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Ruin of the Colonies Prophesied

Published: 
Saturday, August 2, 2014
Richard Bridgens’s Negro Dance, published in 1836. Dances were held regularly on the estates during the years of slavery, and no doubt Emancipation would have been the occasion for special celebrations similar to this one. Bridgens was an English-born artist who spent the last 20 years of his life (1826-46) in Trinidad, and owned an estate in Arouca, together with his wife.

Part Two of the story of Emancipation in Trinidad, as reported by eyewitnesses in 1834—and the plot to postpone it. JUDY RAYMOND reads through the contemporary records.

Up to the very day of Emancipation itself, and even after, the planters were plotting to undermine it, according to an English army officer who was stationed here at the time. 

An extensive and disturbing account of the events of the first week of August 1834 can be found in Truths from the West Indies, including a Sketch of Madeira in 1833, a book by Capt Studholme Hodgson. A member of the 19th Regiment of Foot—Lt Col Hardy’s regiment—Hodgson had arrived in Trinidad in December 1833, and served here until 1836. 

As Emancipation approached, he wrote scathingly: “The utter ruin of the colonies was prophesied by these sage traffickers in human flesh. A general rising among the negroes was to be the inevitable result of their liberation and their first act the extermination of the whites.”

The colonists took steps to spread these fears: new newspapers were started, he reports, “whose editors were commanded to dedicate their columns to fearful descriptions of the well-grounded panic existing among the European population, with dark and mysterious hints as to conspiracies existing on many of the estates, the object of which was the murder of the various proprietors. Government was called upon to be prepared with martial law; an opposition was organised against every governor who might be disposed to lean to the side of humanity...”

Meanwhile, as part of this scheme, he argued, the slaves were kept in the dark about what exactly was to happen on Emancipation Day: “The most conflicting reports were circulated among them; at one time, that they were to be free immediately; at another, that the king had changed his mind, and they were to remain slaves again, that the women only were to be emancipated; then only the children, and so on.” 

He believed this was a deliberate campaign of misinformation, meant to provoke the slaves. In addition, notes Hodgson, “Though there never was a time when the unfortunate negroes were so patient under all their sufferings...as the period advanced when the accursed whip was to be wrested from the arm of the master, never were the slaves more causelessly and mercilessly flogged.” 

As well as riling up the slaves, the planters also tried to stir up the British troops. But Hodgson claimed with pride that this manoeuvre failed too. The callow planters “had little conception of the chivalrous spirit reigning among the followers of the noble profession, and that humanity is ever the companion of true courage.” Among his fellow soldiers, he wrote, “here predominated sympathy towards the negroes, indignation at their treatment, respect for the meekness they displayed.” 

Hodgson and the rest of the 19th were stationed at the garrison at St James, west of the city, and he may have been part of a contingent of troops marched into the town at the behest of the Governor, Sir George Hill, on the evening of August 4, 1834. Hodgson’s account of the events of that week is supported by a series of notes that passed among Hardy, the Governor and other colonial officials. 

On July 31, Governor Hill wrote to Hardy to say he had called out the militia. Hardy and his officers were surprised, says Hodgson, and Hardy concluded there was mischief afoot: the steps the Governor was taking were not merely unnecessary and imprudent, but “manifestly the result of wicked advice and intentions.” So Hardy decided his own actions should counterbalance this influence and the malign conspiracy behind it. 

What happened from that point on is recorded in an astounding sequence of messages in which the Governor demands ever more extreme military measures, despite Hardy’s soothing bulletins, which demonstrate there is absolutely no need for them. 

The colonial government was barely restrained from using force against an unarmed crowd mostly consisting of women. 

Even Gertrude Carmichael admits: “The Government was in a position of complete embarrassment, for the Negroes, though provocative and clamorous, had kept within the law in so far as not one had been found armed with a cutlass or even a ‘beau-stick.’” 

