By PAT DIAL
The Waterfalls Magazine – August First is one of the most, if not the most important anniversaries in Guyanese history. For it was on that day in 1833, that the British Parliament passed the Emancipation Act, freeing slaves in Guyana and other parts of the British Empire. The Act was to come into force on August 1, 1834.
In Guyana however, full freedom did not come until 1838, since the slaves had to serve a period of “Apprenticeship” until August 1, 1838, whereby they were compelled to keep on working on their plantations in a condition of semi-slavery, though they were paid a small wage.
It is believed that on the night before full freedom was declared in 1838, there was an all-night vigil accompanied by continuous drumming. On the arrival of morning, from 5 o’clock, the children and young people of the villages would go from door to door knocking and calling out to sleepers to rouse themselves and join the celebrations. This custom continued until very recent years.
Emancipation Day was spent visiting friends and relatives and feasting on Afro centric foods. This custom continues today in some of the villages across Guyana. The fare consisted of a variety of ground provisions including cassavas, eddoes, tannias, sweet potatoes and breadfruit and plantains served with salt fish or sometimes meat. The sweet served after main courses consisted of Konky made largely with corn flour and cassava and pumpkin pones. Cookup rice which is today an obligatory item of the Emancipation Day menu only became an item after 1860, when rice became available on the local market, from the production of Indian indentured immigrants.
After August, 1838, most freedmen had decided to remain on their plantations, but they were paid such low wages that in the 1840’s they were forced to strike. Their strikes failed and the freedmen, with courageous resolve and fortitude left the estates without knowing how they would be able to survive.
At that time, Britain had begun to adopt a policy of Free Trade, with consequent abandonment of protection for many Caribbean sugar estates. This, together with the absence of workers, caused many estates to go bankrupt with their owners abandoning them and putting them up for sale.
The Freedmen saw an opportunity and formed themselves into cooperatives. With the money they had saved from their sales at the Sunday markets and the wages, they had received as Apprentices, they bought several of these abandoned plantations. The money paid for these properties were in the form of small coins like “bits” and shillings and had to be fetched in wheelbarrows.
The purchase and transformation of these abandoned plantations into villages is considered an element of Emancipation and is known to Historians as the “Village Movement”. The Village Movement is one of the greatest moments of Guyanese History not only because it provided a constructive accommodation for the workers who had left the estates but because it has given a formula and blueprint to the world of a methodology of how poor and oppressed people could get out of poverty and move into an existence of self-respect and dignity.
The creativity of the freedmen was unique. They built new communities from scratch. They laid out the infrastructure of the new villages – the streets, the allotments to various owners and the construction of thousands of houses. They established village governments which were able to supply basic municipal services. Farm lands were laid out in the backdams where they produced plantains, bananas, breadfruit, and various ground provisions such as cassava, eddoes, tannias and sweet potatoes and various fruits such as mangoes and avocados. They also raised flocks of sheep and goats and embarked on poultry farming. Many supplied the services of tradesmen such as carpenters, tin and gutter smiths, tailors, vat makers and so on, not only to their villages but to the two towns.
Christianity was established as the new religion of freedmen during the era of the village movement, with the establishment of churches such as Roman Catholic, Anglican and a few Congregationalists that established schools to not only teach the catechism of Christianity, but also the fundamentals of English and Arithmetic. This resulted in these villages becoming the oases of learning and culture in the colony.
Initially, the freedmen relied on folk medicine but when women and girls from the villages began to be employed in the hospitals and some of them trained as nurses, they brought the practice of Western medicine to the villages.
Many of the names chosen for the new villages had some reference to freedom and Emancipation, for example, Buxton being named after the English Humanitarian Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton who struggled in Parliament for the abolition of slavery or Victoria and Queenstown named for Queen Victoria of England, in whose reign Emancipation was declared.
Emancipation Day is not only a time of fairs, pageants, feasting and other celebrations; it is a time when all Guyanese and in particular Afro-Guyanese must reflect on and internalize the great lessons of Emancipation. In the first instance, there is Saving. The Freedmen were prepared to make the sacrifice of deferring the gratification of today for the betterment of tomorrow and thus they painstakingly saved small sums of money which accumulated into capital which they invested in the purchase of abandoned plantations. For personal and community progress, this culture of Saving needs to be resuscitated.
Then there is the culture of taking Calculated Risk. When the freedmen left the plantations, they took a courageous risk which led them to purchase the abandoned plantations and establish the villages. Without taking those calculated risks, entrepreneurship and economic and social development could not have happened.
Modern Guyanese people have the tendency of moving away from the Land and Agriculture. Land and Agriculture were the basis of the survival and development of the freedmen. Now that the State is very supportive of Agriculture, it is easier to be committed to it. Try to purchase and own your own land.
The villages were once oases of learning and intellect and were the seedbed of the professional classes. If Education again becomes a deep aspiration of both adults and children, upward mobility and economic betterment are bound to follow. Be again committed to Education.
Part of the success of the Freedmen resided in their commitment to Religion and the Moral Law. Young people in the villages need to re-affiliate themselves with their churches and follow their teachings. This will result in more stable families and give morale to be able to overcome all difficulties. Such commitment would prevent any drift to crime or negative social behaviour.
It is because the freedmen were self-reliant and did not hope or expect help from any source that they were successful. Today, this culture of dependence on the State or other sources to help one with one’s problems must be eschewed and Self Reliance should be the beacon. With self-reliance, one becomes master of one’s destiny.
If such virtues associated with Emancipation are recaptured, it would be easier to successfully navigate in the new oil rich Guyana.
I will eat a piece of Exxon Christmas Cake with your ingredients inside.
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