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Mightily like insurrection

Published: 
Friday, August 1, 2014
Some of Richard Bridgens’s “Negro Heads” (1836), showing a mask and tin collar that could be used as a form of punishment—not only for getting drunk or eating dirt, as Bridgens suggests, but at the whim of the slavemaster. Eating dirt caused serious illness and even death. The reasons for it were little understood and planters simply punished it as an offence, though some realised that it was associated with “melancholy.” It may have been a symptom of depression.

The first Emancipation Day, in 1834, was not the glorious day the enslaved people of Trinidad had hoped for. No longer slaves, they were not yet free. 

Rather than rebelling, they bore that news with quiet self-restraint. Their patience on that rainy August 1, 180 years ago, may have thwarted a plot by their former masters to postpone their liberation. JUDY RAYMOND reads through the contemporary records. 

The petit careme hadn’t come yet, and August 1, 1834, was real rainy-season weather. An all-day rain fell and flooded the streets of Port-of-Spain, but still a bewildered, bedraggled crowd stood for hours outside Government House. 

There was an equal number of men and women, about 300 in all, some holding their children in their arms. They were field labourers, dressed in the ragged clothes they wore for work, but they had not brought their cutlasses to town, nor even sticks to help them along the muddy, cartwheel-rutted tracks that served as country roads. 

Although the crowd outside was quiet, inside the government buildings there was turmoil, as colonial officials and planters fretted about how to react to the gathering outside, some arguing that its very quietness was a threat. In the course of the morning, the police and the militia cavalry charged at the crowd, who scattered, but reformed and would not disperse. 

What they wanted was their free papers, that the king had sent for them. 

It was Emancipation Day, now marked with a public holiday and commemorated as a glorious occasion. But on that day in 1834, the former slaves were left unsure what they had to celebrate. By the time the sun fizzled out behind the watery clouds, some had been arrested and marched off to the gaol, where they were flogged. 

But a much worse outcome was narrowly averted. The gutters of Port-of-Spain might have run with blood as well as rainwater that day, and for the following week, had it not been for the commander of the garrison at St James, whose restraint matched that of the people waiting in the rain. 

Lt Col Henry Hardy of His Majesty’s 19th Regiment of Foot died in Trinidad the following April, aged 50, and lies forgotten in an unmarked grave, but he is an unsung hero. The compassion, determination and good sense exercised by Hardy, as well as by the cheated former slaves, averted not only a possible massacre by the colonial authorities, but also what might have been a plot by the local planters to postpone the proclamation of emancipation. 

EL Joseph, the British-born editor of the Port-of-Spain Gazette, wrote a planter’s-eye view account of Emancipation Day in his history of Trinidad—the first—published in 1838. “The negroes of Trinidad,” wrote Joseph, “behaved less riotously than those of some of the neighbouring colonies…they shewed much resistance, but this, in most cases, was of a passive nature. The use of the cat-o-nine-tails convinced some of the most refractory that they were in the wrong…Contrary to the desire of many, martial law was not proclaimed.” 

Even in her much later History of the West Indian Islands of Trinidad and Tobago 1498 – 1900 (published in 1961), Gertrude Carmichael also writes disparagingly of what she describes as a rowdy, abusive mob. This is the version that is generally reported in modern histories and has become accepted as fact.

But according to two eyewitness accounts by English soldiers, the negroes of Trinidad showed no resistance at all. In fact, they were astonishingly restrained, despite what seemed to have been concerted attempts by the civilian authorities to provoke them into violent protest. It was because of this self-discipline on the part of the only semi-liberated former slaves that the declaration of martial law was patently unnecessary and was in the end narrowly avoided. 

The former slaves—now termed apprentices—had gathered on what should have been their first day of freedom, when the Abolition of Colonial Slavery Act had come into force. But now, it seemed to them, the planters and the colonial government were trying to cheat them of their liberty. 

When the ex-slaves gathered outside the government offices, they got a six for a nine. There was no grand proclamation, no celebration, official or otherwise, and little to celebrate. 

Eventually, Governor Sir George Hill, followed by members of the council, came out onto the balcony to answer the questions of the disappointed people waiting patiently below. 

“These people appeared to be a deputation from a few French Estates; and were for the most part very old men, old women, and children,” wrote Major Henry Capadose of the First West India Regiment, who was part of the British garrison stationed in Trinidad and was at Government House that day. He later wrote a book, Sixteen Years in the West Indies, about his tropical service.

It’s generally thought that Emancipation was proclaimed at the government buildings and rum bond on the wharf (the site of the Treasury Building today). But pictures of those offices (which burned down in 1932), show a long one-storey building. 

Moreover, Capadose says: “HE, the Governor, Sir George Hill, followed by the members of council, the Judges and other official Gentlemen, had repaired to the balcony of the Council chamber to enquire into the cause of such an assemblage as then filled the Court Yard, below the building.” He makes repeated references to the balcony and the crowd below. 

So the Governor’s equivocal address—a far cry from a proclamation—must have been made at the old government buildings in Brunswick (now Woodford) Square, torn down a few years later to make way for the new one, designed by Richard Bridgens, that later became the Red House. 

On that rainy Emancipation Day one of the crowd, a young man, asked the Governor—in French—what was going on, and why the managers and overseers on the estates—some of whom had come with them to Port-of-Spain— insisted the former slaves had to continue working. 

Sir George told them, also in French, that while it was true they were no longer slaves, neither were they entirely free. They were “apprentices” —as if they now needed to learn the same skills they had been practising since they were old enough to walk (the tiniest members of the field gangs, who pulled up weeds and gathered grass for the livestock, started work at four years old). And for the next six years they would still be obliged to work for the same masters, unpaid, for 45 hours a week—and longer in crop season. 

The Abolition of Colonial Slavery Act abolished slavery “throughout the British colonies on, from and after the First of August, 1834.” But—a huge but—it stipulated that only children under six were actually free from that date; older children and adult field workers were to serve as “apprentices” for another six years, and house slaves for four years more.

The people gathered in the rain took the bad news calmly, but would not obey the Governor’s urging that they should “return quietly home, like good folks, and resume their avocations under employers who, doubtless would treat them kindly, and indeed the new laws ensured them good treatment.”

Other colonial officials repeated what Sir George had said, but the rain-sodden crowd remained.

“Pas de six ans, nous ne voulons pas de six ans, nous sommes libres, le Roi nous a donné la liberté!” they said. “No six years, we do not want six years, we are free, the King has given us our freedom!”

The crowd may have been sullen, but they were peaceable. They stood there in the rain and would not leave. 

Some hot-headed members of the council wanted the Governor to declare martial law and have the crowd dispersed by force. The militia had already been called out and were stationed at street corners, in case of insurrection.

In reality, points out Capadose, “No symptom of it appeared, beyond the obstinacy of foolish old people in the government courtyard, headed by a single young man, and none of them had even a stick in their hands.”

The Governor consulted Col Hardy. 

“Martial Law!” exclaimed he, “against whom?— I see only old men, women, and children, poor ignorant people, who come to ask a question, and know no better.”

Given this answer, Sir George could not very well read the Riot Act. In the end, around sunset, the police persuaded the doleful apprentices to go home. 

Capadose rode back to the St James Barracks in Hardy’s carriage. They did see some celebrations on the way: “A number of girls danced about in the streets, singing French ariettes of, probably, their own composition on the goodness of King William in granting them freedom.”

Col Hardy observed drily that it “looked mightily like insurrection.”