When we think of emancipation, we know we are thinking of a time when human bondage was an economic reality. Driven by avarice and greed, the New World was "opened up" on the backs of those who laboured. But it was not only Africans who were brought here and sold as slaves.
The Spaniards, the first Europeans in this part of the world, tried to meet their need for labour by enslaving the native tribespeople. They needed them to clear the forest so as to establish villages, farms and ranches. They needed them to search the rivers for gold and to dive for pearls. The native tribal people, possessing no concept of work or being made to work, drifted away. They were hunted down in the forest and killed. Others, losing interest in life, sat down and died. Thousands were tricked or kidnapped and taken away to other islands or to the main. Some rose in rebellion and were wiped out. Whole villages committed suicide. Within a short space of 100 years or so, most of the Arawak population in many islands had fallen victim to genocide. The settlements could not prosper without people. Food had to be grown, fields tilled, houses built. These new settlements in St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Antigua, in Virginia and New England, all tried to obtain the workers they needed from the British isles.
There were many poor folk there who wished to try their luck overseas. Some were tired of the harsh laws of tenancy which put great power into the hands of the landlords and left them little better than the slaves. Many Germans were anxious to get away from a religious war between Protestants and Catholics that had gone on for thirty years, producing terror and suffering. The New World offered a chance of betterment. It seemed well worthwhile to sign a contract and serve a master for five or seven years. At the end of that time, one would be free and have a grant of land and some cash. Between 1654 and 1685, more than 10,000 people sailed from the port of Bristol alone. This was a large number, bearing in mind that the population of England was then only around 5 million. A steady trade developed in bond servants and when the supply of willing men and women fell off, kidnapping, child stealing and the transportation of prisoners became the order of the day.
Kidnapping increased, especially the kidnapping of children. The "spirits", as the kidnappers were called, frequented the streets of the sea ports and "spirited away" people, causing that term to come into common usage.
Dr. Eric Williams, in his account of this business, describes how "the captain of a ship trading with the West Indies would visit Clarkenwell House of Correction, ply with drink the girls who had been imprisoned there as disorderly, and invite them to go to the West Indies..."
Then, there were the convicts. At that time, a man who committed a trivial offense might be sentenced to death. He could be hung for stealing a horse or sheep, or for picking of pockets. We read a petition that a wife who had been sentenced to hanging for stealing goods worth 3/4 of one penny might be transported overseas instead.
In the wake of one of England's many wars with Scotland, a judge by the name of Jeffreys sentenced hundred of innocent men and women to be transported to the islands to work in the fields. So many were sentenced to be transported to Barbados, that the phrase "to Barbados a man" came into use. To this day, there are the remnants of two classes of people of European descent on that island, the descendants of the masters and those of the servants. Hence the term "bacra".
It is said that in slavery days on that island, the masters and their wives sat in the front rows of the church on a Sunday, the white servants and overseers in the back rows, and the slaves stood around outside. As the service came to an end, the masters left the church first, and the slaves of course took off their hats in deference, but as the servants and overseers started to come out, the word went round, "Back rows, back rows," and hats were replaced...
The condition on board the ships were bad, even for the captains, and horrible in extreme for the indentured servants. Up to 100 people were packed into small compartments. The hatchway was guarded by armed men who prevented them from coming up on deck for air or easement. The water was stinking and the rations were small. Dirt, excrement and urine transformed the ship into a pest house. Smallpox, fever and the plague killed many. Others were devoured by lice until they almost died.
When the indentured white servant arrived in these islands, he or she was sold. A man by the name of Ligon, who lived in Barbados from 1647 to 1650, said that the African slaves were better treated than the white servants, because the owner knew he had a bond servant only for five or seven years, and so drove him hard during that time. Those owners who were merciful treated the bond servants well, but "if the masters be cruel, the servants have very wearisome and miserable lives... Upon the arrival of the ship that brings servants to the island, the planters go aboard. Having bought such of them as they like, they send them with a guide to the Plantation. Being home, he commands them instantly to make their cabins. The next day, they are rung out with a bell to work at 6 a.m. with a severe overseer to command them... I have seen such cruelty there done to servants as I did not think one Christian could have done to another."
So as we mark emancipation, let us remember all of those who laboured in the fields of the Caribbean.