Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

After Emancipation: Aspects of Village Life in Guyana, 1869-1911

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

After Emancipation: Aspects of Village Life in Guyana, 1869-1911

Article excerpt

After emancipation the actions of many British Caribbean sugar plantation workers created conditions that led to new relations with former masters, separate communities away from the plantations for themselves, and renewed migration from Africa. In the decades that followed complete emancipation in 1838, ex-slaves in Guyana (formerly British Guiana) demonstrated that they were capable of finding ways to cope with changes in their world. One means of doing so was to buy land and establish village communities away from the conflict that characterized Caribbean post-slavery plantations.

Conflict persisted because sugar planters, even though compensated for their slave property, insisted on treating the workers as if they were still slaves. Workers knowing that their legal status had changed, resisted attempts to keep them in slave-like situations that fostered dependence. Worsening relationships in Guyana's post-slavery sugar industry promoted conditions for change. Key developments involved workers who bargained with plantation authorities for better wages and terms of labor and continued working on the plantations on a part- or full-time basis. Some workers ceased working in the sugar industry. These workers' actions encouraged sugar planters, between the 1840s and 1860s, to bring migrant laborers, some from Africa, as replacements or supplements to the remaining work force. The fusion of people from diverse African communities and the dynamics of village life during the decades that followed this new migration is the theme of this study.

In 1868, "The Registration of Births and Deaths Ordinance" was enacted. This law authorized the registering of all births and deaths in Guyana. Ordinance #10, as it was called, came into effect one year later. By that year also the British Slave Trade had been abolished some sixty-two years, complete emancipation and the employment of free labor had existed in the British Caribbean for thirty-one years, and liberated and free African migration to this region had officially terminated eight years previously. The birth registers for 1869, and many years after, show that in the intervening years Sierra Leoneans, Angolans, Congos, Krus, Akus, Black Portuguese, Black Cape Verdeans, Black West Indians, Colored, Colored West Indians, Creole natives of Anguilla, Barbados, St. Kitts, and British Guiana (Guyana) had formed various types of relationships. For instance, many had married while others formed common-law unions. More importantly, many of the parents of the children's births recorded in these registers were mixtures of these regional or African ethnic groups.(1)

The African presence in Guyana dates from the early seventeenth century. Dutch settlers and traders first brought Africans with them as they occupied three separate colonies, Essequibo in 1616, Berbice in 1627, and Demerara, somewhat later, in 1745. Dutch rule ended in 1796 with British occupation of the three colonies. The Netherlands, officially, ceded these colonies to the British in 1814. On 31 July 1831 Britain unified the three colonies into the colony, British Guiana.(2) Clearly, prior to the ending of the British Slave Trade continental Africans from diverse African countries entered Guyana as slaves, mainly to work on sugar-cane plantations. When this trade ended in 1807, Caribbean planters organized a short-lived inter-colony trade that guaranteed a supply of slave labor to that country. When slavery itself ended in 1833 the African and African-Guyanese population numbered 85,000. A few thousand free persons were present also. The Abolition Act was followed by a four-year period of apprenticeship before complete freedom was achieved in 1838.(3)

During the Apprenticeship Period, 1834-1838 (originally, designed by the British government to last until 1840) planters and apprentices (ex-slaves) came into constant conflict despite the presence of stipendiary magistrates. These magistrates functioned mainly to arbitrate disputes between the ex-slaves and planters or their representatives during this transitory period between slavery and freedom. …

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