Emancipation Day

West Indies, Emancipation


The history of the New World since Columbus re-discovered it is one of conquest, pillage, exploitation and forced migration of a people. For more than three centuries millions of people were forcibly transported from their homes in Africa, across the perilous Atlantic Ocean to the New World, where they were forced to labour on sugar plantations for the rest of their lives. This enslavement of a people continued until events in Europe changed the fortunes of the West Indian and North American colonies. Humanitarians started questioning the validity of slavery, there was competition from beet sugar producers in Europe, and the advent of the Industrial Revolution spawned the rise of a new group of influential men in the British Parliament who believed that slavery was no longer economically viable.

In 1833 Thomas Buxton presented The Emancipation Bill in Parliament. The Act was passed and came into effect on 1 August 1834. On that day, thousands of slaves in the British West Indies became free men and women.


As early as 1441 the Portuguese had started trade with Africa – more specifically, West Africa. West Africa was part of a major trading network long before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. From ancient times there was a flourishing trade between the North and West of the continent. This led to the development of large cities and empires. By the time the first Europeans arrived in Africa the wealthy empires of Songhai and Benin dominated the area.

The Portuguese set up a trading post in Ghana and proceeded to trade in luxury goods and slaves. Later, when sugar became the main crop of the British colonies there was a great demand for labour which could not be met by the supply of white indentured servants. Since the Portuguese already traded in slaves it seemed logical to expand this commercial enterprise by supplying the colonies with slaves from Africa. As a result, for more than three centuries millions of people were uprooted from their homes, transported across dangerous waters, and forced to work without remuneration on plantations in the West Indies and North America.


Slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. However, it is believed that they were treated much more kindly than they would come to be treated by the Europeans. Slavery in many African societies was a temporary state, usually occurring as punishment for a crime or to pay off a debt. With the arrival of Europeans however, the face of slavery was changed forever. Slavery became an organized business. English slave ships would arrive on the West coast of Africa with a cargo of guns, alcohol, goods, beads and trinkets. These they would trade with the Africans in exchange for slaves. To assure a steady supply of slaves for the colonies, African tribes were encouraged by the Europeans to raid other tribes and capture their people.

These captives would be bound in iron neck rings and linked together with chains and forced to march to the coast, where they would be housed in barracoons (holding pens) in unhealthy conditions, until a slave ship arrived. The captain of the slave ship would then choose the slaves he wanted and exchange them for the goods he had brought. Usually young, strong, healthy slaves were selected, and usually more men than women were chosen. The slave captain would then sail with his human cargo across the Atlantic to the colonies in North America and the Caribbean. This three-step process in the slave trade – slave ships sailing from Europe to Africa and then to the Caribbean – was called the Triangular Trade. The trip from Europe to Africa was called the Outward Passage, the trip from Africa to the Americas was called the Middle Passage, and the trip from the Americas to Europe, in which cargoes of rum, sugar, tobacco and other produce bought with the proceeds of slave sales were shipped, was called the Inward Passage.


The Middle Passage was a horrendous ordeal for the Africans. Men were crammed below decks in handcuffs and leg irons. Women and children were not chained and were housed in separate quarters from the men. All, however, were treated with brutality. Slave captains packed the ships to capacity with human cargo. The journey lasted anywhere from six weeks to three months depending on the weather and the distance to be covered. In good weather slaves were allowed on deck twice a day for exercise. Below deck living conditions were appalling. There were no washroom facilities and slaves had to relieve themselves where they were. Many suffered from seasickness, dysentery and small pox. By the time they reached their destination many were ill and weak, and some died on board. In addition to the appalling physical conditions, there was also the mental stress. Many Africans became despondent and threw themselves overboard. Those who were rescued were beaten for trying to escape.


Slave traders paid little or no attention to the welfare of the slaves during the Middle Passage, but once the ship approached its final destination the slaves were bathed, shaved and oiled, in an effort to get a higher price for them. Once on land the slaves were put on the auction block and planters bid on them. The African slaves were treated as animals. Before they were put on the auction block they had to endure body inspections. Their lips were pulled back and their teeth examined, and their stomach, back and genitals were prodded and poked. The slaves were sold to different masters and hence were separated from their relatives and friends. There was a deliberate strategy by the whites to separate Africans of the same tribe because it was believed that if the slaves could not communicate with each other, then they could not plot against their masters. The slaves were branded with the mark of their owners and assigned Christian names. They were then transported to the plantations where they endured a life of exhausting work and unending cruelty.


Sugar dominated the Caribbean economy so the majority of slaves worked on the sugar plantations. Most of these slaves were field labourers and their tasks involved planting, harvesting and grinding the cane. The slaves worked year round. Those slaves not employed in the fields worked as domestic servants in the Great House. A few fortunate ones worked in the towns as artisans, and thus had a little more freedom of movement.

