HISTORY OF JAMAICA”S EMANCIPATION

Edited by: Prof. Patrick Bryan (1994)

When
full Emancipation came in 1838 a system that had been
tried and tested in the Caribbean since the sixteenth
century came to an end. Slavery had within itself
the seeds of its own destruction, whether because
slaves resisted it (alternating with accommodation),
or whether the emergence of a new style capitalism
rendered slavery obsolete or incompatible with British
industrial society, or whether the merging of philanthropy
with evangelical religion helped to frame an ideology
that was antagonistic to slavery.

Yet,
whatever the “international dimensions”
of Emancipation, the reality was that within the Caribbean
the planter class remained opposed to Emancipation,
and only the reward of £20,000,000 in compensation
for their lost “property” made surrender
to the Colonial Office more palatable to them. So,
too, did planter recognition that they were to prove
victorious in one very important respect-the slave
was legally free, but the structure of slave society
remained unchanged. The energy of planters was now
to be directed towards converting a former slave labour
force into a permanent plantation labour force. From
the perspective of planters, it was to be the same
rider, on the same mule, cantering towards the same
destiny.
As
I have noted elsewhere, “The social system rested
during and after slavery on the assumption that superiority
or inferiority of social position were physically
or philosophically congruent with superiority or inferiority
of race.”

The recognition in 1834 by the ex-slaves/apprentices
that abolition had not been intended to create a context
of freedom that would provide opportunities to develop
“a wide range of own account activities … independent
of the control of the former slave masters” (as
Tony Bogues puts it) was met with strikes, and in
St. Kitts with a riot and certainly with a reluctance
to place any freedom value on August 1, 1834. The
point emerges in the oral historical account of Kenneth
Bryan – the skepticism of the ex-slave who saw August
1, 1834, as a hoax, that they feared would be repeated
in 1838. For the ex-slave 1838, not 1834, was the
year of decision: “when 1838 came and they were
free they were reluctant in accepting freedom, because
they believed it was another rumour like what took
place in 1834.” And while 1838 was to be “full
free”, the experience of the future generations
of black labourers was to be what Burchell Whiteman
has noted “a long twilight of unfulfilled hopes.”
Whiteman sees Emancipation, of necessity therefore,
as a process and not just a calendar event; Bogues
concludes, too, that the deepest aspirations and strivings
of the black majority have been frustrated by the
hegemonic ideology of creole nationalism, notwithstanding
an occasional vibrant black nationalism.

The
planters had an interest to protect, the ex slaves
an interest to advance. The former had the weight
of the British government behind them, the latter
nothing but their ambition, labour and their power
to withdraw it. The latter power was never sufficient
to enable them to fight successfully against arbitrary
taxation, anti-squatting legislation, high rentals
for prime land, unavailability of land, and low wages
which remained static for close on one hundred years
after Emancipation. As Bogues notes, “the content
and interpretation of freedom means different things,
given time, space and content.” While Whiteman
emphasises the long-term constraints on the ability
of the new generations of ex-slaves and their children,
Bogues places the issue squarely in terms of an evolving
elite ideology which, whether we call it the pro-slavery
ideology as Gordon Lewis does, or “creole nationalism”
that Bogues calls it, has had the same effect, the
long-term defeat of the principle of freedom as defined
by the ex-slaves and their descendants. Racism, partly
concealed by the legal system of slavery itself, became
a major force in social control, and along with that
a pointed display of arrogance towards most manifestations
of non-European culture.

Thus, Emancipation, carried out from above to preempt
a more devastating upheaval from below, reflected
the planter class’s narrow, conservative, interpretation
of Emancipation as legal freedom. “For the whites
of Jamaica and elsewhere where slavery had been abolished,
the challenge of Emancipation consisted in organizing
production around free labour while keeping alive
the spirit of inequality that had marked the plantation
system.”

