by Pat Dial
Though the British Government had legally abolished Slavery on August 1, 1833, the institution was in essence continued by the Apprenticeship System which was only ended on August 1, 1838. Both anniversaries are celebrated on the First Monday of August – August Monday.
The story of the struggle for Emancipation is well-known but what is almost unknown is the more important and interesting saga of how the ex-slaves—the freedmen—constructed a rich and valid Way of Life out of the ruins and ashes of slavery. The creativity and resourcefulness which they brought to this almost impossible task of reconstruction is both a source of astonishment and pride to modern-day Guyanese.
The first challenge was economic. The planter Class hoped, indeed expected, the freedmen to stay on as day labourers on the Plantations and imagined that the pre- Emancipation labour relations would continue. But, the freedmen with an unexpected shrewdness, demanded adequate wages. More surprisingly, with a dignity and a courage which few believed they possessed, they began to move off the plantations and create their own village settlements. The planters regarded such independence of spirit as an affront.
The “Village Movement” remains one of the proud episodes of Guyanese History: In the 1840’s, owing to depressive state of the Sugar industry, many plantations were being abandoned or put up for sale. Groups of freedmen pooled their small savings which they had painstakingly accumulated over several years and begun purchasing these abandoned estates: Queenstown in Essequibo, and Victoria and Buxton in Demerara were among the first such places purchased.
The purchase prices paid for most of these abandoned estates were high and considering their poor or non-existent infrastructure, their owners made a rip-off. The freedmen, however, never complained of these “raw deals” but immediately embarked upon dividing up the land among the families and individuals who had purchased, co-operatively built their houses and began to try to build roads and drainage works. They also began planting food crops such as cassava, potatoes, yams, plantain, and breadfruit. A moderately prosperous future seemed to await these new Afro-Guyanese villages.
Prosperity, however, kept eluding them for they were consistently plagued by disaster. The lack of drainage and irrigation, the hostility of the neighbouring sugar planters and the neglect of the governmental authorities prevented the promised economic potentials of these villages from developing. Yet, the freedmen tenaciously held on and persisted in the struggle for existence.
The Way of Life which was developed in these villages was rich and distinctive. It drew from an African past and a European present and was eminently civilized, despite the hard struggle for economic survival.
There was a strong “work ethic” among these early freedmen. This may surprise many, as the usual popular and even historic stereotype was that they avoided hard work.
Both men and women laboured in the fields and in every village there were hard-working tradesmen such as tin-smiths, black-smiths, wheelwrights, tailors, carpenters and furniture-makers.
Though many of these early African villagers were unlettered, they all had the greatest respect for learning and education. Education was not easily available – the founding of primary schools by the church denominations was only just about to begin. Yet parents try to have their children learn the “Three R’s” by whatever means possible. It was this respect for learning and these early efforts which laid the foundation for the intellectual flowering which these villages enjoyed for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.
These villages produced the schoolmasters and teachers, the intellectuals and professionals who were to make such an invaluable contribution to the growth of the Guyanese nation. The list of the men and women of learning produced by the village of Buxton, for example reads like a national honour roll.
These basic reading in the 1840’s and through the 19th century was the King James Version of the Bible and Shakespeare. Whenever current Victorian writing such as the Brontes or George Elliot or Hardy became available, these were avidly read. The result of this was that these freedmen became proficient in the English Language and many spoke it much better than the members of the Planter Class. Books were generally much valued and each family would aspire to have as many books as possible – even school books.
Religion was much respected and everyone went to church. These freedmen and their immediate descendants were God-fearing people who took the ethical rules of the Bible with great seriousness. Everyone sung hymns and small children were well acquainted with Biblical stories such as the Prodigal Son. This background of religion gave an inward discipline and courage to these villagers.
Good manners were studiously cultivated and this was evidenced in the hospitality and generosity with which they treated strangers. Food was always offered to a visitor.
The cuisine developed in these early Afro-Guyanese villages was also distinctive. This included the various types of pones, koneke (which could be used as both a desert and a substantial meal), and the numerous ways in which ground provisions and bananas and plantains could be prepared. Cakes of various kinds were a specialty. Many types of drinks were developed or prepared in a special way. Such drinks included sorrel, mauby, ginger beer and a variety of “wines” such as rice, psidium, gooseberry and jamoon.
These freedmen improvised their own entertainment. Each village had its own band, the usual instruments being drums of various kinds, banjo and guitar. But it was in the enchanted world of story-telling that most found the greatest joy, especially the children. The repertoire of stories included the well-known “Nancy stories,” stories dealing with moral and social themes, and hair-raising “jumbie” stories. The famous moonlight sessions of such story-telling remained embedded in the unconscious memory of generations of Guyanese.
These Villagers were egalitarian to a fault and could never tolerate anyone feeling he or she were better than another. Each man was prepared to represent his case to the highest of forums, including the Governor himself. Leadership qualities were widespread and there were an amazing number of natural leaders in these communities. The highest integrity was regarded as a norm in anyone aspiring to be a leader and such integrity was cultivated and strengthened. Eusi Kwayana could be regarded as falling within this tradition of leadership.
These freedmen and their immediate descendants were intensely patriotic to their villages and also to their country.
As one reflects upon the celebration of August Monday one realizes that the ethos manifested by the early Afro-Guyanese freedmen is worthwhile to recapture and could be of great significance in the continuous task of Guyanese nation-building.
Pat Dial “The Ethos and Values of the early Freedmen” the Sunday Chronicle - August 4, 1991: Page 8.