The Slaves and Slavery

painting The slaves, however, were not prepared to wait for freedom to come to them as a dispensation from above.

We have considered the different attitudes to slavery of the British Government, the British capitalists, the absentee British West Indian planters, and the British humanitarians. We have followed the battle of slavery in the home country. It would be a grave mistake, however, to treat the question as if it were merely a metropolitan struggle. The fate of the colonies was at stake, and the colonists themselves were in a ferment, which indicated, reflected and reacted upon the great events in Britain.

First there were the white planters, who had to deal not only with the British Parliament but also with the slaves. Secondly, there were the free people of color. And, thirdly, there were the slaves themselves. Most writers on this period have ignored them. Modern historical writers are gradually awaking to the distortion, which is the result of this. In correcting this deficiency they correct an error, which the planters and the British officials and politicians of the time never made.

First, the planters. In 1823 the British government adopted a new policy of reform towards West Indian slavery. The policy was to be enforced, by orders in council, in the crown colonies of Trinidad and British Guiana; its success, it was hoped, would encourage the self-governing colonies to emulate it spontaneously. The reforms included: abolition of the whip; abolition of the Negro Sunday market, by giving the slave another day off, to permit them time for religious instruction; prohibition of the flogging of female slaves; compulsory manumission of field and domestic slaves; freedom of female children born after 1823; admissibility of evidence of slaves in courts of law; establishment of savings banks for slaves; a nine-hour day; and the appointment of a Protector of Slaves whose duty it was, among other things, to keep an official record of the punishments inflicted on the slaves. I was not emancipation but amelioration, not revolution but evolution. Slavery would be killed by kindness.

The reply of the planters, in the Crown Colonies as well as in the self-governing islands was an emphatic refusal to pass what they considered “a mere catalogue of indulgencies to the Blacks.” They knew that all such concessions meant only further concessions.

Not one single recommendation received the unanimous approval of the West Indian planters. They were roused to fury especially by the proposal for the prohibition of the flogging of female slaves and the abolition of the Negro Sunday market.

From the planters’ standpoint, it was necessary to punish women. Even in civilized societies, they argued, some women were flogged, as in the houses of correction in England. “Our black ladies,” said Mr. Hamden in the Barbados legislature, “have rather a tendency to the Amazonian cast of character; and I believe their husbands would be very sorry to hear that they were places beyond the reach of chastisement.

On the question of the abolition of the Negro Sunday market, Barbados refused to surrender one-sixth of its already reduced income.
Jamaica replied that the “pretense of having time for religious duties” would merely encourage idleness among the slaves.
So great was the opposition of the planters that the governor deemed any attempt at alteration highly imprudent and could see no alternative but leaving it “to the operation of time and that change of circumstances and opinions which is slowly but surely leading to the improvement of the habits and manners of the slaves.”
It was a true and important fact that, with time, mere contact with civilization improved the slave, but the slave was in no mood for the inevitability of gradualism.

The whip, argued the planters, was necessary if discipline was to be maintained. Abolish it, “and then adieu to all peace and conformation on plantations.”
A Trinidad planter called it “a most unjust and oppressive invasion of property” to insist on a nine-hour day for full-grown slaves in the West Indies, while the English factory owner could extract twelve hours labor from children in a heated and sickly atmosphere.
In Jamaica the bill for admitting slave evidence aroused a great and violent clamor, and it was rejected on a second reading by a majority of thirty-six to one.

The Assembly of the island postponed the savings banks clause to a future session, and the governor dared not even mention the question of the freedom of female children.

