Emancipation and the Treasury Building

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The site of the Treasury Building, where the Government Treasury, Post Office, Savings Bank and Bonded Warehouse were housed, is significant in the historical account of slavery’s end as well as the declaration of the Emancipation Day holiday. On August 1st 1834, in front Governor’s House, where Treasury Building now stands, enslaved Africans, who had heard rumblings about their impending freedom waited for the official proclamation with bated breath. Instead, what they heard provoked feelings of anger and disappointment: freedom would not come for another six years.

They were to remain on the estates, not as slaves, they were told, but as apprentices engaging in essentially the same routines they performed while in bondage. The women who had trekked to Governor’s House, some with babes in arms or with little ones tugging at their dresses, would have experienced great horror. The Governor’s message about conditions of apprenticeship grew foggy; his voice distant. Memories of plantation life came to the fore, as well as the many dreams of freedom which made the pain of this news all the more unbearable.

Six more years toiling on the fields; six more years of domestic labour in massa’s house, six more years of being verbally demeaned and physically abused, six more years of sexual exploitation. Amelioration was a farce; why should they believe them now? These women, along with the menfolk who had gathered in their thousands shouted and protested, pounding their chests, and flailing their arms, eyes blood shot; women holding their bellies in pain and young children crying at the commotion not fully understanding the situation but sensing that something was wrong. Their disparate cries evolved into organised chants: “Pas de six ans. Point de six ans!” (“Not six years. No six years”). Governor Sir George FitzGerald Hill continued to read the act, raising his voice in vain trying to regain the attention of the crowd. The militia was eventually summoned to disband the incensed multitude. 

During the commotion, seventeen persons were arrested but not without protest. Part of the crowd followed the escort to the Frederick Street prison in solidarity. Those arrested, deemed ring leaders, were later convicted of disorderly behaviour and condemned to whippings and hard labour. It was a day that instilled terror, not only in the minds of the enslaved who were forced to return to the conditions of slavery, albeit by another name, but also for the ruling elite who were reminded that they were outnumbered by a people who could at any moment rebel. Two days after the proclamation was read, the governor wrote from Government House on behalf of the Council to the metropolis desperate for a reinforcement of 200 men as well as a war ship from Barbados in the event of an uprising. Governor Hill announced the overwhelming appeal by the Council to declare martial law, a request that he would reserve as a last measure. Things would never again be the same on the estates. Apprenticeship would thusly end two years before schedule.

The Government House, the site of historical anguish and thereafter celebration on August 1st, 1838, was destroyed by fire in 1932 and reconstructed in 1938. It now houses the Treasury Division of the Ministry of Finance which is in charge of distributing funds to public servants, payment of pensions and advising on the management of public funds. Despite its important role in the Trinidad and Tobago economy today, the site of the Treasury Building holds symbolic significance in the history of African people in this country. The annual commemorative procession that commences at this location is a reminder of the humiliation and suffering of all those who were enslaved. It also reminds us of the brutalities meted out against women, something that Trinidad and Tobago is still grappling with today.

 

About the Author

By Leslie-Ann Paul
Heritage Preservation and Research Officer, The National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago.