By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 01, 2021
The masters were “dam tief”, the Governor an “old rogue”, and the King not such a fool as to buy them half free when he was rich enough to pay for them altogether.
—Port of Spain Gazette, August 5, 1834
Today is Emancipation Day. Ashton Ford, one of our respected elders, remembers the impetus that led former prime minister George Chambers to change the Discovery Day holiday (a day that recognised the misdeeds of our oppressors) to Emancipation Day that honours the achievements of our ancestors.
Chambers believed if you named your streets and monuments after local patriots, you encouraged a sense of nationhood and strengthened national identity among the population.
There is another aspect of this name change that is worthy of consideration. In his biography, Dostoevsky in Love, Alex Christofi outlines the themes that undergird Dostoevsky’s writing: “The importance of understanding that autonomy and dignity are more precious to us than the rational self-interest of economics; that more people are killed by bad ideas than by honest feelings; that a society with no grand narrative is vulnerable to political extremism.”
In 1848, at a meeting with his literary circle, Dostoevsky read V Belinsky’s famous open letter to NV Gogol. It said: “The most urgent questions of national importance in Russia at present are the abolition of serfdom; the abolition of physical punishment; and the enforcement of laws that already exist.” Belinsky described the Russian serfs as “white Negroes”. Dostoevsky devoted much of his early life to the liberation of the Russian serfs, which took place on March 5, 1861, Russia’s Emancipation Day.
One should keep these two considerations (Chambers’ rationale for creating Emancipation Day and Dostoevsky’s hatred of serfdom) in mind as one reads today’s and next week’s columns.
On August 1, 1834, the glorious day arrived which the Trinidad planters had so opposed. On August 5, the Port of Spain Gazette apologised for not publishing its regular issue on Emancipation Day, “the day on which for the first time for centuries the sun shone forth on the British West Indies without lighting a (single??) slave to labour; upon which 850,000 human beings who had gone to rest the previous night suffering under the weight of slavery and [sad]ness insupportable, arose free and happy, and rejoicing at their deliverance from [slavery] which had from birth kept them down to the level of beasts”.
Prior to that glorious day, the enslaved made it clear that after Emancipation Day they did not have the slightest intention to work in the fields again. The Port of Spain Gazette reported that the orders of council, the ordinances and the proclamations relating to emancipation had been fully published and explained to the enslaved who “had generally laughed at and rejected” the interpretation of that august document that the governor had offered. They believed “the King had freed them right out, and that the apprenticeship was a job got up between their masters and the Governor. Their masters were ‘damn tief’, the Governor an ‘old rogue’, and the King not such a fool as to buy them half free when he was rich enough to pay for them altogether.
“These were the feelings expressed by the slaves whenever the topic of Apprenticeship was ventured upon, either by their masters or the Government, and it was consequently thought wise to provide some mode of convincing them of their errors more forcibly, than mere explanation and reasoning, and four companies of the local Militias were ordered to hold themselves in readiness to commence permanent duty.”
This show of force did not intimidate the newly freed population. On the morning of that glorious day, the newspaper reported that the apprentices moved into town “in numerous groups and gangs, and wended their way to Government House. Long before His Excellency the Governor arrived in town, the Court Yard and surrounding neighbourhood were peopled by the happy and free, to the number of about 400, who had come to inform His Excellency that they had resolved to strike work”.
These men and women were determined to demonstrate their free condition. They would listen to nothing that the governor had to say about any restrictions on their freedom. “They were not only utterly disregarded but grossly insulted, and openly set at defiance. Explanation was drowned by vociferation; persuasion was attributed to fear and treated with disdain, whilst threats [were] met with contempt. The mob [the newspaper’s description] would listen to none, and became more turbulent and insolent each moment.” After being treated as “beasts of burden” for many years, they displayed a new understanding of their place in the world.
Even at this moment, the dominant class could not but show its adeptness and coercion. “The militia were requested to appear and in a space of time scarcely creditable, the whole of the town corps were under arms, and in a force and state of appointment gratifying to every man [presumably, the whites] who beheld them.” Mercifully, all of the armed forces did not behave the same way.
In spite of the military presence, the newly freed continued to swarm Government House until the evening “without exhibiting the least inclination to return to the estates to which they were attached, and the Governor upon taking his departure for his residence was assailed with every kind of abuse that apparently impunity could suggest”.
In spite of their jubilation, the newly freed remained remarkably peaceful.
The estate workers around Port of Spain “ceased work almost without exception, but not a single instance of violence was heard of”. After dark, the newly freed Negroes (their term) dispersed and went back to their estates.