The legislature of British Guiana decided that, “if the principle of manumission invito domino is to be adopted, it is more for their consistency and for the interests of their constituents that it should be done for them than by them. “ In Trinidad the number of manumissions declined considerably, while appraisals for manumission increased suddenly: the possibility of sworn appraisers pronouncing an unjust decision, “ Stephen confessed, “was not contemplated and is not provided against.” One manager in Trinidad talked of “the silly orders in council,” and in recording punishments resorted to language unbefitting his responsibility and insulting to the framers of the legislation. The office of Protector of Slaves in British Guiana was a “delusion”: “There is no protection for the Slave Population,” wrote the incumbent in 1832, “I am desperately unpopular…”

Not only did the West Indian planters question the specific proposals of the British Government. They also challenged the right of the imperial parliament to legislate on their internal affairs and issued “arbitrary mandates… so positive and unqualified in points of matter, and so precise and peremptory in point of time. “ From Barbados the governor reported that any attempt at dictation gave rise to instant irritation and opposition. The inconsistency of slave owners talking of rights and liberties was dismissed as “the clamour of ignorance.” Look to history, expostulated Hamden, “you will there find that no nations in the world have been more jealous of their liberties than those amongst whom the institution of slavery existed.”

In Jamaica the excitement reached fever pitch. The Assembly vowed that it would “never make a deliberate surrender of their undoubted and acknowledged rights” by legislating in the manner prescribed “upon a subject of mere municipal regulation and internal policy”. If the British Parliament was to make laws for Jamaica, it must exercise that prerogative without a partner.
The doctrine of the transcendental power of the imperial parliament was declared to be subversive of their rights and dangerous to their lives and properties. According to the governor, “the undoubted rights of the British Parliament have been wantonly and repeatedly denied, “and” unless the arrogance of such pretensions is effectually curbed, His Majesty’s authority in this colony will exist only in name.”

Two Jamaican deputies, sent to England in 1832 to lay their grievances before the home authorities, pointedly uncovered the arcana imperii: “We owe no more allegiance to the inhabitants of Great Britain than we owe to our brother colonists in Canada…. we do not for a moment acknowledge that Jamaica can be cited to the bar of English opinion to defend her laws and customs.” One member of the island assembly went further: “as for the King of England, “ he asked, “what right I should be glad to know has he to Jamaica except that he stole it from Spain?”

A West Indian in Parliament reminded the British people that “by persisting in the question of right we lost America.” Talk of secession was rife. The home government was warned that there was constant communication in Jamaica with individuals in the United States, and that feelers had been put out by some planters to the United States Government.

The cabinet took the matter sufficiently seriously to question the governor about the matter. Had not Saint Dominigue, in similar circumstances offered itself to Britain?

This was more than the language of desperate men or an insane flouting of the “temperate but authoritative admonition” of the imperial authorities. It was a lesson not so much to the public of Great Britain as to the slaves of the West Indies.
If the governor of Jamaica found in the planters “a greater reluctance to part with power over the slave than might have been expected in the present age,” it is obvious how the recalcitrance of the plantocracy appeared to the salves.

The Negroes least of all people, were likely to forget that, in the words of the governor of Barbados, “the love of power of these planters over the poor Negroes, each in his little sugar dominion, has found as great an obstacle to freedom as the love of their labor.”

Emancipation would come not from the planters but despite the planters.

Whilst the whites were plotting treason and talking of secession, the free people of color were steadfastly loyal. They deprecated “a dissolution of the ties which bind us to the Mother Country as the greatest calamity that could possibly befall ourselves and our posterity.“ To their great credit, the governor of Trinidad reported, they had not participated in those meetings “whereat so much pains have been taken to sow the seeds of discontent in the colony both among the free and the slave population.” Whilst the whites were refusing to hold office, the mulattoes were insisting on their right to public service. They were loyal not from inherent virtue but because they were too weak to gain their rights on their own behalf and could see no prospect of their own emancipation except through the British government. Furthermore, the local governments, in so far as they were trying to carry out the policy of the anti-monopolists, had to lean on them. In Barbados, wrote the governor, the balance of refinement, morals, education, and energy was on the side of the mulattoes, whilst the whites has nothing but old rights and prejudices to maintain their illiberal position. “You will see,” he advised the home government, “a large policy in present circumstances in bringing these castes forward. They are a sober, active, energetic and loyal race; and I could equally depend on them if need came, against either slaves or white militia.”

