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The History of Emancipation Day

Wednesday, August 1 2012

In 1833 British Parliamentarian Thomas Buxton introduced the Emancipation Bill to the British Parliament, 25 years after the abolition of the slave trade took effect in 1808. Abolitionists sought emancipation after their hopes that the abolition of the slave trade would eventually lead to an end of slavery were not realised.

The bill was passed and came into effect on 1 August 1834. Slaves under six years old were freed immediately but those over six years had to serve a four to six year period of apprenticeship during which they would work for free for 40 ½ hours per week. The period would be seen as one of transition so slaves would get used to freedom but apprenticeship was abandoned as the act did not specify how the 40 ½ hour week was to be divided and this created confusion and conflict between the planters and the slaves. On 1 August 1838, all British slaves were declared free.

Trinidad was a late starter in the Plantation system. In the beginning labour needs were met by the slaves who were brought to Trinidad with their French masters.

These slaves were creole; that is, they were born in the Caribbean. As the sugar economy expanded, other slaves were imported directly from Africa via the slave trade, until eventually, the majority of the slave population were African born – Yoruba, Hausa, Congo, Ibo, Rada, Mandingo, Kromanti (Koromantyn) and Temne. By 1797 when Britain conquered the island, the slave population had risen to over 10,000. By 1802 this population had risen to about 20,000.

Tobago’s experience was slightly different. When the British conquered Tobago in 1793 plantations were set up, and soon sugar became the main crop. Like other British colonies, Tobago became a slave colony. The majority of slaves came from Africa and the Tobago economy prospered. After the slave trade was abolished, however, the island’s economy suffered.

The majority of Tobago’s population was African – many of them from the African continent. The British white population was small, and many of the planters were absentee owners. Very few French people had ever settled on the island, and the Dutch and Courlanders had already left by the time the British took over.

Like slaves in other colonies, the slaves in Trinidad and Tobago lived in horrible conditions. Hard labour, poor food, disease and cruel masters were the order of the day. Through it all, the slaves still managed to create some sort of family life and maintain their culture. They also resisted their enslavement in several ways. There was open revolt. Slaves also ran away.

They also broke plantation tools and equipment, they worked slowly, even though they were whipped for this, and they complained about their bad treatment whenever possible. The planter class retaliated predictably by flogging or torturing the slaves, or even putting them to death.

When full freedom was granted in 1838, many of the ex-slaves moved off the plantations in both Trinidad and Tobago. They did not want any reminders of their former masters.

They set up villages close to the sugar estates, but not on the planters’ land. Villages such as Belmont, Arouca, and Laventille were formed. Land was available and some of the ex-slaves were able to buy or rent land and made a living by growing their own crops. Other slaves gravitated towards Port-of- Spain and San Fernando where they became artisans, craftsmen, builders and domestics.

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.

One hundred and fifty one years later, on 1 August 1985 the government of Trinidad and Tobago declared Emancipation Day a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery. This country became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.

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