Slaves’ lives were controlled by the demands of their owners. Rules and laws governed every aspect of their lives. Along with these laws came harsh punishments for breaking them. Slaves were whipped for the slightest misdemeanor and sometimes a limb was cut off as punishment. Some planters believed that if they dealt harshly with them, the slaves would not have either the time or the inclination to rebel against their masters. In the British islands, those slaves that participated in rebellions were hanged or burnt.

Whatever free time the slaves had (usually on Sundays) they spent it with family and friends, and tending their small provision plots. This helped to supplement the basic food provided by the planters. They tried to hold on to their religious practices and cultural beliefs and continued to express themselves through song and dance. The common view is that the slaves in the Caribbean were discouraged from marrying and having children. However, this changed when the slave trade came to an end. The planters, realizing that their source of labour would dry up with the end of the slave trade, decided that having their slaves reproduce offspring would ensure a continuous supply of labour. For this reason they made an about face and encouraged slaves to marry and have children.

Their religious beliefs helped the slaves endure the cruelty and hardship of slavery. Even though they came from different regions of West Africa, the various religions had common features. They believed that the world was inhabited by good and evil spirits, and that their ancestors watched over them. In fact they had such a high regard for their ancestors that they worshiped them. Hence the expression Ancestor Worship.


For more than three hundred years, beginning in the 15th century, the slave trade grew into a huge and successful business. It transformed the lives of the Africans and Europeans forever. It brought untold misery to the Africans, and unprecedented wealth for the Europeans. It was particularly successful for the British who dominated the slave trade. Merchants, bankers, ship owners and planters all benefited considerably from slavery and the slave trade. The British West Indian planters enjoyed a monopoly in the British market for their sugar, as well as the superior status that wealth gave them.

In England during the 18th century, it was customary for wealthy West Indian planters to display their wealth when visiting England. Many of these planters were second or third sons who did not inherit their fathers' titles or wealth. Having gone to the West Indies to seek their fortune, they returned to England as wealthy men and did not hesitate to display their new-found wealth. This display took the form of having slaves attending to their every need. It became the fashion to have a retinue of slaves to accompany one on the streets of England. Very often the planters treated their slaves cruelly, and when the slaves became ill or infirm, they were abandoned on the streets and left to fend for themselves. It was atrocities such as these, that moved several persons to call for an end to the slave trade.

From 1770s onward, several influential pressure groups arose in England and France for an end to the slave trade and slavery. They became known as abolitionists. These abolitionists were religious humanitarians (Quakers, Methodists, Evangelical Anglicans, Baptists and Moravians), intellectuals, workers and a few former slaves. They mobilised popular opinion, using mass meetings and petitions. The most notable of the abolitionists were Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, John Wesley and Thomas Buxton.

In addition to the abolitionists, there was the economist Adam Smith who argued that free labour was cheaper than slave labour, which he showed to be uneconomic.

In France and England the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French and American Revolutions also helped to fuel the demands to end slavery.

There was of course fierce opposition to the abolitionists. British planters, ship owners, merchants and bankers were in favour of continuing slavery. Their argument was that slavery was economically essential to Britain and her colonies.

Over time the abolitionists’ campaign gained momentum. William Wilberforce made several attempts to introduce a bill in parliament outlawing the slave trade. Finally in 1807 the Abolition Act was passed abolishing the slave trade. The law became operational on 1 January 1808. The abolitionists hoped that by ending the slave trade no more slaves would be coming from Africa and therefore slavery would gradually come to an end, but this was not the case. The planters continued to use slave labour on their estates.

When it became apparent that slavery was not going to end, the abolitionists tried another strategy, that was meant to make the life of the slaves less unbearable. It was called the Amelioration policy. Under this policy or law, female slaves were not to be flogged and slaves were not allowed to work on Sundays. Slaves were also to be allowed to give evidence in court as long as a Christian minister could vouch for the slave's understanding of what an oath meant. The Amelioration laws met with a lot of opposition, and when it became obvious that they would not be enforced, the abolitionists decided to try for the abolition of slavery. It took another twenty seven years after the abolition of the slave trade before slavery itself was abolished.



The end of the slave trade did not mean the end of slavery, nor did the conditions of the slaves improve very much. Granted, slaves were allowed to marry and have families, but this was for economic rather than humanitarian reasons.

In the 1820s the abolitionists began to campaign actively for the abolition of slavery. Once again they campaigned on moral grounds, but this time economic and political conditions helped their cause. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution and the economic face of Britain and Europe was changing. Adam Smith introduced the concept of Free Trade. This had a negative effect on British sugar profits. Slave plantations were inefficient, thereby making British sugar expensive. Furthermore, the only reason planters were able to sell their sugar was because Britain imposed taxes on non-British sugar. Adam Smith advocated that Britain should purchase sugar from the cheapest source available. This would make the British economy more successful. Many industrialists agreed with him. In France, beet sugar was being sold a lot cheaper than cane sugar, and the quality of the beet sugar was quite good.

