By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 09, 2021
“Pas de six ans, Point de six ans!” (“No to Six Years. No more six years!”)
—The chant of the ex-slaves on Emancipation Day
More apprentices came to Government House on Saturday, August 2, to assert their freedom. There was “a visible increase of insolence in the behaviour of the Negroes. The muster around Government House continued, and His Excellency again attempted to persuade them to return to their work, but his efforts were fruitless. They first laughed at, and then hooted [we would say heckled] him” (PoS Gazette, August 5, 1834).
The ex-slaves followed the governor around town as he visited various Picket Guards, causing the “respectable” members of the society to disdain the behaviour of “the mob”. Soon, they began to arrest the leaders of the newly freed people and brought them to quick trials.
The results were predictable: “Seventeen of the most prominent ringleaders were tried, and condemned to stripes and hard labour, according to their various deserts.” (PoS Gazette.)
This summary punishment was designed to scare the apprentices into submission, thereby forcing them to leave Port of Spain and return to their estates in a humiliated manner. But their acts of resistance created a new consciousness in them.
They became emboldened once they saw their leaders being taken to jail. “Part of the mob followed the escort to the Gaol, encouraging the prisoners not to mind their punishment, avowing their own determination to submit not only to punishment, but to death itself, rather than return to work.”
Through their actions, they had annealed into one social body, joining in that free consciousness of their peers the world over.
Such defiance was unacceptable. From the platform of Government House, Captain Hay, one of the white leaders, read “the clause in the Royal Order in Council, declaring the assemblage of three or more people to be a riot if continued for ten minutes after notice to disperse, and the display of the flag”.
The apprentices ignored his order. After 20 minutes, the militia charged the crowd. Most of the participants fled. Yet the women stood their ground, determined not to submit. The crowd dispersed merely to reassemble itself again.
More apprentices kept coming into Port of Spain. Yet, not one cutlass; not one beau-stick, was to be seen amongst them. Each person was sober and not one act of personal violence or robbery took place. The PoS Gazette alleged that the apprentices “had been instructed and well-trained in the most effective mode of embarrassing a government, especially one so weak and resolute as the Government of this colony has shewn itself. Like the Unionists [in Ireland] they had been taught the power of passive resistance”.
How did they learn this? They had not heard of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King (they were not around), yet only one day out of slavery they enacted a great display of “passive resistance” in spite of the government’s intimidating actions.
On Sunday, the apprentices changed their tactics. Not one country apprentice was on the streets. The government remained afraid and indecisive. Two meetings of the Council were held that day to determine the propriety of declaring Martial Law. The apprentices were ready to defy any such measure, but the council voted against it. The government kept on arresting the apprentices as the night wore on.
On Monday morning, the apprentices returned to Port of Spain as the special magistrates continued their summary punishment of the apprentices. About 60 apprentices were convicted, of which 33 “were condemned to be publicly flogged and to terms of imprisonment and hard labour”.
The next day the prisoners received their punishment, but few of them expressed contrition or even asked to be pardoned. Still, the apprentices continued to surround Government House. During the course of the week, tranquillity was restored to the island. In Naparima and other outlying towns, the apprentices bided their time.
On August 9, William Hardin Burnley, Trinidad’s leading planter, wrote to Nassau Senior, professor of political economy at Oxford University: “The Negroes will not comprehend the system of apprenticeship, which when fairly explained presently generally gives no great advantage to them… They do not hesitate to abuse the king for making any laws at present on the subject. [They say]: ‘If no free for six years, better let we ’tand as before till that time come.”
Burnley tried to convey to Nassau the apprentices’ determination to stand their ground when the governor told them their freedom would be delayed by six years even as he urged them to return to their “avocations”. In unison they chanted their objections: “Pas de six ans, Point de six ans.” They intimated they were free in mind and spirit, if not in body.
Between August 1 and December 31, 560 apprentices were subjected to capital punishment, each receiving six to 39 stripes. The most severe punishments were inflicted during the month of August, in which 301 apprentices were beaten.
On September 3, Governor Hill reported to Thomas Spring Rice, secretary of state, that the apprentices had returned to work “with contentment… My expectation is that in a short time all the labour will be performed by task [work] and the apprentices will have many extra hours to dispose for good wages”.
The apprentices had to wait until 1838 to gain their freedom.
This is our emancipation narrative. It should be repeated whenever we celebrate our ancestors’ achievements so that we never forget who we are or where we came from. We can neither aspire nor achieve if we do not know what our ancestors fought for and how they laid the foundation for our freedom.