But,
as Whiteman indicates, and as Walter Rodney has shown
in his History of the Guyanese Working People, there
were important counterpressures that constantly challenged
the accepted ideology of white cultural, economic,
political, and social predominance. In Jamaica, the
drifting of ex-slaves towards the hinterland and the
highlands where the plantation had never taken root
(such as Manchester) was proof enough that ex-slaves
were prepared to take every opportunity to advance
their interest. Just as important was the historical
complementarity and to some extent empathy, between
religious bodies and the spiritual and temporal welfare
of the ex-slaves and their children. The religious
bodies, acting as honest brokers, or as a buffer between
elite and mass, seeking to please both sides (and
God) provided the earliest opportunities for the children
of slaves not only to seek the Kingdom of Heaven,
but, through education, to find the means to escape
the thralldom of the plantations. One clergyman (black)
frankly indicated that the desire to escape the plantation
was a sure proof of black ambition, not a sign of
laziness. For some planters, education “spoiled”
labour. For others, more subtly, education reduced
dependence on the police, and provided the opportunity
to create a black middle class as a buffer between
elite and mass. It is a truism that hegemony does
not eschew concessions in the interest of the maintenance
of order and the rule of the elite through the law.
By
the end of the 19th century positivism and social
Darwinism had penetrated the consciousness of both
the white elite and an emergent black middle class
that wavered between acceptance of white cultural
hegemony (and the rejection of mass culture) and the
use of the same ideology to define a black position,
to explain black progress (or lack of it), and to
analyse the relationship between Africa and blacks
of the diaspora. In the “white” ideology,
Africa was backward in all respects. In the black
ideology Africa’ s backwardness was accepted, but
western ideas that they had thoroughly learned would
help remove that backwardness and bring Africa back
into the mainstream of “world civilization.”
In the elite ideology, the social, economic and political
order were to be maintained. All that was needed was
a new moral order that did not challenge the hierarchy
of race and class, and that clearly defined the position
of all in terms of duty and morality. Yet, in the
background, was always the nagging doubt that Emancipation
was complete. The chains of slavery had gone, but
the hands of the freemen continued to be tied by the
law, by racism, which T.E.S. Scholes saw as an empire-wide
phenomenon. Scholes and Rev. C.A. Wilson, focused
especially on the issue of land, which by remaining
concentrated in the hands of a powerful elite assured
the continued existence of ex-slaves and their children
as minions.

Theophilus Scholes declared:
If
the freedmen had been settled on small plots of land
at the time of Emancipation and had schools been erected
in a few centres for instructing them in agriculture
the British taxpayer [would) have been saved the grants-in-aid
with which from time to time they have assisted the
West Indian Colonies.”

