“Emancipation Day” serves to remind us that this nation was founded on slavery, the paradigmatic instance of human inequality. Settlement by the Europeans of what is now known as Guyana started in the second decade of the 17th century when the Dutch enslaved some of the Indigenous Peoples they encountered along the Pomeroon and Essequibo rivers.
As with the Spanish who preceded them in other parts of the “New World”, they soon switched to importing slaves from West Africa to fill the labour demands of the plantation economy they were developing. Ironically, the Indigenous Peoples were now hired to recapture slaves who escaped into the jungles in their quest for freedom.
Dutch plantations soon spread to the Berbice and Demerara rivers. However, it was not until the fertility of those soils was exhausted, almost two centuries later, that the critical decision to move to the coast was made. While this may be of surprise to some, given the present nature of our settlement patterns, it must be understood that the Guyana coastland, then and now, is at least 5 to 6 feet below sea level at high tide.
The land was inundated with salt water and, over the millennia, had been formed from sedimentation of the silt brought thousands of miles away from the discharge of the Amazon River. As a result, the Guyana coastland was actually uninhabitable mangrove swamps, which had to be drained and “empoldered” to accommodate plantations.
It was a matter of fortuity that the Dutch had vast experience in effectuating exactly such land rehabilitation from waterlogged soils back in their homelands, utilising a combination of dykes/dams and digging ditches/canals. However, while the Dutch inhabitants supplied the labour in the Netherlands, in Guyana, African slaves were dragooned to perform that mammoth task.
Cuffy’s 1763 Rebellion should remind us that, in the second half of the 18th century, most plantations were still “upriver”. Although the British finally took possession of the three colonies of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara in 1814, after those colonies had changed hands several times between the British, the French and the Dutch from 1796, most plantations had moved to the coast.
Therefore, when the 82,000 African slaves were finally freed in 1838 after their 4-year “Apprenticeship”, the “movement of the plantations” was confined to the coast, and this is where the “village movement” took hold.
Unquestionably, Emancipation was a seismic event in Guyana in more ways than one. Notably, it was a decision based on economics rather than on the “humanitarian” impulses of the British, as has been touted by their historians. This circumstance had long-lasting repercussions on the freed African population.
Britain wanted to move from mercantilism to “free trade”, to open up new markets for her manufactured goods; but equalising the duties on sugar from other producers, such as Brazil and Cuba, which still practised slavery, meant the West Indian planters would face tremendous pressures after they would have lost their price advantage for the British market. After the British Government compensated the planters for losing their “slave property” (but did not compensate the “property”), many of them abandoned their plantations and left Guyana.
The remaining planters feared the freed slaves would decamp the plantations after Emancipation and hedged their bets by importing Portuguese indentured labour from the impoverished island of Madeira and freed African slaves from the smaller West Indian islands such as Barbados. However, there was no alternative source of employment in the latter locales, and the Guyanese wages were comparably higher, even as local African workers started to move off the plantations.
These locals successfully struck for higher wages in 1842, but this only increased the rate of abandonment of plantations, and in 1847, the planters held off their challenge when they struck again. The Portuguese, West Indians, Africans (seized from slave traders) and Indian indentures provided the labour, and by the following year, most Africans had moved off the plantations.
Guyana had become a “plural society” after Emancipation, with all the challenges that implied.