Emancipation – A Dream Deferred

By Colin A. Moore

To commemorate African Emancipation Day this year, the Guyana Festivals Committee in New York hosted an evening at the Guyana Consulate. The event was chaired and introduced by Mr. Faiuze Ali of the Committee. The evening began with poetry readings by Mr. James Richmond, followed by a speech from the Consul General, Mr. Brentnold Evans. The keynote address was delivered by Mr. Colin Moore, well known Guyanese attorney and community activist. Colin Moore recalled his own family history in brief, tracing his African roots, prior to providing an intellectually refreshing discourse.

The event was well received and there was stand-up exchanges among the participants during the food and refreshments period.

I would like to take you back on a long historical journey to the date of August 29, 1833 when the British Monarch signed the Abolition of Slavery Act. This Act, which came into effect on Friday August 1, 1834, provided that " slavery shall be and is hereby utterly and forever abolished and declared unlawful throughout the British colonies, plantations and possessions abroad". As often happens in Caribbean history the reality never rises to the level of the expectation.

Full Emancipation did not arrive on August 1, 1834. Instead, they were bound to the plantations and had to provide free labor for another four years under a system (euphemistically) called Apprenticeship. In a bizarre twist of history the British Government decided to compensate not the victims of slavery but the perpetrators of this holocaust. The slave owners were given reparations in the amount of £16,000,000. In addition, the slaves had to provide further compensation to their tormentors, by providing free labor for another four years, worth another £10,000,000. It is one of the great travesties of history, that the African slaves, who endured the most brutal of oppression from man for over 250 years did not receive a dime in reparations.

In his poem entitled "Harlem," the African American poet, Langston Hughes asked the question, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat or crust and sugar over like syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?" My main contention is that the Afro-Guyanese did not achieve independence in August 1834, August 1838, or August 1997, up to this day; not because of any genetic incapacity on his part but because of what Walter Rodney described as "the unrelenting vindictiveness of the White dominated plantation society". The vindictiveness of the White planter class to the African laborer was not based on racial hostility but on the class antagonism that is inherent in the plantation society. This type of society creates a deep irreversible conflict between capitol and labor. The aim of the planter class is to confine labor to the plantation at minimum cost, and the aim of labor is either to achieve a livable wage or to create alternative sources of income. Anyone who has studied Caribbean History is patently aware of this dialectic struggle between Capital and Labor. During slavery this struggle took the form of sabotage, sporadic acts of violence, industrial strikes and slave revolts against the plantocracy. Among the examples of African resistance are the Brazilian Slave Revolt of Palmares, the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763, The Jamaican Maroon Uprising, the Djuka Rebellion, the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791, the Demerara Insurrection of 1823, the Emancipation Rebellion of 1831, and the St. Kitts Rebellion of 1834. Although the Indian Indentured Servants have been traditionally portrayed as docile, the historical literature reveals an impressive history of resistance against the sugar estate plantocracy. Historian Basdeo Mangru has documented over 800 recorded strikes on sugar estates initiated by indentured servants between 1885 and 1950, and 13 riots resulting in a loss of 52 lives, Tyran Ramnarine has identified the Indentured Servants rather than the Afro Guyanese worker, as the more militant sector of the sugar estate proletariat. Indeed, the modern political history of Guyana can be described as a bitter territorial battle between the unions for representation of the sugar workers, one Union representing the interest of the plantocracy, and the other the interest of the sugar proletariat. It was a battle that led to the suspension of the Constitution in 1953, strikes and riots in 1963, the imposition of Proportional Representation in 1964, a general strike in 1977-78, the nationalization of the sugar industry, and finally the recognition of GAWU (General Agricultural Workers Union) as the collective agent for the workers on the sugar estate. The struggle between Labor and Capital has been a long, bitter and protracted struggle, but it was a struggle that reflects the contradiction between Labor and Capital, that is inherent in the plantation economy.