Emancipation
has from time to time, including now, been used as
a calendar date for assessment of achievement or non-achievement.
The first such formal assessment I am aware of was
done fifty years after Emancipation in 1888, by a
group of five black Jamaicans who pointedly denied/declined
white participation in the composition of the work.
This book contains a study by J.H. Reid (later a regular
contributor to Dr. Robert Love’s Jamaica Advocate)
on “The People of Jamaica Described”, an
essay on the position of each of the three significant
racial strata, and the relationship between them.
An underlying theme of the essay is the self-confidence
of blacks that Jamaica was their inheritance; but
that black achievement had been restricted by the
“system”. The contribution of Rev. Dingwall
placed Africa at the centre of the black Jamaican
experience. A third essay was defiant. Using the ideological
categories of social Darwinism and evolution he concluded
that the struggle of blacks for survival had honed
and toughened them to the extent that their survival
was assured. Blacks were developing and growing, not
a stagnant, and declining race.
This leads me to the theme of the People’s Convention
discussed by joy Lumsden; who shows how Love brought
together “the leading minds among those who are
identified with the cause of the emancipated”.
The Jamaica Advocate (27/7/1901) explained the upcoming
Convention in the following terms:
“The
first of August anniversary of the great day, when,
to the African bond-slave, in the British West Indies,
the blessing of personal liberty was given not by
act of Parliament only, but in reality, is approaching.
It is the intention of the People’s Convention to
celebrate the day in a manner befitting the event
and the obligation of the children of the emancipated
.. .We have had to combat the stupidity put forth
by certain imposters, who pretend to have an unnecessary
care of Society, and an unnecessary fear that our
motive, or the results of our movement, would unhinge
the sealed order of peace and goodwill … The People’s
Convention decided to make the celebration of their
day an occasion of intellectual, and patriotic improvement
. . . It is a day on which to recall the history of
our Fathers, and to contemplate the destinies of our
children. It should be utilized to the end that the
Negro subjects of the British Crown will eventually
rise to the full dignity of their national privileges,
and enjoy without any distinction the full political
manhood embraced in British citizenship.
the assessment of 1901, Love called for intellectual
improvement, the recollection of black history, the
planning of the future of the black race through its
children, and for equal citizenship for blacks within
the British Empire. At the same time he disdains any
notion that the People’s Convention would attempt
to disrupt “the sealed order of peace and goodwill.”
Brereton’s research into Trinidad’s 1888 Jubilee leads
to a comparable conclusion, that “the event would
infuse pride in the West Indian people of African
descent, pride in their progress since 1838 and pride
in their race. It would help to destroy false feelings
of shame and inferiority deriving from the slave past,
as well as prove to the detractors of the race that
West Indians had indeed advanced morally, intellectually
and materially since the degradation of slavery.”
Furthermore, the “celebrations would not be calculated
to make whites feel guilty or to worsen race relations,
or to divide the society.”
In
1893 Love had advocated the inclusion of August 1
as a holiday, on the grounds that the date had “tender
associations” for our people. Lumsden notes two
poems written by Matthew Josephs that reflect the
tender association.
The
methodical assessment of progress was spasmodic rather
than continuous. The People’s Convention proved unable
to sustain itself. We have in the two volume work
of Theophilus Scholes a critical evaluation of the
progress of blacks, or indeed, of the meaning of Emancipation.
For scholars whose volumes appeared between 1905 and
1907, the chains of slavery had gone, but the hands
of the freedman continued to be bound by the law (Love
had referred continuously to “class legislation”)
and by racial prejudice. The People’s Convention had
discussed such issues as women’s rights, the abuse
of Jamaican migrant workers, the use and abuse of
flogging as an instrument for the elimination of praedial
larceny.” Scholes and Rev. C.A. Wilson, after
him, tackled directly the issue of concentrated landholdling
in the hand of a white minority as one of the primary
modes of restraint on the progress of ex slaves and
the children.
Scholes
no less than his contemporaries recognized that legal
freedom (from slavery) was not intended to create
conditions of legal equality, or equality of citizenship.
For Scholes, and later Marcus Garvey and the Pan-Africanists,
Emancipation was not only a local but an international
process that identified the spiritual Emancipation
of blacks with the political Emancipation of Africa:
“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall
soon stretch out her hands to God.” (Psalm 68)
Whereas
black nationalism became linked in part with a telluric
base in Africa, “creole nationalism”, became
associated with “brown” Jamaica. J.H. Reid
had noted the intense nationalism of “brown”
Jamaicans who were quick to point out that as a group
they were-in contrast to whites and blacks-the genuine
product of the Jamaican soil. It was a narrower nationalism,
focused on the island, but was to succeed ultimately
in over-riding black nationalism and internationalism.
For
one thing, there was not a unified “black ideology”.
Love, for example, was not a supporter of Bedward
or Bedwardism, which he identified as an ideology
of insanity, and Garvey, despite the impact of his
views on Rastafarianism, did not give unqualified
support to Leonard Howell and his successors. It is
probably true, as well, that black middle class thinking
merged at several points with creole nationalism (in
rhythm with their negative perception of Africa) since
black middle class “nationalists” accepted
ethnic identification with the black labouring class,
but drew cultural distinctions between blacks who
were Europeanised in culture, and those who were not.
Educated blacks also accepted the “civilizing”
mission, a vision that saw a vital relationship between
black progress and cultural and technological Europeanisation.
Just as in Haiti social distinctions (sometimes corresponding
to economic distinctions) were made between the “anciens
libres” and the newly freed, so too at the time
of Emancipation in Jamaica distinctions were made,
as Brereton notes, between those freed on the first
of August (Fus’ of Augus’ niggers) and those who had
purchased their freedom earlier. The Rastafarians
emerging as a movement in the 1930s were unable to