In 1832 the Reform Act was passed. This act allowed members of parliament to be elected from industrial towns such as Manchester. These men wanted to see free trade established and slavery ended.

In 1833 Thomas Buxton, who succeeded Wilberforce, introduced the Emancipation Bill to parliament. The bill was passed and came into effect on 1 August 1834. Under the Act, 20,000,000 pounds sterling was to be paid to the planters as compensation for the loss of their slaves. However, with regard to the slaves, only slaves under six years old were free immediately. All slaves over six years old were obliged to serve a four to six year period of apprenticeship during which they would work for free for 40 ½ hours per week. The rationale for this was that the slaves required a period of transition so that they could get used to the responsibilities of freedom. The act did not specify how the 40 ½ hour week was to be divided and this created some confusion between the planters and the former slaves. The scheme caused such conflict that it was abandoned and on 1 August 1838, after which all British slaves were free.



Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1804, but this did not make much difference to the number of slaves transported to the Americas, since Britain and France were the most active participants in the trade. The first major victory therefore, was the abolition of the trade by the British Parliament and the US Congress.

The dates for the abolition of the slave trade are:

Denmark - 1804
Britain - 1808
USA - 1808
Holland - 1814
France - 1818
In 1817 Spain accepted 400,000 pounds sterling to abolish the trade in Cuba, Puerto Rico and San Domingo after 1820, but the slave trade continued to Cuba where the last recorded slave shipment was 1873.


After further protests and petitions in Europe and a spate of slave rebellions (Barbados 1816, Demerara/ British Guiana 1823, Jamaica 1831-1832), the British Parliament passed the Emancipation Act in 1833, to take effect on 1 August 1834. However all the British colonies except Antigua had a period of Apprenticeship, under which the former slaves were obliged to serve the planters from 1 August 1834 to 1 August 1838.

The years in which Emancipation took place were as follows:

Britain - 1834
France - 1848
Denmark - 1848
Holland - 1863
USA - 1863
Puerto Rico - 1873
Cuba - 1886
Portugal (Brazil) - 1888
On 1 January 1804 the Haitian Revolution ended slavery in Saint Domingue through the slaves' own efforts. They were led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. Haiti became the first free black republic in the Caribbean.


In August 1791, a massive slave revolt exploded in the French colony Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti. This civil unrest lasted from 1791 to 1804, and was a result of the conflicts between white planters, free coloureds, slaves and petit blancs. Other Caribbean islands experienced similar revolts but no other country was able to defeat the planters, free the slaves, and make a successful bid for independence.

The exceptional experience of Haiti can be explained by the fact that France, the colonizer, was also in a state of revolution from 1789. This lit the flame of revolution in Haiti. The principles of the French Revolution with its watchwords of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, served as an inspiration for the inhabitants of Haiti. The white planters saw it as an opportunity to secure independence from France, the free people of colour wanted full citizenship, the petits blancs wanted “active citizenship“ for all white persons, and the slaves wanted freedom. The conflict between the free coloureds and the grand blancs gave the slaves a perfect opportunity to fight for their freedom.

A slave rebellion in 1791 finally toppled the colony. Launched in August of that year, the revolt represented the culmination of a protracted conspiracy among black leaders. According to accounts of the rebellion that have been told through the years, Francois-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture helped plot the uprising. Among the rebellion's leaders were Boukman, a maroon and voodoo hougan (priest), Georges Biassou, who later made Toussaint his aide, Jean-Francois, who subsequently commanded the forces along with Biassou and Toussaint under the Spanish flag, and Jeannot, the blood thirstiest of them all. These leaders sealed their pact with a voodoo ceremony conducted by Boukman in the Bois Cayman in early August 1791. On 22 August, a little more than a week after the ceremony, the uprising of their black followers began.

The rebellion started in the most prosperous and densely populated part of the island which had over 40 percent of the island's slave population. The rebellion left an estimated 10,000 blacks and 2,000 whites dead, and more than 1000 plantations sacked and razed. In the midst of this Toussaint L'Ouverture emerged as one of the most notable leaders of the Haitian revolution. He organized armies of former slaves which defeated the Spanish and British forces. His ability to plough through defenses earned him the name L'Ouverture (the opening) by his followers. By 1801 he conquered Santo Domingo, present-day Dominican Republic, eradicated slavery, and proclaimed himself as governor-general for life over the whole island. He reorganized the government and instituted public improvements. He was devoted to the cause of his own people and advocated this in his talks with French commissioners.

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched General Leclerc, along with thousands of troops to arrest Toussaint, re-instate slavery and restore French rule. Toussaint was deceived and captured, and sent to France where he died in prison in 1803. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Toussaint's generals and a former slave, led the final battle that defeated Napoleon's forces. On 1 January 1804, Dessalines renamed San Domingue under its indigeneous name Haiti, and declared the country independent, thereby making it the first black republic in the world and the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Source: adapted in part from nalis.gov.tt

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