The date of the first arrival of African slaves in Guyana is not known, but it is believed that the first group was brought by Dutch settlers who migrated from Tobago from as early as the mid-seventeenth century. As plantations expanded on the coast of Guyana, more slaves were brought from West Africa in ships owned by the West India Company. There were occasions, too, when planters bought slaves smuggled from the West Indies by English traders.
The Africans who came to Guyana and the Caribbean were taken from West Africa, especially from states between the Senegal and Congo rivers. Some of these states were The Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau. It is to be noted that slavery existed in Africa before the Europeans started a slave trade. The slave trade was started because a large labour force was necessary for the sugar plantations in Guyana and the Caribbean. Europeans decided to plant sugar because there was a great demand for it in Europe. Sugar was needed for distilling, brewing and other household uses. Slaves, particularly African slaves, were the answer to the European problem of labour for their plantations.
In examining how these slaves were obtained, the Africans were sometimes captured by European raiding parties, lured into ships which sailed off with them, captured in tribal wars, or captured in raids by other Africans who were encouraged or bribed by Europeans to organise slave raiding parties. Slaves were also exchanged for goods since there was no common currency existing in West Africa. These goods depended on the area where the trading or bartering was done. Some of these included pieces of cloth, gold dust, copper bars, brass basins, knives, cutlasses, muskets, glass beads, ivory and liquor.
The journey from Africa to the Caribbean and Guyana was called the Middle Passage, a horrifying experience for the slaves, which lasted from six to ten weeks. They were packed in box-like trays about 150 centimetres long and 50 centimetres wide and high. The men were chained with iron shackles around their ankles and joined by chains looped to the shackles of their neighbours. Women and children were crowded below deck.
On the arrival of slave ships at different ports in Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara, auctions were held and planters came from all over to find bargains. The slaves were exposed naked and were closely inspected by the prospective buyers to determine if they were healthy. They were made to jump, swing their arms and legs and were examined like farm animals.
Entire families were auctioned, but buyers showed no concern over family bonds by making purchases which separated husbands and wives, and children from parents. Friends and relatives were also separated from each other in the process.
On the plantation, the slaves were housed in buildings which were some distance away from the master’s house. Most of these slave houses had thatched roofs and walls of old boards or of wattle and mud. The floor was the earth itself and there was no furniture except some rudimentary pieces that the slaves managed to make over time.
While the slaves were provided with certain foodstuffs by the master, they raised their own subsistence crops of vegetables, plantain and root crops on small garden plots that the master allowed them to use. However, they could only do their personal farming on Sundays when they had no work on the plantation. They also took the opportunity to fish on Sundays in the nearby canals, the rivers or the ocean.
Each adult slave was given one pound of salted cod fish every Sunday by the plantation owner. The salted cod fish was imported from North America. A child slave was given a smaller allocation. On special Christian holidays, there was an additional allowance of about a pound of beef or pork, some sugar and a quantity of rum.
The slaves also obtained a clothing allowance roughly every year. The men received a coarse woollen jacket, a hat, about six yards of cotton, and a piece of canvas to make a pair or two of trousers. Women received the same allowance as the men, but children received none. The children remained naked until they were about nine years old, or were given cast-off clothing that their parents managed to find or were able to purchase.
The work day of the slaves began even before day-break. They were marched to the fields by slave drivers who controlled them with whips. Slave drivers were themselves slaves who were specially selected by the white plantation owner. A white overseer supervised the entire operation. With farm implements allocated to them, the slaves worked in the fields and were occasionally lashed by the slave drivers if they attempted to idle. Around midday they were given an hour’s break to refresh themselves. The work day ended at about eight in the evening. But the slaves who worked at the sugar mills during the grinding season were forced to work even longer hours.
Slaves were punished in various ways. A hand could be cut off for striking a white man. But whipping was the most common form of punishment and this was inflicted liberally and in the cruellest form. The whipping was done by a slave driver under the watchful eye of a white overseer, and it was not unusual for the victim to be beaten to death.
