Recognised everywhere in the Caribbean as the day the Abolition Act was passed in England freeing the slaves, August 01, 1834 comes back to life in this book by Hugh “Tommy” Payne. Slave labour was about to become a thing of the past but in British Guiana, as elsewhere, it didn’t happen quite so fast. As our former National Archivist reminds us, the slaves woke up next morning ready to celebrate freedom only to discover fresh obstacles and gauntlets.
Ten Days in August 1834 suggests that like most things in this world the situation was a little more complicated, the move to freedom stymied by plantocrat resistance, slave naive optimism and the unhurried loosening of controls in the Colonial Office. Payne has gone to great lengths examining documents & records to extract a narrative of events surrounding the exercise of power on the Essequibo Coast.
On the day after the Abolition Law came into effect, slaves on the plantation La Belle Alliance believing they had been granted the day off did not report for work. Incensed by this behaviour Charles Bean, Attorney of La Belle Alliance, showed up with plantation overseers and reminded the labourers of their “obligations”.
The slaves were threatened and coerced. They remained defiant. A serious crisis developed. It was defused when the Reverend John Duke who occupied the Parish Manse nearby interceded and brokered a truce of sorts. Slaves were prepared to work if the planters agreed to adequate remuneration for the extra labour that day.
The following day, Sunday August 03, 1834, a determined Charles Bean returned with a military force. This time his armed men proceeded to slaughter pigs which were raised and valued by the slaves. Bean’s plan was to enrage the slaves and provoke the kind of protest that might encourage the Governor to declare a state of emergency and delay the abolition process.
Major Bean had been instrumental in putting down the Demerara Slave Insurrection years before in 1823. Then the slaves were under the impression that an Amelioration Act passed by the British House of Commons providing better conditions was intended to free them, and that their freedom was now being withheld. The rebellion was crushed. Bean hoped to follow the same procedure of provocation and harsh reprisal. His plan didn’t succeed because a slave leader named Damon showing great perspicacity stepped forward and advised the slaves to control the rage and fall back on a new strategy of passive resistance.
The following Monday (August 04, 1834) Damon staged a peaceful demonstration inside the Trinity Parish Churchyard, unfurling a flag and preparing to spend the entire day. He was joined by labourers from other plantations. They did not disperse until a face-to-face meeting was arranged with Governor Carmichael Smyth outside the church.
New lines of division emerged that led to strained relations among the colonists. Sympathetic to the cause of the restive labourers were the Governor Sir James Carmichael Smyth, recently appointed from the Bahamas, and held in high regard by the Secretary of State for the Colonies; and The Reverend John Duke whose church the slaves attended and who had interceded on their behalf.
On the other side representing plantation interests were an array of individuals. Among them, Major Charles Bean, the pig slaughtering Attorney; Josias Booker, Manager of an Estate who had arrived in Demerara “to seek his fortune”; William Hillhouse, who wrote a series of letters in the Royal Gazette of British Guiana critical of the Abolition proposals; and George Bagot, High Sheriff and First Fiscal of British Guiana, “a trusted confidant of the leading Planters.”
These quaint titles carried considerable weight back in the days. In a time of disrupted certainties, status and responsibility were carefully calibrated. Slaves had to pass through a process of identity reclassification before they were eventually freed. The Governor, for instance, was forced to send a memorandum to the appointed Slave Protector explaining the following: “I am quite aware that a Slave may be employed by his Master in any Work he may think proper. But as after 1st of August no Apprenticed Labourer can be employed as Praedial Labourer who is registered as a Non-Praedial”.
Payne is an earnest scholar-historian, but in this book he is less interested in casting one group against the other in an oft-referenced duel of colonial rights vs. wrongs. The Abolition Act shook the colony to its foundations, pitting settled, old power against a nascent labour movement, and intensifying fears and hatred. Events in England, as when the Secretary of State for the Colonies resigned, proved just as important to developments in the colony. Payne attempts to peel away public faces to show furrows of alarm and hardening will.
Narrow self-interest and rising anxieties about the colony’s fate struggle within the performance of duties. Reverend Duke for all his religious compassion urged the slaves in sermons to “practice obedience to the Higher Powers” in heaven and on earth. As a slave owner himself he worried about the adequacy of the compensation he would receive once they were freed. Josias Booker found an opportunity to move up from Estate manager to entrepreneur. He petitioned influential people in the Colonial Office and elsewhere in an effort to secure the rights to valuable Crown Land. His plan was to plant & profit from commercial crops.