Contrary to popular and even learned belief, however, as the political crisis deepened in Britain, the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave himself.

This aspect of the West Indian problem has been studiously ignored, as if the slaves, when they became instruments of production, passed for men only in this catalogue. The planter looked upon slavery as eternal, ordained by God, and went to great lengths to justify it by scriptural quotations. There was no reason why the slave should think the same. He took the same scriptures and adapted them to his own purposes.

To coercion and punishment he responded with indolence, sabotage and revolt. Most of the time he merely was as idle as possible. That was his usual form of resistance – passive. The docility of the Negro slave is a myth.

The Maroons of Jamaica and the Bush Negroes of British Guiana were runaway slaves who had extracted treaties from the British Government and lived independently in their mountain fastnesses of jungle retreats. They were standing examples to the slaves of the British West Indies of one road to freedom.

The successful slave revolt in Saint Domingue was landmark in the history of slavery in the New World, and after 1804, when the independent republic of Haiti was established, every white slaveowner, in Jamaica, Cuba, or Texas, lived in dread of another Toussaint L’Ouverture.

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It is inconceivable a priori that the economic dislocation and the vast agitations which shook millions in Britain could have passed without effect on the slaves themselves and the relation of the planters to the slaves. Pressure on the sugar planter from the capitalists in Britain was aggravated by pressure from the slaves in the colonies. In communities like the West Indies, as the governor of Barbados wrote, “the public mind is ever tremblingly alive to the dangers of insurrection.”

Not nearly as stupid as his master thought him and later historians have pictured him, the slave was alert to his surroundings and keenly interested in discussions about his fate. “Nothing”, wrote the governor of British Guiana in 1830, “can be more keenly observant than the slaves are of all that affects their interest.”

The planters openly discussed the question of slavery in the presence of the very people whose future was under consideration. “If the turbulent meetings which are held here among the proprietors,” wrote the governor of Trinidad in 1832, “are countenanced, nothing that may occur need be matter of surprise…” The local press added to the inflammable material. A Trinidad paper called the order in council “villainous” another spoke of “the ridiculous provisions of the ruinous Code Noir.”

One judge refused to sit on any trial arising out of the order in council and walked out of court. The planters have been blamed for this reckless attitude. But they could not help it. It is a feature of all deep social crises. Before the French Revolution the French court and aristocracy discussed Voltaire and Rousseau not only freely but, in certain spheres, with real intellectual appreciation. The arrogant behavior and intemperate language of the planters, however, served only to inflame the minds of the already restless slaves.

The consensus of opinion among the slaves, whenever each new discussion arose or each new policy was announced, was that emancipation had been passed in England but was withheld by their masters. The governor of Jamaica reported in 1807 that abolition of the slave trade was construed by the slaves as “nothing less than their general emancipation.” In 1816 the British Parliament passed an act making compulsory the registration of all slaves, to prevent smuggling, in violation of the abolition laws.

The slaves in Jamaica were of the impression that the bill “contemplates some dispositions in their favor which the Assembly here supported by the inhabitants generally are desirous to withhold,” and the planters had to recommend a parliamentary declaration that emancipation was never contemplated. A similar misunderstanding prevailed among the slaves in Trinidad and Barbados.

All over the West Indies the slaves were asking, “why Bacchra no do that King bid him?” So deeply was the idea imbedded in the mind of the slaves that some great benefit was intended for them by the home government in opposition to their masters that they eagerly seized upon every trifling circumstance in confirmation. Every change of governor was interpreted by them as emancipation.
The arrival of D’Urban in British Guiana in 1824 was construed by the slaves as involving “something interesting to their prospects. “
The governor of Trinidad went on leave in 1831; the Negroes had it that he “was to bring out emancipation for all the slaves.” Mulgrave’s arrival in Jamaica in 1832 created great excitement. At a review near Kingston he was followed around by a greater number of slaves than had ever assembled before in the island, all with one ideas in their minds, that he had “come out with emancipation in his pocket.”
The appointment of Smith as governor of Barbados in 1833 was understood by the slaves as meaning general emancipation. His arrival in the island gave rise to a considerable number of desertions from distant plantation to Bridgetown “to ascertain if the Governor had brought out freedom or not.”

