EMANCIPATION: A LABOUR NARRATIVE OF RESISTANCE by Alva Allen
|This article is a lightly edited extract from a paper written by Comrade Alva Allen entitled THE NATURE AND AGENDA OF THE EARLY LABOUR MOVEMENT BETWEEN 1830 AND 1940|
Slavery cannot be viewed simply as a social system that discriminated against Africans because of some concocted reason that they were black and an inferior race, capable of backbreaking labour. One commentator argued that “direct slavery is as much the product of bourgeois society as machinery. Without slavery, there could be no sugar, coffee nor cotton; without sugar, there could be no modern industry.” He also contends that it was slavery that gave the colonies their value and created world trade which was the precondition for large scale industry.
It is in this context that the history of the early labour movement can be said to have begun. The nature of the early labour movement was largely shaped by the impact of chattel slavery upon enslaved Africans. The slaves were treated as the chattel or property of the European Capitalist planters in the same way that their horses, cows and buildings were treated.
To rationalize the ruthless oppression and exploitation, all types of racist theories and arguments were developed. It was claimed that African people were not from the general family of humans, they were the offspring of “Ham, an unholy outcast…” Africans were from the orang-utan species
As in all capitalist societies, power is concentrated in the hands of those who own and control the means of production. They use this power to shape the activities of the government. It was no different in the colonies. The politics of the day was the rule of the minority planter class through colonial officials over the majority- the early labour movement.
This domination was exercised through a variety of controls e.g. slave codes (French Code Noir, municipal councils and courts). The majority of the population, namely the enslaved Africans, had no civil rights, least of all any say in government. Limited rights and privileges were sometimes extended to the free coloureds and the tiny lot of free Africans, though on a discriminatory basis, to try to shore up the system. Indeed, colonialism was a system of political and social inequality for the slaves.
The history of mankind has always shown that, the enslavement, oppression and exploitation of a people will be equally matched by their militant struggles for freedom.
It is therefore submitted that it is the very fact of the capitalist enslavement of African labour that produced a Labour Movement whose nature was one of militant resistance to such enslavement and whose agenda was one of freedom and the Right to build a Just and Fair Society.
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This militant resistance was displayed in the many slave revolts throughout the colonies and included the St. John’s Revolt (US Virgin Islands) in 1733 which was described as the first successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere. There was also the Latulipe Revolt in Guadeloupe in 1737; Tackey’s War in 1760 in Jamaica; Grenada Maroons in 1765; Dominica Maroons in 1785; Suriname Rebellion in 1785; Cuba riots in 1795; British Virgin Islands Revolt in 1790. This resistance by the early Labour Movement of the African slaves was continued throughout history by successive generations in response to the principal contradiction between oppressor and oppressed. It continues up to today but in new ways and different forms.
In the period just before Emancipation, History bears testimony to the fact that the agenda of the early labour movement was made crystal clear by the events of the Haitian Revolution. This Agenda was not only to be emancipated from slavery but to win the right to self-determination through Independence so that the society can be transformed into a Just and Fair Society. This was how the contradiction between Metropole and colony would be resolved.
British Jamaica and French Haiti had become the two largest and most brutal slave societies in the region at the time. Between1742 – 1832, there were at least 13 recorded uprisings with the “Baptist War” in 1832 ushering in the Emancipation Act in 1833 in the British colonies. This development cannot be viewed in isolation from what transpired in Haiti. The French Revolution of 1789-1791 sparked off rebellions in the French colonies.
Moreover, the free coloureds demanded and won French citizenship which did not sit well with the local ruling class in Haiti. The African slaves took advantage of this and demanded their freedom. The contradiction between master and slave, and metropole and colony developed with intensity. The militant resistance to slavery finally forced France to abolish slavery in 1794 in Haiti and all her other colonies. This served to inspire slaves in other colonies to fight on for their freedom as well.
The following year, the cradle and centre of the African slave trade, Curacao was rocked by a massive slave rebellion led by Tula. The writing was on the wall. Freedom was the unmistakable first item on the Agenda of the early Labour movement as slaves unflinchingly marched into the 1830s. Hence the intensity of the rebellions in Jamaica as previously mentioned. The struggle against French colonialism finally came to a head in 1804 when Haiti declared her Independence after roundly defeating the French troops. The first item on the agenda of the early Labour Movement was now achieved in Haiti. Now on to the other colonies.
As militant resistance continued, the British were forced to abolish the slave trade in 1807. Like the Acts of Amelioration in 1798, this was not enough to satisfy the Agenda of the early Labour Movement. The determined will of Harriet Jacob infused the great Jamaican slave revolt led by Samuel Sharpe in 1832. Emancipation from slavery was now a foregone conclusion hastened by the realization of the colonialists that the abolition of slave labour and its replacement by wage labour would be far more economical in the cost of sugar production. However, the architects of Emancipation in the British colonies sought to abolish slavery in order to prevent the far reaching changes that had occurred in Haiti.
Thus by their continued militant resistance against slavery, Britain was forced to abolish slavery through the first Emancipation Act on 31st July 1833. Of course the planters were to be compensated financially for the loss of labour while the ex-slaves would be under a new form of slavery called apprenticeship for a period of 6 years, reduced to four, again by militant resistance, after which wage slavery would begin.
Based on the above, it can be seen that the Emancipation of the slaves was nothing short of a dialectical process in which the two competing classes – slave owner and slaves, battled with each other for the achievement of their own class agendas. It was therefore colonialism and chattel slavery that caused the enslaved African to be imbued with a nature of militant resistance which was inextricably necessary to achieve the Agenda of Freedom. This however did not negate passive and other forms of resistance including “temporary accommodation” which contributed to the achievement of the agenda.