Governor Carmichael Smyth, perceived by the planters as someone “who had come blundering in from the Bahamas”, eventually realized that Bean’s reports of incidents on the Essequibo coast were exaggerated and designed to force him to proclaim Martial Law. As Governor he refused to be outmaneuvered. He arrested and put on trial those who took part in that “outrageous” passive resistance exercise. In the aftermath he used his power to quash the sentences of 32 prisoners, but he allowed the hanging of the ringleader, Damon, to go forward on account of “a need to uphold respect for the law”.
For Payne the hanging of Damon would seem to be as significant for Guiana as the price paid by celebrated heroes like Cuffy and Kowsilla. Damon, he reminds readers, was hanged on October 13, 1834 “one day after the 342nd Anniversary of Columbus’ landing in what he erroneously but cunningly termed the New World’. This single local event and its repercussions, Payne suggests, is equal in weight to that well-documented global other.
He makes a similar claim of “significance” for the slaughter of the pigs which led to the passive resistance exercise in churchyard, pointing out that years later, in 1838, the new Governor of British Guiana, Sir Henry Light, in a proclamation to the Colony, “took cognizance of what had taken place in those Ten Days of August 1834”, and expressed the hope that it would serve as a model “for the freedom of millions of Slaves now held in bondage in other countries.”
Payne’s methodology has been to pour over correspondence, documents & reports kept by colonial administrators and preserved in the national Archives of Guyana. Based on these and speculative oral accounts, Payne makes “plausible deductions” of what took place in those 10 days. His aim is to provide “information and enjoyment” to the general reader (one wonders how much “enjoyment” readers will find in these grim accounts); but in his effort to reanimate events in the past Payne forgoes his scholar’s language and picks up unfamiliar prose tools.
Documents on the page alternate with explaining paragraphs, but Payne often slips into editorializing using exclamation points, underlining and bold type to make sure you get his point. Sometimes in flights of imagination, when for instance he attempts to put the reader in the middle of tense developments, the prose stiffens into ornate (1830-1930s) sentences, as in: “Bongggg! The last of twelve strokes from the clock in the hall of the ‘great House’ on Pln Richmond reverberated its way to final silence.” Or when he writes: “The position of the sun in the sky, as it moved on its exorable course to the western horizon, indicated that the hour of five o’clock had arrived.”
His preface sets you up with a summary of what’s to come, and a postscript includes a summary of what you have just read. Add to that Payne’s tendency to retrace the same incident from a different viewpoint, and the reader might feel frequently bowled over by a repetition of events. Oddly, for a work dealing with a critical juncture in our history, there are no photos of people or places. This results in a parched-savannah dryness in text and texture that might have been relieved by a few glossy illustrations.
Flaws aside, 10 Days in August 1834 is a fairly engaging work. It joins equally illuminating explorations of power & resistance dramas in our past by UWI Professors Alvin Thompson and Brian Moore. Payne’s canvas is broad, his narrative many-angled as he shifts the focus among colonial adversaries and probes what (he imagines) they were thinking. He has attempted a “linking of fragments” into a cohesive narrative that gives new shape to past knowledge.
When you think about it, events that later pushed Guyana from colonial status to Independence, with its cast of famous names and infamous betrayals, cry out for a similar path-breaking approach and analysis; for narratives that go beyond the perpetuation of ethnic demons. Greater distance from more recent transitions – ‘the Burnham dictatorship’, for instance, and the raw emotions it still evokes – will no doubt encourage a neutral & comprehensive appraisal of that period: the interplay of agendas, real-life issues & circumstance; the protagonists’ obsessions; the seeds of disintegration in the exercise of power.
Until then we remain at the mercy of newspaper people, that daily bombardment of pugnacious argument & naming; the news that hides the old, still-lingering dependence; and younger, cynical minds for whom our history would seem little more than a morass of ideological posture, victim bitterness and death anniversaries. Soft targets, blunt instruments.
Book Reviewed: Ten Days in August 1834: Hugh “Tommy” Payne: Caribbean Diaspora Press Inc. Brooklyn, New York, 2001: 287 pgs.