By rights, the ‘You Are Still Slaves’ Proclamation of 1833, should have been written, and read by Governor James Carmichael Smyth. But, it wasn’t. It was read by the Lieutenant Governor Blayney Townley Balfour.
Smyth, as history tells us, had been run out of the Bahamas by an angry House of Assembly, who resented his attempt to ameliorate the conditions of the growing slave and liberated African populations.
Smyth was the compassionate one. If Carmichael-Smyth had written the ‘You Are Still Slaves’ Proclamation, he may have used more forbearing words like humanity, faith and on my honour.
Carmichael-Smyth’s programs to try to help the hundreds and hundreds of liberated Africans that were landing on Nassau’s shores from captured slaves ships, as well as his fight to stop the flogging of female slaves, and his attempt to start schools for slave and liberated children, all caused the Bahama Assembly to request the King to recall the abolitionist leaning Governor.
By 1833, the word ‘freedom’ had spread like wildfire among the British West Indian slave colonies. It was on the lips of slaves from the Bahamas to Jamaica to Barbados, and caused much upset on the plantations. Slaves thinking that emancipation had already happened but that their masters was keeping it from them saw many slaves severely punished for their less than amiable attitude.
“Freedom was coming” everyone must have been whispering throughout the islands. It emboldened the slaves. It angered their masters.
Word had been carried on the eager lips of abolitionists, who had been working earnestly in England, to push for the end of negro subjugation. Their eagerness to spread the word in the Caribbean colonies that Parliament in London, had been debating the most controversial legislation since the execution of King Charles I in 1649, that in truth, they almost caused a slave uprising in Nassau.
This was why Lieutenant Governor Balfour had to address them [the Bahamian slaves] in a stern and most dispassionate way.
He, and the Assembly, wanted to make it known to all who were subject to the bounds of slavery that they must not forget who they are. They were at present slaves.
From Balfour’s proclamation, a couple of things become apparent.
1. The negro settlements of Grant’s Town and Carmichael were already populated, before the end of slavery, with groups of Liberated Africans, free coloured and free blacks who may have bought their freedom.
2. The ‘You Are Still Slaves’ Proclamation could have been torn from the pages of a psychology book. Balfour is skilful not to initially cause any riotous outbursts or behaviour when the slaves are told they are still going to be slaves, even after they are set free.
Balfour ingratiates himself to his audience with great skill. He calls the slaves “my friends and fellow subjects” which we know only could have been utter nonsense. Slaves were not remotely on a friendship level with anyone outside of their social class.
Balfour goes on to further draw their confidence, but makes an unequivocally strong division between the slaves and themselves when he says “I am your friend. I will never deceive you…. but you must not forget that at present you are slaves.”
We have accounts from the Bahamas, which furnish us with the Proclamation of the Lieutenant-Governor to the slaves, which is as follows:-
“ADDRESS TO THE SLAVE POPULATION OF THE BAHAMA ISLANDS BY HIS EXCELLENCY BLAYNEY TOWNLEY BALFOUR, ESQ. LIEUTENANT-GOVERNOR, &c.
“My friends and fellow-subjects— You have heard that the Parliament of Great Britain is about to do something for you. I only heard yesterday with the House of Commons has agreed to do, and I hasten to let you know it, that you may not be lead away by liars, or induced by ill-disposed persons to offer resistance or disobedience to your masters, nor in any way disturb the public peace; for if you do you will not only be severely punished, but you will prevent Parliament from finishing what it has begun for you.
“The House of Commons, which is one great part of Parliament, has agreed to make a law by which you will be free, but you all know that freedom does not mean that you must not work. You will all be free, but you will be made apprentices to your masters for some years, and be obliged to work a certain number of hours every day for them.
In a few years afterwards, in six or seven perhaps, if you conduct yourselves well, you will be altogether free people like those at Grant Town and Carmichael.
The House of Commons has not yet fixed when you are to begin to be apprentices, nor how long you are to be so. Do not believe anyone, therefore, who says the change has yet begun, or that it will be immediate. I am your friend. I will never deceive you. I will tell you whenever the time is fixed for slavery to end; that is, when you are to begin to become apprentices; but you must not forget that at present you are slaves, and that, if you are disorderly or riotous, I must punish you and compel you to be quiet and obedient.
So the King has ordered me, and so I will do; but I hope better things of you. I hope you will remain quiet, peaceable, and obedient. If you are so be assured that care will be taken of your interest, and better care than any of your own exertions can effect.
B. T. BALFOUR