Did you know that full Emancipation was on August 1, 1838?
That unforgettable day, passed without the upheaval feared by the authorities. Even the planters’ main trepidation – an exodus of freed people from the estates did not transpire immediately.
When the workers eventually left the estates, it was not so much as to flee the memories of the horrors of slavery but, ironically, came as a result of planters’ attempt to make them stay.
During slavery, planters had held certain obligations towards their slaves: they had to provide shelter, food, clothing and medical care.
With Emancipation, these responsibilities were terminated and the sick and the elderly in particular, found themselves in a difficult situation and were suddenly reliant on relatives and friends.
Ultimately, local government put in place taxes and institutions to deal with the tasks of providing hospitals, pauper shelters and schools, but that took some time to materialize.
A bigger shock to the freed people was that they lost the use of their homes and gardens. Few ex-slaves in St. Lucia were actively evicted after August 01, 1838. Knowing one mode of interaction with the former slaves, confrontation and complete domination, planters did not stop to think what were the aims and aspirations of these newly freed people. Instead, they second-guessed the freed people’s motivations, feared what they anticipated, (an exodus from the estates, labor shortage and financial ruin) and tried to forcibly prevent it. Anyway, in doing so their fears became a self –fulfilling prophecy.
According to one Douglas Hall, “as much as they hated working under the whip, ex-slaves were actually quite attached to their houses and provision gardens on the plantations, which they identified as private space; ‘home’ in a hostile environment”.
Many of the ex-slaves were hesitant to pack up and leave the place where they were born. Given freedom from slavery and a genuine choice, most were happy to remain near the plantations – growing provisions for themselves and the local market, and working for money whenever they wanted to. Not taking sentimental attachment to ’home’ into account, planters used their right of eviction as a means of controlling labor.
Initially, they proposed that freed slaves could continue to live in their houses and grow their gardens free of rent if they donated their labor to the estates as and when needed.
Workers railed against that, feeling that while freedom was given to them with one hand, the other hand robbed them of the roofs over their heads and the gardens that maintained them.
Did you know in an alternative proposal, planters allowed ex-slaves to stay as tenants and pay rent?
Although obscuring the connection between work and home/garden somewhat, this continued to tie workers into a bond with one particular planter and many chose to leave.
The third option was one whereby the laborer paid rent for his house and garden but was at liberty to work on any estate of his choice. This conclusively severed the hated tie with massa and that was for most workers the most agreeable solution.
When freed people left the estates, they did so not to escape the memories of slavery but to protest the inequality and disappointments of freedom.
Source: A History of St. Lucia by Harmsen, Ellis & Devaux -2012
This feature runs every Tuesday and Thursday. It is compiled by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]