On August 1, the Governor had had a note sent to Col Hardy to say  “a great number of apprentices” were coming into town, heading for Government House, and asked Hardy to send soldiers. Sir George himself wrote a panic-stricken note to Hardy later that day: “The number of negroes arrived and arriving induces me to be of opinion you should send in more than 30 men...The danger will be great, if the town apprentices join and coalesce with those from the country.”

Hardy travelled into town, where the colonial officials at Government House were urging an armed attack on the subdued and soaking-wet former slaves outside.

Hodgson recorded: “‘The rascals will commit excesses,’ cried one; ‘Drive them out of the town at the point of the bayonet,’ was the warlike speech of another; ‘Cut them to pieces,’ was the improved suggestion of a third...The venerable Governor, the very picture of alarm, first looked at one, and then at another of the speakers...”

The future of the island hung in the balance. On the back of Hill’s note summoning him, Hardy wrote his own observations, which belie the claims of rebelliousness and threatened insurrection.
“Nothing like a mob, so called,” he recorded. “About 200 poor creatures, two-thirds of whom were women, were at Government House; orderly, silent, and distinguished by their respectful demeanour. They bore their disappointment and torrents of rain, without one mark of even anger, for six hours. 

Nevertheless, he noted, “From ten to 17 men and women were sent to jail.” 

Even after Emancipation Day itself, the Governor continued to overreact. The following day he heard a rumour that “All the Naparima negroes are on the march to town,” and wrote to Hardy again asking for more troops in light of the “violence of the mob this evening.”

But Hardy wrote soothingly the following day: “I rode through the several streets in Port-of-Spain last night between nine and ten o’clock, and found the utmost silence and tranquillity, a state of good order which continued all night.”

On August 3 Hardy again spent the night personally patrolling the town and reported once again that all was perfectly tranquil. 

The colonial government was not listening to reason, however, and replied with a terse message demanding that a company of the 19th regiment should be sent immediately. Hardy complied, and sent a note to say the troops were at Government House, “where,” he noted, “up to this moment, every thing is perfectly quiet.

“The assemblages of negroes,” he added pointedly, “appear to have been for the greater part women.”

But either Hardy’s sangfroid was not enough to quell the fears of Governor Hill and his associates, or they really were hoping to provoke the confused and disappointed apprentices into pushing back against the overbearing show of force. For without consulting Hardy further, Hill asked for 200 troops to be sent from Barbados. 

Hodgson considered this move by Hill to be “a fact so astounding, that I know not whether to attribute it to the extreme of wickedness, or to the extreme of madness.”

But in the end, if there was a plot to provoke the former slaves into rebelling, it failed, wrote Hodgson, to goad “these poor people into a display of impatience or irritation.” The peaceful protests continued for a few days; there were arrests and floggings, but no bloodshed in the streets, and no excuse to postpone the initial, partial emancipation. 

The planters were to receive compensation, two years later, for the human “property” of which they had been deprived by the new law: of the £20 million that was dispensed by British taxpayers, £1,039,119 was dispatched to Trinidad or to Trinidadian slave-owners in Britain. 

The slaves got nothing but their freedom, which was eventually granted fully in 1838, two years before the six-year deadline. The original half-measure of emancipation caused unrest in other islands. The British government, its colonial representatives and the colonists feared massive uprisings on the scale of Haiti. As a result, their legislatures then voted to free the apprentices in 1838, two years before the original six-year apprenticeship expired. 

Trinidad was a crown colony, ruled directly from London through the governor, but the council voted on the measure. Even then the vote was tied, five for and five against. Governor Hill finally did the right thing and voted for it.

As a result, it was at last proclaimed: “Be it therefore enacted and it is hereby enacted and ordained by his Excellency the Right hon Sir George Fitzgerald Hill, with the advice and consent of the Council of Government, that all persons who on the First day of August, 1838, shall find themselves in state of apprenticeship as Praedial Apprenticed labourers...shall upon and from and after the 1st day of August, 1838, become, be and for all intents and purposes whatsoever, absolutely and forever manumitted and set free.”