From Slavery Days To Emancipation
Barbados was once known as one of the leaders in the slave trade, and it was a long journey to reach its abolishment in 1807 via the Slave Trade Act. And, even so, the Act only outlawed the slave ‘trade’, and did not completely end slavery in Barbados.
As a result, the African Institution was formed to ensure the abolition of the slave trade was carried out. In June 1815, they put forth the Slave Registry Bill to the British Parliament, citing the best way to cut off the slave trade was to account for every slave and record any new arrivals in the colonies. The House of Assembly rejected this motion, causing much resentment in the slave communities.
This resentment resulted in a large-scale slave uprising in 1816 in Barbados, otherwise known as ‘Bussa’s Rebellion‘. This was followed by another large-scale rebellion in 1823 in Demerara (now part of Guyana), and by an even larger rebellion in 1831 – 1832 in Jamaica. These uprisings increased pressure on the British Government to address the issue of slavery once and for all and thus the momentum towards full Emancipation had begun.
It was on 28 August 1833, the British Government decided to pass the Slavery Abolition Act, brought into effect on 1 August 1834, and slaves across the British Empire were granted Emancipation.
The Journey From Emancipation
Although the Slavery Abolition Act was meant to officially cease slavery, there remained a four year ‘apprenticeship period’, whereby ‘free men’ continued to work without pay in exchange for small housing. This continued until 1 August 1838, when it was finally agreed that all slaves were to be truly set free.
Whilst they were still obliged to work the land of the plantation owners in return for a salary, it allowed them to begin to accumulate savings. They were also able to leave Barbados, which meant they could send further sums of money from overseas back home for savings too.
For the first time, this also put them in a position to purchase land in Barbados. However, because sugar cane production required large acres of land to be cost effective, the plantation owners were reluctant to break up their estates for purchase. Despite this reluctance, there were exceptions. In 1841, Reynold Alleyne Elcock afforded his workers the opportunity to buy some of his plantation land through his bequest. In 1841-42, part of his estate was subdivided and workers were able to purchase small parcels of land by instalments. Later, in 1856 – 1857, Peter Chapman followed suit, dividing his estate into sellable lots, setting a trend for the creation of ‘free villages’ in Barbados.
By 1900s, increasing sugar cane production costs forced many plantation owners to sell their properties, and the free labourers were finally in a position to take advantage of this. Between 1900 and 1919, 158 Barbados plantations were sold through auction. Most of the land was turned into free villages, and the local population were able to sustain their properties through working abroad rather than depending on the increasingly poor sugar cane conditions in Barbados.
However, the First World War saw another increase in the demand for sugar which meant Barbados went through a dramatic resurgence in wealth. But, by 1925 sugar prices were falling again and labourers once more looked for work abroad. Nevertheless, by the mid 1930’s the work abroad was drying up and Barbados was suddenly faced with a burgeoning population with little way of finding satisfactory employment to sustain themselves.
The Independence Movement Gathers Momentum
The movement towards Independence began at this time, when there was also a struggle by the descendants of liberated slaves to overcome high income restrictions on voting. On 26th July 1937, the dissatisfaction created by the combination of overpopulation, low wages and lack of employment opportunities in Barbados escalated into a riot.
This time of civil unrest saw the emergence of the Barbados Progressive League in 1938, later known as the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), formed and led by Sir Grantley Herbert Adams.
By 1942, Adams saw the Minimum Wage Act introduced and the controversial income qualification for voting lowered, securing Barbados on its path to Independence.
In 1946, the ‘Bushe experiment’ was put into effect, with the intention of creating a fair system of representation of members of the House of Assembly that could actually affect laws. This paved the way for the abolition of the centuries old Vestry system, and for Barbados to achieve full internal self-governance in 1958.
The question now was not if Barbados should aim for full Independence, but when.
In 1961, the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow was voted into power with his Democratic Labour Party (DLP). It was Barrow who then proudly led Barbados to full Independence from Great Britain on 30th November 1966, thus becoming the first Prime Minister of Barbados.
Honouring Our History
There are a great number of honours bestowed upon those Barbadians seen to be pivotal to this moment in the island’s history and we have named some examples below.
A large bronze ‘Emancipation Statue‘ of a slave breaking free from chains stands above a local roundabout to honour ‘Bussa’ and his role in the Emancipation of the people of Barbados.
The Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination, at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Barbados, is dedicated the late great Errol Barrow, the island’s first Prime Minister.
An Errol Barrow statue also stands in Independence Square in the heart of Bridgetown, facing north towards the Parliament Buildings and National Heroes Square, another nod to this local legend. His portrait is also found on the Barbadian $50 bill.
Fittingly, Bussa, Grantley Adams, and Errol Barrow are also all recognised as three of the ten official National Heroes of Barbados.
Several national holidays are also dedicated to those who have played a major role in Barbados’ history and development.
Every year in Barbados, ‘Emancipation Day‘ is celebrated on 1st August in recognition of the official date of the abolishment of slavery on the island, ‘Independence Day‘ on the historic date of 30th November, and ‘National Heroes Day‘ on 28th April.
Author: Brett Callaghan