The slaves, however, were not prepared to wait for freedom to come to them as a dispensation from above.

The frequency and intensity of slave revolts after 1800 reflect the growing tensions, which reverberated in the stately halls of Westminster.
In 1808 a slave revolt broke out in British Guiana. The revolt was betrayed and the ringleaders arrested. They consisted of “the drivers, tradesmen, and other most sensible slaves on the estates,” that is, not the field hands but the slaves who were more comfortable off and better treated. In the same way a rebel in Jamaica in 1824, who committed suicide, openly admitted that his master was kind and indulgent, but defended his action on the ground that freedom during his lifetime had been withheld only by his master. It was a danger signal. Toussaint L’Ouverture in Saint Domingue had been a trusted slave coachman.
In 1816 came the turn of Barbados. It was a rude shock for the Barbadian planters who flattered themselves that the good treatment of the slaves would “have prevented their restoring to violence to establish a claim of natural right which by long custom sanctioned by law has been hitherto refused to be acknowledged.

The rebels, when questioned, explicitly denied that ill treatment was the cause. “They stoutly maintained however,” so the commander of the troops wrote to the governor, “that the island belonged to them and not to white men, whom they proposed to destroy, reserving the females.” The revolt caught the planters off their guard, and only its premature breaking out, as a result of the intoxication of one of the rebels, preventing it from engulfing the entire island.

The Jamaican planters could see in the revolt nothing but “the first fruits of the visionary schemes of a few hotheaded philanthropic theorists, ignorant declaimers, and bigoted fanatics.” All they could think of was urgent representation to the governor to recall a detachment that had sailed a few days before to England and to detain the remainder of the regiment in Jamaica.

But the tension was rapidly mounting. British Guiana in 1808, Barbados in 1816. In 1823 British Guiana went up in flames, for the second time. Fifty plantations revolted, embracing a population of 12.000. Here again the revolt was so carefully and secretly planned that it took the planters unawares. The slaves demanded unconditional emancipation. The governor expostulated with them – they must go gradually and not be precipitate. The slaves listened coldly. “These things they said were no comfort to them, God had made them of the same flesh and blood as the whites, that they were tired of being slaves to them, that they should be free and they would not work anymore.

The governor assured them that “if by peaceful conduct they deserved His Majesty’s favor they would find their lot substantially though gradually improved, but they declared they would be free.” The usual severities followed, the revolt was quelled, the planters celebrated and went their way, unheeding. Their sole solicitude was the continuation of the martial law that had been declared.

“Now the ball has begun to roll,” wrote the governor of Barbados confidentially to the Secretary of State for the Colonies when he heard the news of the Guiana revolt, “nobody can say when and where it is to stop,” The next year the slaves on two plantation on the parish of Hanover in Jamaica revolted. The revolt was localized and suppressed by a large military force and the ringleaders executed. The slaves as a group, however, could only with difficulty be restrained from interfering with the execution. In addition, the executed men, wrote the governor, “were fully impressed with the belief that they were entitled to their freedom and that the cause they had embraced was just and in vindication of their own rights.”

According to one of the leaders, the revolt had not been subdued, “the war had only begun.”

Outward calm was restored in British Guiana and in Jamaica, but the Negroes continued restless. “The spirit of discontent is anything but extinct,” wrote the governor of British Guiana, “it is alive as it were under its ashes, and the Negro mind although giving forth no marked indication of mischief to those not accustomed to observe it, is still agitated, jealous and suspicious.” The governor cautioned against further delay, not only for the sake of the intrinsic humanity and policy of the measure, but that expectation and conjecture might cease and the Negroes be released from that feverish anxiety which would continue to agitate them, until the question was set finitely at rest. No state of the Negro mind was so dangerous as one of the undefined and vague expectation.

