The Emancipation Bill was presented in Parliament by Thomas Buxton in 1833 and the Act came into effect on August 1, 1834. On that day it seemed as if history had been created for slaves throughout the West Indies. They would no longer be slaves, but emancipated - free to do as they pleased. However, that was not to be, as amidst the joy and celebration came the news that full freedom would not be granted immediately, but that ex-slaves would be apprenticed to their former master for a minimum of four (4) years. Thus a period of 'apprenticeship' was put in place to bridge the gap between slavery and complete freedom.
On August 1, 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.
Obviously, we celebrate the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. However, individual colonies in British North America (which later became the United States of America) abolished slavery, beginning with Rhode Island in 1774. The first national abolition was declared in the French Revolution of 1789, and maintained afterward only in the independent Republic of Haiti.
Slavery was abolished permanently in the French Empire in 1848, in the Spanish Empire in 1880, and in Brazil in 1888. (Brazil is central, since it received more than one-third of all Africans imported in the slave trade).
Also, while we do not often think beyond the European-Atlantic slave trade, the Middle Eastern trade in African slaves also was significant. Opposition to slavery in Africa and Asia was not as strong as it was in the Caribbean, Europe and the United States.
Saudi Arabia and Angola abolished slavery officially only in the 1960s. Although legal slavery by then had probably ceased to exist, some Berber peoples continued to own slaves until at least 1975, and in areas of Africa and Asia, authentic slavery still exists surreptitiously.
Emancipation's worldwide significance is undoubtedly vital. However, in Trinidad (as opposed to Trinidad and Tobago), we should recognise that our historical experience does not neatly fit the wider one. As Dr Eric Williams, first Prime Minister of Trinidad, noted, Trinidad in 1833, was not a plantation society; it was a society of small estates operated by a few slaves. The average slave owner had seven slaves in Trinidad, as compared to 24 in Tobago. According to Dr Williams, Trinidad had a mere 17,439 slaves at Emancipation, as opposed to Jamaica, which had 254,310, slaves, or British Guiana, which had 69,579. In addition, in Trinidad there were three domestic slaves for every 10 field slaves, as compared with a ratio of under two to 10 in Jamaica and one to 10 in British Guiana. Moreover, the British annexation of Trinidad came at a time when English opposition to slavery was winning popular approval. As a result, Trinidad was administered as a Model Colony, in respect of legislation governing the treatment of slaves.
All this is not to deny the importance or to minimise the cruelties of slavery, even in Trinidad. But it does help us place our experience in a wider global and historical perspective. In Trinidad's history (distinct from Tobago's), the episode of Emancipation was crucial in changing the character of the population of the island. For one, Trinidad became a magnet for the emancipated slaves of the other, older and more-densely populated islands, especially Grenada, St Vincent and Barbados. An estimated 10,278 of these West Indian immigrants came to Trinidad between 1839 and 1849, while between 1871 and 1911 about 65,000 immigrated. By 1897 there were about 14,000 Barbadians living in the island. The largest immigration, however, came from the importation of 143,949 Indian indentured labourers between 1845 and 1917.
But the other smaller immigrations were also socially significant: 866 French and German labourers in 1839-40; 1,309 free blacks from the US between 1839 and 1847; liberated Africans (3,383 from Sierra Leone and 3,198 from St Helena between 1841 and 1861); 1,298 Madeirans (Portuguese) beginning in 1848; 2,500 indentured Chinese labourers between 1853 and 1866; and Syrians and Lebanese at the beginning of the 20th century. The ending of slavery in Trinidad led to the colony opening itself up to wider immigration, giving rise to the population which we see here today.
It also marked the beginning of the period when the bulk of the population - immigrant and Trinidad-born - was entitled to autonomously engage in the building of a society, at least at some level. As Lloyd Best has emphasised, in the 19th century the emancipated slaves built whole sections of Port-of-Spain themselves.
In the older islands of Jamaica and Barbados, Emancipation was much more central and even traumatic. It radically broke deeply-ingrained, social relations, whose survivals are still iscernible in the present day, much more so than in Trinidad. A relatively stable population had to re-work the way its members related to each other, often with great difficulty. On some level, it is ironic that Trinidad and Tobago has been leading the world in the recognition of Emancipation, particularly led by the Emancipation Support Committee who have been campaigning throughout the Caribbean, in Canada, the United States and Africa as well.
But it may not be so much of an anomaly, when one remembers that Trinidad is the place where so many freed Africans migrated.
It does us well to understand Emancipation within our own peculiar historical experience, in addition to appreciating its world-historical significance.
How the declaration was published in Britain
Throughout the British dominions the sun no longer rises on a slave. Yesterday was the day from which the emancipation of all our slave population commences; and we trust the great change by which they are elevated to the rank of freemen will be found to have passed into effect in the manner most accordant with the benevolent spirit in which it was decreed, most consistent with the interests of those for whose benefit it was primarily intended, and most calculated to put an end to the apprehensions under which it was hardly to be expected that the planters could fail to labour as the moment of its consummation approaches. We shall await anxiously the arrivals from the West Indies that will bring advices to a date subsequent to the present time.
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