Emancipation may not have brought to fruition the dreams of Freedom harbored in the souls of the Afro Guyanese sugar workers, but it would be a mistake to regard it as insignificant. It was not a process but an event that transformed the lives of the Afro Guyanese community. It gave them the mobility to move away from the plantations and, within the short space of 14 years, 60% of the Guyanese population or 44,000 people had moved from the sugar plantation to the villages, in one of the greatest voluntary migrations of modern Caribbean history. There is a vigorous debate in academic circles as to whether the Afro Guyanese voluntarily migrated from the sugar plantation or was pushed off by the unreasonable demands of the sugar plantation. Rawley Farley is a proponent of the voluntary migration school and stated that "the most decisive and continuous of these forces was a desire, on the part of the slaves, for personal liberty and for land of their own". Jamaican historians Hugh Paget, Parry and Sherlock contend that the slaves were forced off the plantations by avaricious planters insistence on high rents and reduced medical services. Irrespective of the motivating factors which led to the exodus, the years 1838 - 1842 witnessed a massive migration of people from the estates. Farley estimates that by 1852, 44,443 or 2/3 of the slave population had moved off the estates, had purchased 446 estates, had erected 10,541 houses and had established 11,152 villages and hamlets. Guyanese historian J. Allan Young estimated that the cost of the land acquired in the post-emancipation period was approximately $1,000,000, the cost of constructing homes another $1,000,000, and the value of improvements another $500,000. Thus, the capital invested during the period of rural migration was approximately $2,500,000. After expending this vast capital outlay in purchasing the new agricultural settlements, the former slaves had virtually no capital left for investment in cultivation, drainage and irrigation, sea defense, transportation and marketing.

The newly emancipated slaves did not only migrate to the coastal villages. Some migrated to the towns of New Amsterdam and Georgetown where they formed the basis of a new creole middle class of teachers, civil servants, lawyers, doctors and clergymen. Others formed new agricultural settlements up the Canje Creek, the Berbice River and the Demerara River. Others migrated to the bauxite mines at Kwakwani, Ituni and McKenzie. The more adventurous became woodcutters and balata bleeders in the Canje Creek, the Berbice and Corentyne Rivers, while a hardy group of gold prospectors called ‘Pork-knockers’, braved the cataracts of Puruni, Cuyuni, Barama and Potaro Rivers to prospect for gold.

But the powerful sugar barons placed constraints upon every attempt by the African worker to gain economic empowerment and occupational mobility. During the rainy season some of the estates flooded and villages and refused to provide them with any irrigation assistance during periods of drought. The sugar dominated central government neglected to construct the basic infrastructure of village life – sea defense, roads, drainage and irrigation systems. They imposed heavy taxes for any capitol improvement undertaken and when the villages failed to pay the real estate tax assessments, they foreclosed their land and sold it at public auction. There was no agricultural extension service to teach the villagers new technologies of cultivation, no agricultural credit union or commercial banks to finance cultivation and no marketing facilities to get their provisions to the market. When the African peasants sought to expand their area of cultivation beyond the fourth depth they faced exorbitant rents for the Crown land. When the African moved to the interior as balata bleeders, bauxite miners and pork-knockers, the planter dominated government refused to provide a proper system of hinterland transportation and nothing to encourage the creation of independent mining communities in the interior. The implacable hostility of the sugar barons to the African peasantry not only prevented this class from becoming a commercially successful independent peasantry but also bequeathed to Guyana one of the worst systems of road transportation, sea defense, drainage and irrigation systems, in this part of the world.

The migration of Africans to the villages created a labor problem for the sugar planters. Would they bargain with the former slaves and offer them incentives to return to the plantation or would they import new sources of labor? The sugar barons chose the easier route. They contemptuously refused to bargain with the African workers and went half way round the world to import Indian indentured workers at exorbitant cost, then forced the African peasants to pay for the cost of their own displacement from the estate. The purpose of indentured labor was twofold. Firstly, to reduce the bargaining power of the African estate worker and to create a labor force that was bound to the estate. Indenture served both purposes. It not only reduced the bargaining power of the African worker, it also provided the sugar estate with a stable and reliable labor force. However, the indenture system established a pattern of residential segregation, occupational differentiation and political competition between Afro and Indo Guyanese that endured to this day.

