In Jamaica on August 1, 1838, thousands of ex-slaves who had gathered at town centres and churches in the British Caribbean territory broke into joyous celebrations after hearing the final words of the Emancipation Declaration, affirming their full freedom from slavery. This momentous date represented the abolition of the dehumanising system which had enslaved people of African descent in the British colony for over 150 years.
The Emancipation Act of 1838 was passed by the British Government following a sustained abolition campaign, underscored by bloody slave uprisings in the colonies as well as increased anti-slavery sentiment in the UK.
In the midst of the campaign, which lasted from 1780 until 1838, several individuals distinguished themselves as true anti-slavery champions. These include:
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’s 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 organising 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 counter pressures 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 utilised 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 their children.
Scholes no less than his contemporaries recognised 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 1st festivities as myalism infiltrated the churches. 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 sanitisation 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, modernised 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”.
A Celebration of Emancipation
Edited by: Prof. Patrick Bryan (1994)
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