Post Emancipation Caribbean Essay

Published: 2020-04-22 15:06:56
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A close analysis of the Caribbean societies reveals a history characterized by a resistant culture, resistance both to colonialism and the social equalities. This resistance can be traced back to Africa during the heydays of slave trade when the blacks were in voyage to the Caribbean plantations where they were to become source of cheap labor. Blacks were to be for a long period, condemned to immense oppression and intimidation. This would continue even after the emancipation.

The emancipation process started off in earnest in 1838 after the British passed a law outlawing slavery. However, whereas the end of slavery was supposed to induce optimism and economic progression of the emancipated lot, the case of Caribbean was uniquely disappointing, not much progress could be observed. This watered down the hopes held by the abolitionists. A culture of oppression had been ingrained deep into the system. This continued despite the emancipation.

            With the emancipation law in force, the colonialists and the large plantations owners had tried apprenticeship, which however, did not see the light of success. Apprenticeship was in the bid to transform the slaves into useful freemen by making it mandatory that they remain behind working in the plantations for a certain period of time. The key rationale behind this apprenticeship was to secure a continuous flow of labor for a number of years before the plantations could adjust to the free market labor. However, this program by 1938 had flopped badly. There were evidences of some states that administered emancipation completely without the option of an apprenticeship, Barbados is one of them.

            The cruel irony is that though the emancipation law was passed and excessive hostility lessened to a certain degree, it did not ease the suffering of the ex-slaves. In fact not many could be called free as they still had to rely on their masters, coupled with the great influence the colonialists and estates owners wielded over them; at political, economic and social level. Many had envisioned that the emancipation of slaves in line with the economic trends elsewhere, especially in Northern America, would lead to increased productivity. The large plantation owners were hoping that the slaves would remain behind to work for their masters, at a pay though.

            Abolitionists were hoping for a situation where the freed men would improve their economic status, but this was not going to be the case. Whereas the different states in the Caribbean followed different patterns in the struggle, Haiti took to an armed struggle while in Cuba the process was rather gradual. However, the same story lies, the expectation that the slaves and the abolitionists had been hoping for were not to be realized. Many blamed this on the colonial establishments, and the plantation owners. Stagnation in the progress and expansion of the ex-slaves economy had much to blame on the colonial civil service bureaucracy.

As emancipation took shape, the colonial establishments gained more ground imposing severe structural constraints. Just as there is neocolonialism in the former colonies, in the Caribbean there was neo-slavery, and it was to be felt for long as Bridget B and Kevin A notes: (1999,pg 4)

Then as now suspicious existed that the old order was lingering on; the old cries of neo-slavery are reminiscent of the modern cries of neo-colonialism. And just as one can be sure that what is happening now will have a decisive influence on the future, so did the post emancipation years leave their unmistakable imprint on the times that followed.

The emancipations of the slaves in the Caribbean were a traumatizing moment for both the blacks and the creoles. The process was more prolonged in the areas under the French colonies. The anti slavery sentiments in the French territory were less pronounced then in the British Empire in the Caribbean.

Whereas the role of the church in opposing slavery wars more pronounced in Britain, in France it lacked the necessary impetus to push the regimes then to make such a radical decision. Emancipation in the French Antilles was postponed until later in the years after the British passed the antislavery laws. This early emancipation in the British territories as opposed to the French and the Dutch can be explained by the presence of the new non-conformist religious movements who wielded insurmountable influence in the government.

Missionaries too had a role to play offering first hand experience of the slaves back home. Economists too had come to believe that slave labor was no longer productive and that the planters were better off with free labor. Adam Smith was a key proponent to this. The economy in Britain was taking a new shape and was no longer relying on sugar imported from Caribbean and hence there was a growing reduction in the demand for slaves. The rapid industrialization was also changing fortunes and slave labor was slowly loosing its tenacity. It is in such an environment that the abolitionists could pick momentum and succeed in passing the Emancipation Act.

The formal ending of slavery did not lead to overnight equality as many could have espoused. Power relations remained as they were before, skewed in the favor of the whites. The means and instruments of economic production still remained in the arms of the whites. Though however, this does not in anyway underscore the importance of emancipation and particularly the horrendous acts meted out against the black population. The end to slavery signaled the end to the blatant whipping, the inhumane shifts and general abuse and violation of some basic rights. It also meant, theoretically though, that the freed men had the freedom to choose how they wished to lead their lives away from the plantations.

This however was very different in practice, although not all the ex-slaves remained in the yoke of bondage, majority were emotionally bound and chained into the system remaining with only some meager bargaining powers. It is only by resorting to group strength, that they would find a rather not so solid footing.

Bridget continues to writes about one such ex-slave Medouze who says that after emancipation he danced with joy and went running all over Martinique because, for a long time, I had wanted to flee, to run away. But when the intoxication of my freedom was spent, I was forced to remark that nothing had changed for me or for my comrades in chains. This was the feeling held by most of the freed men, who had known bondage for the whole of their lives.

The post emancipation dynamics in the Caribbean can be understood as an epic clash of laborers and the freed slaves. In the large plantations, the planters had come to rely on the cheap labor from the slaves to a point that the two had become inalienable. The situation now demanded that semi-selfdoms be introduced, a system that would see the ex-slaves labor in the plantation at a small wage. There were some of the ex-slaves who wanted nothing to do with the plantations, but the dynamics of the market economy would not permit such luxuries as most would later find themselves toiling for their farmer masters at meager wage.