This was in 1821. Seven years later the same discussions about property and compensation and vested rights were still going on. In 1831 the slaves took the matter into their own hands. An insurrectionary movement developed in Antigua. The governor of Barbados had to send reinforcements. In Barbados itself the idea prevailed that the King had granted emancipation but the governor was withholding the boon, while a rumor spread that, in the event of insurrection, the King’s troops had received positive order not to fire upon the slaves.

The climax came with a revolt in Jamaica during the Christmas holidays. Jamaica was the largest and most important British West Indian colony, and had more than half the slaves in the entire British West Indies.

With Jamaica on fire, nothing could stop the flames from spreading. An “extensive and destructive insurrection” broke out among the slaves in the western district. The insurrection, reported the governor, “was not occasioned by any sudden grievance or immediate cause of discontent, it had been long concerted and at different periods deferred.” The leaders were slaves employed in situations of the greatest confidence, who were consequently exempted from hard labor. “In their position motives no less strong than those which appear to have actuated them – a desire of effecting their freedom and in some cases of possessing themselves of the property belonging to their masters – could have influenced their conduct.”

The West Indian planters, however, saw in these slave revolts nothing but an opportunity of embarrassing their mother county and the humanitarians. From Trinidad the governor wrote as follows in 1832: “…. the island, as far as the slaves are concerned, is quite tranquil and very easily could be kept so if such was the desire of those who ought to guide their endeavours in this way… it would almost appear to be the actuating motives of some leading people here to drive the Government to abandon its principles, even at the risk of exciting the slaves to insurrection. “

The governor of Jamaica encountered the same situation: “There is no doubt that there would be those short sighted enough to enjoy at the moment any disturbance on the part of the Negroes arising from disappointment which these persons despairing of their own prospects would consider as some consolation from its entailing embarrassment on the British Government.” The West Indian planter, in the words of Daniel O’Connell, continued to sit, “dirty and begrimed over a powder magazine, from which he would not go away, and he was hourly afraid that the slave would apply a torch to it.”

But the conflict had left the stage of abstract political discussion about slaves as property and political measures. It had become translated into the passionate desires of people. “The question,” wrote a Jamaican to the governor, “will not be left to the arbitrament of a long angry discussion between the Government and the planter.

The slave himself has been taught that there is a third party, and that party himself. He knows his strength, and will asset his claim to freedom. Even at this moment, unawed by the late failure, he discusses the questions with a fixed determination.”

From Barbados the governor emphasized the “double cruelty” of suspense – it paralyzed the efforts of the planters, and drove the slaves, who had been kept in years of hope and expectation, to sullen despair. Nothing could be more mischievous, he warned, than holding out to the slaves from session to session that their freedom was coming. It was most desirable, he wrote a fortnight later, that “the state of this unhappy people should be early considered and decided on by the Home Authorities, for the state of delusion they are laboring under renders them obnoxious to their owners and in come instances increases the unavoidable misery of their condition.”

In 1833, therefor, the alternatives were clear: emancipation from above, or emancipation from below. 


Economic change, the decline of the monopolists, the development of capitalism, the humanitarian agitation in British churches, contending perorations in the halls of Parliament, had now reached their completion in the determination of the slaves themselves to be free. The Negroes had been stimulated to freedom by the development of the very wealth, which their labor had created.

Eric William’s Capitalism and Slavery was published in 1944. It became the foundation for many future studies of imperialism and economic development. The late Eric Williams was prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1961 until his death in 1981. Chapter 12, page 197: The Slaves and Slavery

Resistance movements all over the Caribbean:

The Maroons in Jamaica:

The Garifuna in St. Vincent and the Grenadines:


British Honduras now Belize where the Garifuna people
were taken to by the British Colonizers:


Haitian Revolution - Toussaint Louverture








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