identify with Emancipation Day since liberation was
linked not to the August 1st declaration of freedom,
but with repatriation and resettlement in the secular/holy
Heaven of Ethiopia. Unable to sing a song of freedom
in “a strange land”, the Rastafarians continued
to sing a song of captivity by the River of Babylon.
Secondly, brown Jamaicans saw themselves, as their
counterparts had done in Haiti, as the inheritors
of white Jamaica. If for blacks, the browns of the
island would have become “their Irish”,
for Browns the blacks would remain fundamentally what
they had always been, the muscle of the labour force.
It
is clear that whether Emancipation was celebrated
or not depended on social interpretations of its meaning.
And it is true, as Nettleford has noted that both
the jailer and the jailed needed Emancipation. In
our actual historical circumstances, whites did at
first participate in the celebration of Emancipation,
but partly in order to use Emancipation for didactic
purposes. As Higman notes”the first of August
soon came to be seen by the elite, anxious to maintain
its control over the labour force, as an excellent
occasion to tell the ex-slaves how they could best
use the `boon’ of freedom.” Clearly, a Bahamian
governor quoted by Bridget Brereton in this volume
was speaking with this principle in mind when he said:
“It
gratifies me beyond measure, to see how well you have
merited the great blessing of freedom by your habits
of industry, sobriety and general propriety of demeanour.
Allow me to address you as a father speaks to his
children, and let me entreat you … to teach [your
children] by your own example the value of time and
of patient industry-to tell them that the Almighty
expects us all to work either with our heads or with
our hands- and to impress upon them early in life
the principle of loyal devotion to our gracious sovereign
and of perfect obedience to the laws of the land they
live in.”
Both
Higman and Brereton observe that the churches ceased
to show significant interest in using the anniversary
for didactic purposes by the late 1840s and as Higman
notes these men of God lost their enthusiasm for the
August 1 st festivities as myalism infiltrated the
churches.” 8 Yet the didactic purpose occasionally
emerged in the twentieth century. Daniel Segal9 refers
to Emancipation celebrations in Trinidad in 1934,
one hundred years after British abolition. Segal notes
that on 30 July 1934 some 5000 school children were
brought together in Port of Spain to hear these words
from the Acting Governor:
Now,
children, more than 100 years ago people in England
gave serious thought to the question of slavery. They
asked themselves-” Is it right? Is it christian?”
Wilberforce and his friends took up the question and
they told all England that this must stop.
If
anyone was in doubt about the British philanthropic
role in abolishing slavery the same Acting Governor
of Trinidad declared:
“Slavery
seems to have been an institution which affected every
country in the world. The Israelites got a bad time
from their Egyptian masters. The ancient Greeks kept
slaves and did not treat them well … On August 1,
1834 something happened right through the British
Empire which set the way through the Christian countries
all over the world to remove the blot of slavery from
our civilization.”
Emancipation
celebrations declined in intensity partly because
of hard economic times in the 19th century, and there
seems to have occurred a separation of the day from
the memory of the holocaust of slavery. The disassociation
was not accidental, since even now, the prevailing
ideology still conveys the idea, quite successfully,
that black Jamaicans, in order to be good citizens,
should induce amnesia as far as three hundred years
of their history are concerned. Contemporary elite
ideology is insistent, to some extent that the past,
that history, the collective experience of 90% of
the population should be forgotten. And yet, the tone
of some of these papers indicates that the freedom
promised in 1838 was limited, and that the urge for
a fuller Emancipation has survived. The immediate
post-Emancipation era saw a tendency for ex-slaves
to celebrate Emancipation utilising not only aspects
of their cultural heritage, but the pews of the non-conformist
churches. Christian halleluias, Jonkonnu, Canboulay,”
were used to mark the day. They blessed the Queen,
and in 1847 they seemed ready to absorb the “revered”
Rev. William Knibb into a myalist celebration of Emancipation
Day in Falmouth. There was Bruckins as well.
The
Bruckins Party clearly has some association with Emancipation,
whether as a dance and celebratory form originating
with Emancipation or indulged in (after years of formation)
at Emancipation. In any event, the Bruckins Party,
which incorporates the “Tea Meeting” form
and a central role for the Queen, demonstrates, along
with Jonkonnu, how the “folk” celebrated
Emancipation. The paper by the African Caribbean Institute
of Jamaica (ACIJ) and the presentation by Mr. Kenneth
Bryan represent the effort to use the tools of oral
history. It is always difficult to identify the origins
of folk culture. There is an interesting alternative
explanation for the source of Bruckins. Maroon Col.
C. Harris sees Bruckins as “a special type of
dance originating in Moore Town.” And his explanation
of “bruck” is particularly fascinating.
“Have
you, dear reader, ever had to pass a muddy section
of the road while in formal dress? And did some kind
person place some small stones on which, if you were
brave enough, you could pick your way across? Well,
the resultant tentativeness, swaying sideways and
backwards and the successful progress, were the motivating
force behind the concept of bruckins … The entire
course of this dance gives the impression of an orderly
unfolding of a story, stage by stage, and there is
at least one song that is particularly relevant to
each stage.”

Whatever its origins Bruckins had a place in the celebration
of Emancipation. The cleansing of Emancipation Day
of more than superficial association with the history
of slavery was facilitated by distance, and by ideological
sanitization based in turn on “the psychological
need for selective amnesia, a facet of the terrified
consciousness of the white West Indian.” The
physical aspect may now have given way to the psychological–
the phrase is now “mental” slavery-but the
latter is no less real as Wint has noted in her discussion.
No less important, and this is the message we get
from Rev. Cooper’s discussion, is the interest of
three congregations armed again with the Christian
cross, modernized by liberation theology and feminism,
to revive again the periodic assessment not just of
Emancipation but of the position and the hopes of
the children (and their descendants) of those who
identified 1838 as “Full Free”.

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