Positive Emancipation

first_imgOne hundred and eighty-two years ago in1834, subsequent to the British Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act (1833), slavery ended in the British West Indian territories: the African slaves were to be “emancipated” from the condition of being “chattel”. The British Government allocated the sum of £20 million (the equivalent of £16.5 billion today, when calculated as wage values) to compensate the owners of the slaves and nothing to the slaves.They were not even “emancipated” immediately: they had to work for stipulated hours and wages on the plantations as “apprentices” for four years. While the British insisted they abolished slavery for “humanitarian” reasons, their humanity did not extend to not denying humanity to the slaves, and leaving the latter without compensation for their labour provided free of cost for hundreds of years. This injustice is the basis of the claims for “reparations” in the present.Back in the middle of the last century, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a seminal distinction between “negative and positive Liberty”. As articulated by Wikipedia: “Positive liberty is the possession of the capacity to act upon one’s free will, as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint on one’s actions.” From this perspective, we can now appreciate that Emancipation only granted the Africans “negative liberty or freedom”: the planters could no longer force them to work on the plantations legally.But what about “positive Liberty” – their capacity to act in accordance to their own “free will”? After enduring the kind of suffering at the hands of the planters which resulted, in the words of one sociologist, “social death”, some may assume that the Africans would now want to exact revenge on their former oppressors. The British Government thought so, since they launched a Police Force in 1839 that was not organised like the one in England to “keep law and order” with batons, but one modelled on the armed Irish version designed to suppress uprisings. Very soon, however, the Africans demonstrated they simply wanted to live as humans.One path they chose to accomplish this goal was to earn wages that could provide them with the basic necessities of life – food, housing and clothes. But even before they were in a position to demand higher wages as “free people” after 1838, the planters launched a programme to checkmate their aspirations. In 1835, they started to introduce impoverished Portuguese from the island of Madeira and also free Africans from other West Indian islands as “indentured labourers” that had to work at a depressed wage scale for a fixed number of years – two to four years.While a strike by the “free” Africans in 1842 succeeded and their wages were increased, another one in 1847/48 failed because by now the Portuguese and West Indian indentureds (augmented by some Indians) could provide labour to the planters at rates that were satisfactory for them. Africans were thus denied their positive freedom to become wage labourers.While in some islands like Barbados there was no alternative to the free Africans remaining on the plantations and working for the subsistence wages offered ( this is what made so many of them willing to come to Guyana as indentured labourers,) in Guyana there was land for possible farming. First, there were Crown Lands on which they could squat and then there were several plantations abandoned by planters who took their compensation and returned to Britain or the US –- up for sale. Both options were taken up after 1848 when the majority of the freed Africans left the plantations.But while they bought plantations, squatted and went into the interior in search of gold, all sorts of “legal” barriers were placed in the way of free Africans by officialdom to stymie their will for positive freedom. Today, the cumulative effects of those barriers, which became systemic, still loom large in the psyches of large swathes of African Guyanese.Reparations must be demanded to deliver positive freedom.last_img read more