UN International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition, 23 August
On 23rd August, marking the UN International Day of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, Fran Swaine considers uprisings by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, their spirit of resistance, some consequences of abolition and the imperative for reparations by former enslaver nations
Posted on 23 August 2023
In 1998, UNESCO took the decision to memorialise 23 August because on that date in 1791, on the island of Saint Domingue, (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) an uprising commenced – planned, and led by enslaved Africans – against the French enslavers who laid claim to the island at that time.
Ultimately, after 12 years of relentless and often very violent fighting, led for the most part by the once enslaved Toussaint Louverture, independence was declared on the 1st of January 1804, and the sovereign state of Haiti was established. This was the first country in the Americas to end enslavement, and the only state in history to be created by a successful uprising of the enslaved.
The start of the Haitian Revolution is rightly recognised by the UN as a date on which to memorialise the ending of chattel slavery, introduced into the Caribbean by the Europeans. It was finally abolished on islands claimed by the British on 1 August 1834, and those by the French, 14 years later, in 1848.
The long history of uprisings against enslavement
The 23 August uprising is worth commemorating without doubt. However, it misses focus on the long history of uprisings by the enslaved, some of which commenced on the boats of the Middle Passage, and continued throughout the period of enslavement on all Caribbean islands until abolition was achieved.
The first historically noted uprising was the Santo Domingo Slave Revolt of 1521 on the sugar plantation owned by the son of Christopher Columbus – some 500 years ago.
Uprisings were so frequent that enslavers started introducing draconian Slave Codes to manage them. Following numerous documented struggles against oppression on the island by the enslaved Africans, Barbados introduced the first English colonial Slave Code in 1661, to enable planters to violently manage their enslaved plantation workers.
Entitled “An Act for Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes”, it codified enslaved Africans as chattel and set out ways to restrain any moves to freedom, from enslaving all babies born to the enslaved in perpetuity, to the legalised murder of those owned as chattel slaves should they disobey the Code. Nevertheless, resistance by the enslaved continued and in 1688, the Barbados Assembly further tightened legislation to enhance slaveowners’ power.
In 1664, Sir Thomas Modyford took the Slave Code to Jamaica when he became Governor and motivated by continued resistance by the enslaved throughout the island, Jamaica tightened its Slave Codes in 1684. In the following decade, the first of the American colonies (South Carolina) adopted Caribbean legislation for its own assembly. Virginia soon followed suit – although with codes of their own for their own plantations, but much modelled on that originating in Barbados.
Despite the increasing brutality of the Slave Codes designed to dehumanise and brutalise the enslaved African population, uprisings continued on all Caribbean islands from the 17th to the 19th centuries, year on year. In Jamaica for instance, between the early 1600s and 1740, the escaped and liberated enslaved formed communities of free Black people known as the Windward Maroons.
There were two Maroon Wars fought against the colonial government of Jamaica in 1728 and 1740, preceded by numerous uprisings across the island.
In 1807, the Slave Trade Act prohibited the trading in the enslaved from the West African coast throughout almost all of the British Empire, but enslavement remained, along with the trade in enslaved Africans between Britain’s Caribbean colonies.
Three major uprisings in the English-speaking Caribbean – Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1823, and crucially in Jamaica in 1831-2 – combined with ongoing attacks on numerous plantations - hastened the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in the UK in 1833. It seemed uprisings were contributing to financial losses by the enslavers.
The legacy of colonial suppression of uprisings
The financial imbalance of the period of enslavement was not righted after abolition took effect. This is demonstrated historically in many ways, from the British taxpayer’s “compensation” to enslavers for the loss of their “chattel property”, to the 90 million francs (around $25 billion today) demanded from Haiti in 1825 by the French for their independence.
Payments by the British Taxpayer to enslaver families stopped in 2015. Haitian payments to France and former owners of the enslaved stopped in 1947, having crippled the independent Haiti’s finances for over 120 years, and are much denounced as the root of Haitian poverty today. Not only did they have to pay the “debt”, but also to borrow the money from France to pay those “debts” and pay that back too. Described by French President Francois Hollande in 2015 as “the ransom of independence”, the French have got no closer to reparations.
Reparations as a recognition of the legacy of enslavement
Today, in the World’s GDP list (per country) of 177 countries listed, the first former British colony sits at 104 (Trinidad and Tobago), Jamaica at 123, and Barbados at 147. As they currently take their independence routes, their economies may now be seen to grow, but a failure to provide appropriate investment after a period of chattel slavery is a stain on the British nation – just as the reparations demanded from formerly enslaved Haitians by the French for their independence is a stain on the French nation.
Reparations are a complex subject far beyond financial payments, yet financial payments are crucial recognition of the very fact of enslavement, its inhuman brutality, and the fact that “abolition” Acts of Parliament – fought for by the enslaved Africans themselves – were not the end of the matter.
No British government reparations have been paid to date to families of the enslaved in former British colonies and no apology has been offered for the acts of Crown and State in setting up the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Whilst remembering, and giving thanks to, the power and strength of those (now) Haitians, and thousands of others across the Caribbean islands, who fought for freedom from enslavement and an abolition of the trade, which was behind the 23 August commemoration, let us not forget the huge debt in emotional and financial terms which must be squared up to by the British government today.
Frances was the firm’s first managing partner from 2010 to 2021, and was a partner in the regulatory and disciplinary department, the human rights department, and clinical negligence department.
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