Considerable numbers though left the plantations en masse; to build their small houses in the rationale that working for their masters was like legitimizing the inhumane treatment experienced before. This was an epic struggle with the planters trying as much as possible to maintain the status quo and the ex-slaves yearning for independence both politically and economically. Some of the ex-slaves were not willing to return to the plantations under whichever conditions thus creating a massive shortage in the latters supply.

 The planters on the other hand were yearning for the maintenance of the semi selfdom and were targeting new imports of indentured laborers. With these new imports, the planters were hoping to kill two birds with a single stone. With some of the ex-slave gone to work in the estates and unwilling to do so in the plantations, the new imports would provide immense competition forcing the ex-slaves to seek alternative opportunities in the abhorred plantations, this would have been at the planters own terms. The indentured labor was an almost free labor and together with the ex-slaves the planters would have an unlimited source of cheap labor to exploit. The immediate post emancipation period was conveniently, characterized by a huge presence of immigrant laborers sourced from India, China, Africa as well as Europe.

The description of the Caribbean people as free in the post emancipation period is compounded by the presence of the yoke of colonialism. It is alongside this concept that the conditions in the Caribbean can be understood. Despite being free from slavery, conditions of the ex-slaves were simply intolerably full of social and political hardships. Mostly these emanated from lack of land.

A large portion of the Caribbean fertile land was under sugar. Other crops such as banana and coffee were grown in Jamaica for example but were not structurally restricted to the large plantations, peasantry was slowly gaining root there. However the plantations continued to expand their farms at the expense of the ex-slaves (David Northrup, 1995).

To the close of the nineteenth century, sugar depression would largely hit the planters badly, forcing them to abandon sugar and diversify into other crops. In doing so, they required more land, thus pushing the peasants further. The living conditions of the ex-slaves who constituted the large portion of the poor in the Caribbean societies were horrible. People were living in closely herded places in what was being called barrack rooms thus being the root cause to all forms of social diseases (H. Tinker, 1974).

Most of the colonies in the Caribbean had hardships dealing with the calls for emancipation. It has to be understood that the structures and system of slavery and indenture hood had been instituted for a number of centuries and was difficult to change. This explains why most of the economically dominant classes in Caribbean were unwilling to change and also the ex-slaves were unable to cope with the new found rhetorical freedom. The so called independence was more theoretical than practical, the economic and political institutions as well as culture ingrained in the people was taking too much time to be transformed.

The dominant whites were unwilling to give civil rights to the now persistent black minorities. They knew that by granting political rights, their economic upper hand was being threatened. The situation was further compounded by the rising costs in labor. The sugar plantation by then was experiencing hardships that not even the indentured labor could ease, although to a greater extent it saw the plantations sail through the turbulent times (Eric Foner, 1983).

Emancipation of the slaves, though not leading to the desired productivity and individual freedoms as espoused by many was not all that grim. It led to renewed dynamism in the peasant class, which comprised of the ex-slaves. Many sought refuge in the free land, quickly clustering into villages, pooling their meager resources together through cooperatives.

Those that had none to start with lived as squatters in the uncultivated large portions of lands trying to fend for themselves through subsistence farming. These villages were a large source of wage labor to the plantations. The situation was similar in almost all the states ranging from Jamaica, Antigua and Barbados, where these settlements were increasing at a huge rate (H. Tinker, 1974).

Emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean did not mean that the post emancipation period would be characterized by equality in income and political rights, rather the opposite became true. The planters had grown used to the idea of cheap and free labor and were unwilling to change. Some scholars claim that reasons for replacing slave labor with the indenture labor were political rather than political, they wanted to maintain the tradition of free labor. The labor market had changed after the emancipation to the planters; this had to be polarized through imported indentured labor.

The British were the first to try out the workability of the indentured labor, and this would start taking place in 1938 as soon as it emerged that apprenticeship was bearing no fruits. The French and Dutch compatriots were yet to emancipate the slaves.

However these two did not necessarily introduce indentured slaves afterwards. The post emancipation period, as most scholars have come to agree, did not reflect the aspirations of the planters, the ex-slaves and the abolitionists. The much talked economic excellence of the free labor was only a pipe dream in the Caribbean as opposed to North America, especially as they sought to replace it with the indentured labor (Eric Foner, 1983).

In conclusion, it is more than apparent that what the stake holders in the emancipation hoped to see accomplished was aborted mid process. Abolitionists had hoped to see the ex-slaves kick off a journey into improved economic standards and religious excellence. The ex-slaves after the emancipation were hoping for more economic and civil rights. This however did not happen as fast as they would have wished it to happen. The much-talked freedom was rhetorical.

A number of Caribbean societies had engaged in an armed struggle to severe the yoke of slavery. It was not an easy task. But even after slavery the colonial political and economic institutions could not let go. They were still bonded into the chains of neo-slavery and colonialism. Talk of freedom won, freedom frustrated.

Replacing the slave labor with the indentured did not improve much and the independence that was being sought was not coming. The economic and social conditions of the minority groups especially the blacks were far much wanting. The whites did not fully introduce and prepare them on the dynamics of market economy. The ex-slaves and the planters were always on a collision path, a fact further compounded by colonialism.


Bridget Breton, Kevin A Yelvington, 1999. The colonial Caribbean university press of Florida.

David Northrup, 1995. Indentured labor in the age of imperialism, 1834-1922. Cambridge

Eric Foner, 1983. Nothing but freedom. Emancipation and its legacy. Baton Rouge and London.

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