was common to the entire British West Indian region! Indeed, as Dr Eric Williams explained in his From Columbus to Castro, a “Negro revolt in the British West Indies in the early 19th Century, designed to abolish slavery from below, was widely apprehended, both in the West Indies and in Britain… In the British West Indies, it was no longer a question of slave rebellions if, but slave rebellions unless emancipation was decreed”.
This assessment of the situation was borne out by Daniel O’Connell, the Irish leader in the British House of Commons who, in 1832, declared in Parliament that “the planter was sitting… over a powder magazine, from which he would not go away, and he was hourly afraid that the slave would apply a torch to it”.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when Earl Stanley, the Secretary of State for the colonies, came to introduce the Emancipation Act in the British Parliament, he expressed the view that “they were compelled to act; for they felt that, take what course they might, it could not be attended with greater evil than any attempt to uphold the existing state of things.”
Thus, it was really the enslaved Africans themselves – our ancestors – who, in the final analysis, were ultimately responsible for the abolition of slavery: and they accomplished this epoch-making achievement collectively as a regional enterprise!
This just goes to prove, once again, that we Caribbean people are so much more effective and powerful when we strive together, thereby achieving mighty and compelling synergies between our individual efforts. But this is something of which we are already very well aware, isn’t it?
Happy Emancipation Day to all of my Caribbean brothers and sisters!
DAVID A. COMISSIONG