By Pat Dial
Today, August 1, Emancipation Day, is celebrated throughout the Caribbean including Guyana. In 1833, the Emancipation Act was passed by the British Parliament freeing all slaves in the British Empire. But real freedom did not come until August 1, 1838, since the Emancipation Act specified a number of hours per day over several years which each slave had to serve before full freedom were finally accorded. This period between 1833 and 1838 is known as the Apprenticeship (System) and accordingly, full freedom came only on August 1, 1838, at the end of Apprenticeship.
On August 1, 1838, a wave of joyous celebrations swept over the country. African drums were played all night and there was much dancing and feasting on the many African foods, recipes of which had been brought from Africa. As time marched on, new customs came to be added to the celebrations, such as for example, young people would go from house to house at daybreak singing Emancipation songs and awakening sleepers to join the celebrations or, in addition to rum, new drinks such as jamoon wine, rice wine, ginger beer and sorrel came to be added to the Emancipation menus.
As the years passed on, the descendants of the freedmen came to be the most educated people in the colony and supplied the schools with their teachers and, as academics, began to research and even write on slavery and its various aspects. They exploded the myth, for instance, that Emancipation was solely due to the benevolence of the colonial authorities and uncovered the truth that there was always a struggle, both covert and overt, against slavery and that it was these struggles such as the Berbice Slave Rebellion, the Demerara Slave Rebellion and Damon’s Rebellion in Essequibo which helped to precipitate Emancipation. Such writings became a necessary part of the Emancipation celebrations and this article itself is an example of such.
In the writings on Emancipation and its aftermath, not enough emphasis has been accorded the creative contributions made by the freedmen and their immediate descendants to the building of Guyanese society and there are three such areas we would like to mention in this offering: the Village Movement; the supply of personnel to man the lower levels of the colonial administration and of the Police Force; and the pioneering of the gold and diamond industries.
After Emancipation, many of the freedmen decided to remain on the plantations but when they realised that the wages offered were below a living wage and that there were many vestiges of slavery which still remained on the plantations, they decided to leave the plantations and set themselves up as free village communities. They were able to purchase a number of abandoned sugar estates which they converted into villages. The money they used for such purchases came from savings they had made from the small stipends they received as Apprentices and from their Sunday Markets. In constructing these new village communities, they had to overcome challenges of various kinds such as legal, financial, engineering, leadership and dealing with an unsympathetic colonial administration. Such legal problems were of the nature of land transfers and division of land or engineering as the creation of an infrastructure and building hundreds of houses. They were able to overcome these and successfully confronted the challenges of creating an economy in which the villages could survive. This economy consisted in farming and the supply of tradesmen such as carpenters, plumbers, furniture makers and so on both to their village and the surrounding areas and for the towns, Georgetown and New Amsterdam. This achievement of having the discipline of saving and the creation of successful new communities is of the highest order and one of which all Guyanese are proud of and especially our African Guyanese population.
Since the freedmen and their offspring took to education with dedication, a very large proportion became literate in a short time and was able to supply personnel for the lower ranks of the government Administration and the Police. The colonial government would not have been possible except for the service of this group. It should be mentioned that service in the Police was somewhat of a sacrifice, since Police work, all over the world and in Guyana was among the lowest paid; this engagement in the Police Force by the offspring of the freedmen allowed the youths of other communities to work in the better remunerated Private Sector.
The gold and diamond industries were pioneered by “pork-knockers” from this segment of the community. This meant venturing into deep forests with dangerous falls and rivers infested with wild animals and without the help and guidance of equipment, such as compasses or maps, in the quests and exploration for the gold and diamond deposits. The main gold and diamond fields were discovered by these pioneers and many were able to become fairly successful miners. It is these same gold and diamond fields which the recently established foreign companies with their modern equipment had been able to very profitably exploit.
From about the 1950’s, the great creativity and enterprise shown by the freedmen and their offspring began to decline to the great loss of Guyanese Society and all Guyanese have been seeking ways of resuscitating this spirit of creativity. In this quest, we may mention a little booklet by Dr. Accabre Nkofi titled, ‘Rebirth of the Blackman,’ which may be obtained at the National Library or the Library of the University of Guyana. There are also other useful writings on the subject and Guyanese as a whole are confident that this dull phase would pass away. We therefore celebrate this Emancipation Day with the usual joyousness and optimism.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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