The sugar estates management maintained a rigid policy of residential segregation on the sugar estates. At Port Mourant Estate there was a ‘Nigger Yard’, a ‘Coolie Yard’ or ‘Bound Yard’ and a ‘Portuguese Quarter’, and the ‘European Quarters’, with each group having its own separate living quarters. A pattern of residential segregation developed on the rural coastlands, with the estates and surrounding villages remaining about exclusively Indian, with the older village settlements remaining almost exclusively African. This pattern of residential segregation continued even after indenture, while the Central Government settling the time expired laborers in exclusive land settlement schemes such as Whim, Bush Lot, Windsor Forest, La Jalousie. A system of occupational segregation existed on the estates, with the Indians forming the bulk of the field labor, the Africans forming the bulk of the factory labor and tradesmen, while the Whites constituted the bulk of the supervisory and management staff. During crop time the estate would recruit seasonal workers from the African villages chiefly as cane cutters and shovel-men, while the Indians would constitute the weeders, 'puntmen' and suppliers.

The estates maintained a deliberate policy of ‘divide and rule’. Indians and Blacks were encouraged to compete with each other and the historical literature full of incidents occasioned by the rivalry between villagers from Fyrish and the indentured workers of Albion, at the villagers of Rose Hall and the indentured workers of Port Mourant. The estate management encouraged each group to paint negative stereotypes of each other. The African worker, sarcastically called Quashe was portrayed as lazy spendthrift who spent his money on wine, women and sons, while the Indian worker, sarcastically called Sammy was portrayed as a shy unscrupulous moneylender who would use any means to accumulate material possessions. The management used each group to further his economic interest. The African police used to keep in check the rebellious sugar workers, and the Indian worker was used to keep the wage demands of the African worker in check.

Political competition was another direct consequence of the Indenture system. Because of massive immigration between 1835 - 1911, Indians had become the largest ethnic group in Guyana, 42.7%. But, because of the restrictive franchise, they constituted only 6.4% of the electorate. The Creole population constituted only 39% of the population constituted 62,7% of the electorate. When Universal Adult Suffrage made Indians the largest sector of the electorate, it generated fears of "Indian domination" among the Creole population.

While the post-emancipation period created conditions of ethnic competition, there were demographic change that were leading to a ‘creolization’ of the Guyanese population and to a break down of the residential, occupational, cultural and political boundaries that separated the Afro and Indo Guyanese. Indians, following the example of the emancipated of the Africans have abandoned the sugar plantations to live in independent villages. They have migrated not only to mixed villages; but to the urban areas, to foreign cities and even to some hinterland areas. They have moved away from cane cutting and rice cultivation into professions such as teaching, the civil service , law and medicine. While both races remain committed to the two political parties there is an increasing tendency to examine the policy of other political formation and to move away from exclusively ethnic positions. The increasing creolization is breaking down the rigid space that has separated the two races and may one day lead a to a truly integrated Guyana. The philosopher George Santayana once observed that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". Hopefully on the commemoration of our Emancipation Day we can reclaim, with pride the pioneering spirit of our ancestors – the Village Fathers who created settlements out of abandoned plantations, the pork-knockers and balata bleeders who braved the rapids of the Potaro. We can reject the colonial policies of ‘divide and rule’ that have separated us. Then we can reach that sublimal stage of fulfillment which Rabindranath Tagore so eloquently described in one of his Gitanjali poem:

    "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;. . .
    Where words come out from the depth of truth;. . .
    Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
    in the dreary desert sand of head habit;. . .
    Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.


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Colin Moore was born in Auchlyne Village, Corentyne, Guyana. Mr. Moore attended the University of the West Indies and then took up a position as a Principal of a High School in Guyana. He subsequently studied Law in New York. Mr. Moore has a varied career as a teacher and attorney, and he is community and politically oriented. He now lives in New York with his family.

Guyana Journal, August 1997
Colin Moore