Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Stealing freedom: attempts to re-enslave blacks in post-emancipation Barbados

As was the case across the Americas, formal emancipation in Barbados did not automatically lead to ‘freedom’ for formerly enslaved people.

Alana Johnson
7 September 2016
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Photo by Tom Hodgkinson//flickr.cc(by-nc-nd)

Emancipation for Barbadian blacks signaled a mere conditional and partial freedom, a position tantamount to re-enslavement. This was primarily because the island’s small size and dense population meant that it was easy for planters to dictate post-emancipation conditions by withholding jobs and housing until their terms were met. Planters devised policies that mocked blacks’ new status as ‘free’, constantly reminding them that they existed solely for the purpose of labour.

These policies were encapsulated in the infamous Masters and Servants Act of 1838, known popularly as the ‘Contract Act’. From this Act emerged the dark and brutal policy of ‘ejectment’. ‘Ejectment’ saw planters hold the threat of homelessness over black heads. Since blacks owned neither homes nor land, many lived in their former masters’ lodgings in exchange for continued work on the plantation– with the caveat that if they ever refused, they would be ‘ejected’.

Planters used this marriage of housing and labour to coerce work from the formerly enslaved and to retain social, political and economic control over them. Beyond stripping blacks of their choice over where and whom to work for – one of the fundamental components of liberal, capitalist ‘freedom’ – they used it to demand their continued obedience and deference. As the island’s foremost civil rights leader, Samuel Jackman Prescod, put it: “Whatever of slavery  [the planter] could retain, he was…unwilling to relinquish; and as servants attached to his property and subject to his daily, hourly surveillance and command, the negro was retained in a condition near…that of slavery”.

Emancipation for Barbadian blacks signaled a mere conditional and partial freedom, a position tantamount to re-enslavement.

This assault on black freedom festered like a wound in Barbadian society. Planters were especially determined to uproot people during the night, and seemed to relish disassembling houses and throwing peoples’ belongings onto the island’s roads. Many ejectments stemmed from impetuous decisions over trivial matters that planters felt threatened their authority. The result was the splitting up of families; the invasion of people’s right to privacy; the imposition of rent-fines, and an extreme insecurity of tenure coupled with a conditional freedom that left blacks feeling as though they still had no control over their own lives.

Commenting on the proliferation of ejectments, Prescod condemned the practice as rendering blacks “still subject, though nominally free, to the grossest and most wanton oppression of slavery”. One landmark case stands out. This was the ejectment of Betsy Cleaver. According to Prescod, at the time of her ejectment, Cleaver was “far advanced in pregnancy” and shared the house with her two young children. She stated that she had invested her own money and partially built the house from which she was ejected and that the crime for which she was thrown out was disobedience. In desperation, she and her children sought refuge with her uncle, “an old, infirm and nearly blind cripple”. However, the planter counterattacked by also targeting his house and ejecting all the occupants into the street.

Blacks’ responses to these attacks was to vote with their feet. By 1839, hundreds of young men sailed from Bridgetown, with reports indicating that many more were leaving the fields daily. Rather than give in to planter control and demands, they asserted their right to voice their opinions, to choose their work, and to protect their freedom and independence.

Yet planters retaliated once more, devising new ways to attack black freedom. Legislation against emigration was one powerful example. This was justified as necessary to protect blacks from unscrupulous interlopers out to trap them in a ‘new slavery’. Planters paraded as new ‘abolitionists’ wanting to shield blacks from their own potentially foolish decisions – and did so by preventing them from moving. Without doubt a case of wolves in sheep clothing, since planters’ real goal was to maintain control over black lives and labour.

As Prescod pointed out at the time, it was planters’ effort “first to plunge the peasantry into hopeless wretchedness, and next to prevent their escape from it [that] led to the emigration acts”. One of these – infamously dubbed ‘the Gagging Act’ – not only denied would-be migrants from exercising their freedom to go where they chose, but sought to mute the entire island by criminalising persons who counseled or advised migration. Numerous people were convicted and imprisoned.

After emancipation, planters devised new ways to attack black freedom.

The other major tactic planters used was propaganda – popularising stories of post-emigration suffering. Planters hired Joseph Thorne, a popular lay-preacher, formerly enslaved person, and member of the Barbados Auxiliary British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, to preach on the horrors of emigration. Although he had never visited it, he sought to dissuade blacks from migrating to British Guiana by denouncing it as a country surrounded on all sides by “swarms of venomous serpents, ferocious alligators and millions of mosquitos”. He and others like him painted emigration as a new slave trade which promoted kidnapping and tore families apart. The boats used to transport labourers were vilified as mirroring the conditions and cruelty associated with the Atlantic slave trade. The picture that was painted was so persuasive that it succeeded in dividing the loyalties of the Barbados Auxiliary British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society causing many members to question emigration.

Yet in the face of all these efforts, blacks remained reticent. Continuing to jealously guard their freedom, they pushed forward, determined not to succumb, and fighting to achieve unconditional freedom regardless of where they had to go to get it. Is it any surprise that over 1000 Barbadians arrived in British Guiana every year?

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