THE slaves who were declared free on August 1, 1838 were advised that they would have to pay rent for the houses in which they lived and the lands they farmed, from the day of Emancipation.
Social scientists have long blamed the grinding poverty that afflicted the newly freed slaves and much of which continues today, on the fact that the slaves got no property yet had to pay rent from the time of Emancipation, which Jamaica is commemorating today.
The rent provision was contained in the Proclamation of Emancipation issued by Governor Sir Lionel Smith on July 9, 1838 which became effective August 1 that year.
Describing the proclamation as a “great blessing”, the governor wrote: “Where you can agree and continue happy with your own masters, I strongly recommend you to remain on those properties on which you have been born, and where your parents are buried. But you must not mistake in supposing that your present houses, gardens, or provision grounds are your own property. They belong to the proprietors of the estates, and you will have to pay rent for them in money or labour, according as you and your employers may agree together.”
Sir Lionel also advised that people who decided not to work, but went wandering about the island would be “taken up as vagrants and punished in the same manner as they are in England”.
As such, he told them to listen to their pastors, who will keep them out of trouble. He also advised the slaves to recollect what was expected of them from the people of England, who have “paid a large price” for their liberty. The treatment meted out to the freed slaves contrasts sharply with the compensation of property and money given to indentured workers by their colonial employers after emancipation. Historians have long argued that it was that difference in treatment that contributed to the high level of poverty and landlessness among blacks in the former colonies. The full text of the document with which even Jamaicans over 50 years are mostly unfamiliar, is reproduced below, courtesy of the Jamaica Information Service (JIS):
The 1838 Proclamation of Emancipation that ended slavery
By His Excellency Sir Lionel Smith, Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Hanoverian Order, a Lieutenant-General in Her Majesty’s Land Forces, and Colonel of the Fortieth Regiment of Foot, Captain-General, Governor in Chief, and Commander of the Forces in and over Her Majesty’s Island Jamaica, and other the Territories thereon depending in America, Chancellor, and Vice Admiral of the same.
In a few days more you will all become Free Labourers — the Legislature of the Island having relinquished the remaining two years of your apprenticeship.
The 1st of August next is the happy day when you will become free — under the same laws as other free men, whether white, black, or coloured. I, as your Governor, give you joy of this great blessing.
Remember that in freedom you will have to depend on your own exertions for your livelihood, and to maintain and bring up your families. You will work for such wages as you can agree upon with your employers. It is their interest to treat you fairly. It is your interest to be civil, respectful, and industrious.
Where you can agree and continue happy with your own masters, I strongly recommend you to remain on those properties on which you have been born, and where your parents are buried. But you must not mistake in supposing that your present houses, gardens, or provision grounds, are your own property. They belong to the proprietors of the estates, and you will have to pay rent for them in money or labour, according as you and your employers may agree together.
Idle people who will not take employment, but go wandering about the country, will be taken up as vagrants, and punished in the same manner, as they are in England.
The ministers of religion have been kind friends to you — listen to them — they will keep you out of troubles and difficulties.
Recollect what is expected of you by the people of England, who have paid such a large price for your liberty.
They not only expect that you will behave yourselves as The Queen’s good subjects, by obeying the laws, as I am happy to say you always have done as apprentices; but that the prosperity of the Island will be increased by your willing labour, greater beyond what it ever was in slavery. Be honest towards all men — be kind to your wives and children — spare your wives from heavy field work, as much as you can — make them attend to their duties at home, in bringing up your children, and in taking care of your stock — above all, make your children attend Divine Service and School.
If you follow this advice, you will, under God’s blessing, be happy and prosperous.
Given under my hands and seal at arms, at Saint Jago de la Vega, this Ninth day of July, in the Second Year of Her Majesty’s Reign. Annoque Dommi, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty-Eight. — Lionel Smith
By His Excellency’s Command, C H Darling, Sec.