Slavery in Barbados
By the 1700’s, Barbados was one of the leaders in the slave trade.
The West African slaves brought to Barbados were considered ‘property’; if they died, they were simply replaced. They had no rights and their culture was suppressed.
Slaves were forced to perform manual work like digging and ploughing the soil, planting and cropping the sugar cane, as well as carrying the cane to the factories. The work was very demanding with no wages, resulting in many slaves dying from exhaustion.
Note: Some plantation owners did try to alleviate poor conditions and allowed their slaves some personal freedoms. Some slaves were even granted freedom, especially favoured women who plantation owners regularly moved into their homes.
Did you know? Children of the women were also granted freedom therefore a new class of ‘free coloured people’ emerged.
The Humanitarian Movement Grows
At the same time in England, a humanitarian movement was growing.
In 1765, one of the first English campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade, Granville Sharp, secured the freedom of one Barbadian slave, Jonathan Strong.
In 1772, Sharp won another case that proved to be a huge stepping-stone to freedom.
In this judgement, Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield, stated all slaves in the country should be declared free. This landmark ruling was significant in recognizing the illegality of slavery and helped pave the way for anti-slave trade campaigner, William Wilberforce.
In 1807, Wilberforce fought successfully in the British Parliament for total abolishment of the slave trade across all the colonies.
Although this outlawed the slave ‘trade’, the resulting Slave Trade Act 1807 did not completely end slavery; what it did was prevent any further shipment of slaves to the colonies.
This was still a major milestone in the history of slavery and Wilberforce fought hard against the West Indian plantation owners to achieve it.
Soon after, the African Institution was formed to ensure the abolition of the slave trade was indeed carried out.
The Institution kept the matter alive in Parliament and believed the best way forward was to create a registered colonial slave system to account for every slave and reveal any new arrivals.
In June 1815, they put forth the Slave Registry Bill to the British Parliament, presented by Wilberforce himself.
The House of Assembly rejected the Bill and resentment in the communities grew.
Bussa And The Road To Emancipation
The resentment resulted in a large-scale slave uprising in Barbados, otherwise known as ‘Bussa’s Rebellion‘.
Bussa was a West African man captured and sold as a slave in the late 18th century and then transported to Barbados.
On 14 April 1816, Bussa lead his revolt against the Barbadian plantocracy, resulting in a fierce two day battle between the slaves, the planters, and the West India Regiment.
Carefully executed by approximately four hundred slaves (400), the Rebellion is documented as the most significant revolt in Barbadian history.
Bussa was forced into submission by the Regiment and was killed in the battle however this historic figure continues to represent emancipation and freedom in the hearts and minds of many Bajans.
News of Bussa’s uprising quickly reached England and Barbados was forced to accept slave registration, even bringing into place its own slave registry bill.
Bussa’s Rebellion was the first of three large-scale slave rebellions in the British West Indies in the years leading up to emancipation.
It was followed by the large-scale rebellion in 1823 in Demerara (now part of Guyana), and by an even larger rebellion in 1831 – 1832 in Jamaica.
Full Emancipation Is Realized
The momentum towards full emancipation had now begun.
The African Institution merged with the Society for the Migration and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, also committed to the full abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
In British parliament, George Canning (a British statesman and politician) put forward the ‘Plan for the improvement of the Condition of Negroes’ which was initially rejected by Parliament. However, on 7 July 1823 instructions were sent to Demerara to improve slave conditions.
This information leaked out to the slaves in Demerara, and when changes were not quickly put into place, another large-scale slave uprising took place.
It wasn’t until 1830 that the humanitarian movement in England finally complained to Parliament that nothing was being done to improve slaves’ conditions.
In 1831, fuelled by continuing frustration and the uprisings in Barbados and Demerara, Jamaican slaves also rose up; the last of the three ‘late slave rebellions’.
These significant developments resulted in the British government passing the Slavery Abolition Act on 28 August 1833.
It was then on 1 August 1834 that slaves across the British Empire were finally granted emancipation.
Note: Although this is when slavery was officially abolished, there was a four-year apprenticeship period whereby ‘free men’ continued to work without pay in exchange for small housing up until 1838.
Barbados Remembers …
In 1985, a large bronze statue, the ‘Emancipation Statue’ depicting a slave breaking free from chains, was erected on a local roundabout in Barbados to honour the man fondly remembered as ‘Bussa’ and his historical slave revolt.
The statue is said to symbolize the strength of emancipation and is inscribed on both sides.
One side carries the words of the now infamous chant that thousands of Barbadians hailed when slavery was officially abolished, and the other side is inscribed with text from the Slavery Abolition Act.
Every year in Barbados, ‘Emancipation Day’ is celebrated on the first of August in recognition of the official date of the abolishment of slavery on the island.
In 1998, by an act of Parliament, Bussa was again publicly honoured by being named as one of the ten official National Heroes of Barbados for his significant contribution to the island’s history and development.
Did you know? The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was repealed in its entirety by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1998, however slavery never became legal again, as sections of the Slave Trade Act 1824, Slave Trade Act 1843 and Slave Trade Act 1873 were continued and the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates into British Law Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the holding of persons as slaves.
Author: Brett Callaghan