Thoughts From Demerara

By way of a follow up to yesterday’s story The Link And The Legacy, and to conclude the piece, I came across two interested newspaper articles during the course of my research. I thought it would be fascinating to explore some of the views being discussed at the time, rather than our modern reflections on the issue.

These extracts from March and May 1833 debated the various pros and cons of the Slavery Abolition Act (due to take effect that year) and the proposed compensation payments to slave owners.

Edward Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies for the Whig Government of 1833 and an abolitionist, was given the responsibility of overseeing the Slavery Abolition Act. What follows, in the newpaper’s editorial, are the arguments set forth by Edward Stanley and the various opinions of the Demerara plantation owners:

Stanley - ‘It may be admitted now that their (the slaves) condition now is even worse than in 1804 , through over production at a ruinous cost; like that of stage coach proprietor who should determine to drive on at an increased pace every week, though he found his losses increasing the faster his horses travelled. The calculation of the extent attainable slave labour is to be easily understood is by the favourable comparison to English coach-horses. Good sound horses of certain age may be made to travel so many miles at a certain rate per hour, and no more can, on average, be got out of them by any art of man. It appears that the average produce of a negro's life is so many hundredweight of sugar, and neither skill nor cruelty can get more out of him, do what you will, under the system of working him, brute-like, through fear of the lash.

The principle being that the sufferer can compare the punishment with the endurance of painful unremitting toil. In Demerara 60,000 slaves required 170,000 lashes in 1829, to get the necessary quantum of labour from them; as this whipped labour reduced their number to 59,000, the next year 191,000 lashes were inflicted for the same purpose, under which the negroes’ numbers being reduced to 58,000, it was found necessary to increase the number of lashes the following year. Though the smaller the number of slaves, the more lashes are required; just as the coachman who will drive up hill with four horses must whip so much the more to keep up with another who drives six.’

Thoughts From Demerara

Edward Stanley

The slave owners yearned for the ‘high and palmy days of the slave trade’. Their argument was a simple one. If slaves were granted their freedom, they would inevitably work less hard. Therefore, production would be less efficient, leading to a rise in sugar prices.

As discussed in The Link And The Legacy, not only did the plantation owners and merchants receive huge compensations payments, as well as the continued labour of their slaves after emancipation (as retitled apprentices for a period initially set at 12 years), there was to be further recompense – again at the expense of the British taxpayer.

They were granted a monopoly of the home market for their sugar products, ‘so as to afford them a remunerating price upon diminished production ; thus paying the planters for reducing their production within the bounds attainable by healthful human labour.’

So, instead of paying wages to the slave labour force, thereby possibly increasing production, it was decided that prices would be inflated – assuming productivity declined - to compensate plantation owners instead.

The plan, of course, inflicted an even greater wrong on the slave population of the colonies, despite pretended to recognise their right to emancipation.

300,000 slaves, as described by Edward Stanley in 1833, are ‘now consigned to inevitable bondage for life, as they cannot in the course of nature survive to the end of twelve years which are the terms of their indentured labour. Besides which, it is well known that great numbers of the slaves are well inclined, even anxious, to labour for wages, and would instantly set to work on becoming free.’

Yet the lobby who opposed the abolition of slavery in 1833 still argued that ‘because the negroes appear to be incurably degraded by the slavery to which they have been exposed such as the privations, pauperism, and imprisonments’ it was unlikely that the quality of work expected would be high enough! Indeed, it was contended that the abolition of slavery ‘would prove ruinous to West India proprietors, without any measures being adopted to save them.’ It was further argued by the lobby of plantation owners and merchants that, ’if a community of slaves require 170,000 lashes to obtain barely remunerating produce in ten hours per day, what will the same community produce in seven hours and a half with no lashes? Whatever the conclusion is, Mr. Stanley's measure will never be allowed to pass; or, if passed, will be a dead letter or worse*. In the interval, even while we are writing, perils increase on every side.’ Anti- Abolitionists even argued that ‘no bank would discount a bill from a negro, nor a merchant take a negro’s bill in payment.’

(*A dead letter was a defunct or ineffectual piece of legislation)

The article finishes with a final plea to all level-headed and loyal subjects of the British Empire to see the benefits of ‘some practicable plan of immediate free-labour cultivation.’ By ‘free-labour cultivation’, they of course meant slavery under another name.

In March 1833 The Council of Merchants and Plantation Owners in Demerara produced a lengthy document for the British newspapers, in which they laid out the favourable conditions for slaves on their plantations. It was hoped to defuse and delay the upcoming Slavery Abolition Act:

‘As regards the slaves themselves: any immediate and unconditional emancipation would be any injury and curse rather than benefit and blessing, due to their present condition of incipient moral and religious cultivation and understanding as they do, freedom to be synonymous with idleness, and liberty to consist merely in a cessation from labour.’

The owners assured those in Britain that night work was almost abolished in Demerara; ‘that is to say boiling of sugar does not extend in any case beyond nine o'clock and all other work on the estate ceases at sunset, so that the boiling only falls upon few of the people.’

The plantation owners still had two tactics, in their attempt to convince the British public of their benevolence. Firstly, to try and invoke their sympathy, ‘all the expenses of the Colonial Government falls upon the Colonists, they pay the public functionary, and all the expense of the internal economy of the Colony, feeding, clothing, and otherwise’. And, finally, to show the British public of their great generosity toward the slaves:

And also in evidence, also, borne by the slaves themselves of the nature and extent of their enjoyments and amusements, we submit a copy of a card invitation to a Ball given at Georgetown, on Christmas day last, which must convince any one of the unreasonableness and absurdity of the charges preferred, against the planters for cruelty, oppression, etc.

Who are the root of British Guiana
Monday 24th December, 1832.’

To this we add a description of the slave ladies and gentlemen on the occasion. The ladies shone in Tamboured hook muslin frocks trimmed with blue satin; lace round the neck; waist ribands and buckles; white silk stockings ; blue satin slippers; gold and other ear-rings; gold neck-chains; coral, garnet, and silver necklaces, and bracelets; real Madras handkerchiefs, to tie their heads—The dress of the gentlemen was black or blue dress coats; white Marseilles vests; fine cravats; silk or fine cotton hose black satin or cloth knee breeches, silk handkerchief; finger rings, and breastpins, with variety of essences and perfumery. The Supper table on this occasion displayed 2 turkeys ; ducks - fowls; hams, 17lbs. each; one round of corned beef, 15lbs.; 1 piece of roast beef, 15lbs. ; 4 large cakes, upward of 40lbs ; pigeon pies; a variety of tarts. Small cakes, etc, 20 dozen ginger beer, 1 dozen Madeira Wine, liquors; 3 quarts brandy; quarts old rum; bread, etc”

From this description, our readers may probably suppose the ball to have been one amongst the white inhabitants of Georgetown, but such is not the case. The ladies who gave this fete are the Demerara Creole Slaves, the so-called poor oppressed and degraded slaves! This was their holiday festivity, and in place of being opposed or checked in their amusements they were encouraged by their masters.

And do we here discover a trace cruelty and oppression, or a denial of comforts and happiness to the slaves? It would be hard to find anywhere that the labourers of free Europe can participate in such enjoyments and festivities? So far are the slaves from being overworked, or badly fed, that it is proved from indubitable evidence that their labour is much less than that of any other working class in any civilised state.’

In all of the many newspaper articles that I scoured, dated from 1780 to 1833, I was unable to find one that included the thoughts, views or opinions of any of the Demerara slaves.

Thoughts From Demerara