On Abolition

In 2007, we in the British New World will observe a bicentenary of great significance. The anniversary I’m talking about is the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain. That is a different thing from the abolition of slavery, which made it illegal for anyone throughout the British Empire to own other human beings. Rather, it was the abolition of the practice of sailing to other people’s countries and enslaving their people to provide free labour on land appropriated from yet another set of people.

In 1807, the British Parliament made it illegal to enslave human beings afresh. The Abolition Act didn’t grant immediate freedom to those people who were already slaves; but it put an end to the profiteering that came from capturing new people.

We know slavery was bad. We know it’s an indelible part of our history. But it’s over, and it has been in our country for almost two hundred years. So why should we commemorate Abolition, when it didn’t actually erase the institution of slavery or free the slaves?

The short answer is that it marks the beginning of a process of emancipation that involved all parties — the slaveowners as well as the slaves. The long answer is that Abolition created a culture that provided the foundations of the one in which we live today. If we begin with the question about who enslaved whom and when that ended and who ended it, we begin in the wrong place. We already know those answers, and we tend to use them to justify weaknesses and cast blame. The commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery, however, allows us to approach the institution in a different, and, it’s hoped, more constructive way.

Currently, we’re taught to consider the institution of slavery as an unrelieved victimhood, with the Bad White Oppressor and the Poor Black Oppressed — Simon Legree, for those of you who still remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Uncle Tom, Topsy, and company. But what we overlook is that the real institution was far more complicated. The slaves themselves struggled for their freedom from the moment of their capture, and their activity in that struggle for freedom contributed to importantly to the Abolition movement. The slave-owners, on the other hand, were not all greedy and cruel, and several engaged in the education, religious and otherwise, of their slaves. Not all people of colour were slaves, not all white people were slave-owners, and not all slave-owners were white; some, like the Fox after which Fox Hill took its name, belonged to the group of people known as Free Coloured People.

So we have to approach this bicentenary of Abolition in a spirit of openness. We need to understand the processes of emancipation that began with/led up to/culminated in the passage of the Abolition Legislation through the British Parliament in 1807, and to recognize that those processes must continue; for two hundred years later, we are still not entirely free.

So what should we commemorate about Abolition?

Well, to begin with, (and for this article, I’m going to end here too; I’ll continue in other articles, and the one after that) though it didn’t do away with slavery, it changed the face of the institution in very important ways.

Politically, Great Britain’s Abolition of the slave trade had the interesting side effect of making Great Britain the protector of the innocent on the high seas. The abolishing of the slave trade made it possible for British ships to police the Atlantic, capturing slave ships and setting the people on them free. The impact that this practice would have on The Bahamas for the rest of the ninetenth century was huge; if the slave ships were captured on the western side of the Atlantic, the likelihood that they would be towed to Nassau and the slaves on them set free in The Bahamas was high. The result was that the black population of The Bahamas was augmented throughout the 1800s by the arrival of Liberated Africans, and these people, who had never had their cultures stripped from them by the institution of slavery, contributed to the development of many particularly Bahamian traditions, such as lodges, Junkanoo, asue and so on. These people were responsible, further, for the creation of many of the villages we currently celebrate; Bain Town, Grants Town, Delaporte, Gambier, Adelaide, Carmichael and Fox Hill all had as their origins villages created for the Liberated Africans.

Culturally, perhaps, the greatest legacy of the Abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was the stabilizing of that language that we now know as “Bahamian dialect”. There were other things, of course, but as I believe that a language is a basic cornerstone of identity, I’d like to focus on it for now.

The creation of new languages is an interesting process. In the British West Indies, until 1807, the pool of Africans was constantly being added to by new arrivals. These people had diverse tongues, which meant that in order to communicate with one another and with the whites, an intermediary language, structured around African grammar systems but using English words, was established.

When Abolition put an end to the fresh enslavement of people, the result was simple and interesting: the language that the slaves and their masters used for communication began to stabilize. In the absence of new languages being added to the pool, and in a situation where people were learning the intermediary tongue as their first language, a dialect was born. After Abolition, the creole languages that developed in the New World were the foundations of today’s various Caribbean and Latin American dialects — fundamental markers of local identities.

So why should we commemorate Abolition? For our culture and our language, at the very least. And of course, for all the ancestors who were changed by it, and who by that change changed us — African, Creole, White, liberated, slave, and free.

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