Methods of Control
The white plantation owners used various methods to maintain complete control over their slaves. Their principal method was that of “divide and rule”. Members of the same tribe were separated on different plantations to prevent communication between them. The aim behind this was to prevent any plans to rebel if they were together. However, this separation created communication problems, since the plantation would have different groups of slaves speaking different languages. Therefore, the planters had to find a way to communicate with their slaves. Soon, a new language known as Creole-Dutch developed, and this became a common tongue among the slaves. When the British took control of Guyana in the nineteenth century, English words were injected into the language and it became the basis of Guyana’s ‘Creolese’ language.
Slaves were also prevented from practicing their religions. Quite a few slaves were Muslims while many others had their own tribal beliefs. But since the Christian planters saw non-Christians as pagans, they made sure that the slaves could not gather to worship in the way they were accustomed when they lived in Africa.
Later, Christian missionaries were permitted on the plantations and they were allowed to preach to the slaves on Sundays. In time, many of them were converted to Christianity. It was the general feeling that the converted slaves became docile and was not willing to support rebellion on the plantations.
Another means of control was the creation of a class system among the slaves. Field slaves formed the lowest group, even though some of them had special skills. Then there were the factory slaves who worked in the sugar boiling process. Higher up were the artisan slaves such as blacksmiths, carpenters and masons, who were often hired out by the planters. These slaves also had opportunities to earn money for themselves on various occasions. Still higher up in this class system were the drivers who were specially selected by the white planters to control the other slaves. The domestic or house slave had a special place in this arrangement, and because they worked in the master’s house, sometimes receiving special favours from the master, they held other slaves in contempt. Usually, the slaves in the lowest rung of this social ladder were the ones who rebelled and often domestic slaves were the ones who betrayed them by reporting the plots to their master.
Then, there were divisions based on colour. In the early days, it was relatively easy for a pure African to rise to the level of a driver. Since the slaves were owned by the planters and had no rights of their own, the white planters would sometimes have sex with whichever slave(s) he fancied. Some planters even kept some slaves as their concubine. There are stories of white slave owners’ wives and/or daughters having sexual relations with African slaves. Mixtures occurred through the birth of children as a result of these unions (mulatto), white men and mulatto women (mestee) and mulatto men and black women (sambo). Some slaves of succeeding generations thus had lighter complexions, and the white planters discriminated in favour of them. These slaves with white fathers or white relatives were placed in positions above those of the field slaves. This was the beginning of colour discrimination in the Guyanese society. In all of this, the Europeans – the whites – occupied the highest ring of the social ladder and they found willing allies among the mixed or coloured population who occupied the intermediate levels. The pure Africans remained at the lowest level.
It was not uncommon for planters to “breed” their African slaves. If a planter had a particularly outstanding male African slave, he would put that slave to have sexual relations with a buxom female slave or several female slaves to impregnate them. This was done so that the good genes of the slave were passed on to their offspring. Sometimes, the slave owner would send their strongest males to impregnate female slaves on a different plantation. This practice became more common after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807.
Except for earnings enjoyed by the artisan slaves, most of the slaves depended on obtaining money by selling surplus produce from their provision grounds and also the sale of livestock that they reared. On Sundays, village markets were held and the slaves seized the opportunity to barter or sell their produce to other slaves and even some whites. On these occasions the slaves made purchases of a few pieces of clothing and other items for their homes.
The Sunday markets were also occasions when slaves from different plantations were able to socialise and to exchange news and pieces of gossip.
There were also times of recreation. These were usually at the end of the “crop” and at Christmas and on public holidays when the slaves were allowed to hold dances which had to end by midnight.
Slaves were also allowed to purchase their freedom through the process of manumission. However, by the time slaves saved up enough money to buy their freedom, they would have already become old and feeble. In some cases, female slaves who bore the master’s children were manumitted while they were still relatively young.