One week ago, several countries in the Caribbean celebrated Emancipation Day. On August 1st, we decked out in our African-inspired outfits and enjoyed traditional African music all over the region. But how was independence and emancipation from colonial rule achieved in the Caribbean?
A host of inspirational quotes could be used to emphasise the importance of emancipation and the freedom it represents. For instance, civil rights activist Marcus Garvey once said:
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted as stating:
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
And one of my personal favourites is Nelson Mandela’s :
“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest”.
Yet still, it begs the question, what had to take place for us to enjoy the level of freedom we have today. What did our ancestors endure?
The path to freedom
The torture inflicted upon the Africans torn from their homes was unspeakable, it was a tremendous crime against humanity. They had their rights as human beings stripped away from them in ways we can only imagine The enslaved were treated like property to be bought and sold to the highest bidder and they were actually likened unto animals. Between 1662 and 1807 Britain shipped approximately 3.1 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. By force, they were brought to colonies across the Caribbean and sold as slaves to work on sugar plantations.
The Emancipation Bill, presented in Parliament in 1833, came into effect in British colonies on August 1st 1834. Yet the enslaved were not truly freed, they were forced into an “apprentice system,” wherein they were required to work for their former masters for a minimum of four years before being completely free. In addition, many argue that the reasons slavery was abolished were not puritan in nature or driven by humanitarian intentions. A well-crafted story labelled “history” would like us to believe that puritan ideals lead to abolition of slavery and those in authority acted on moral grounds, but that’s not how it actually happened.
Enslaved people began to demand their freedom and stand up for their rights.
In the Caribbean, it started in Haiti. Through the Haitian Revolution, the most successful rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti became the first colony in the Western Hemisphere to gain independence. It was therefore the first black-led republic after ridding itself of French colonial control. This did not come easily. While uprisings took place throughout the region, enslaved persons commenced a rebellion in 1791 which lead to a series of wars. The enslaved put in motion organised insurgence, burning sugar plantations and gaining control of the northern regions of Saint-Domingue. Revolts continued until 1803, when the French government officially ended slavery in all its territories.
The word is spread
News of the immense success spread through world and it went on to stimulate revolts throughout the Caribbean. Between 1790-1830s the spirit of rebellion and resistance was high. We recall Bussa’s rebellion in Barbados (14-16 April 1816), which was the largest slave revolt in Bajan history, the Demerara uprising in Guyana in 1823, and the Jamaican revolts of 1831-1832, just to name a few. Our ancestors had to fight for basic human rights. As such, a crucial part of what lead to their emancipation from oppressors was that innate human desire for freedom.
Abolitionists, both black and white, gave anti-slavery speeches throughout Europe and America. So, while there were genuine abolitionists from the countries of the colonial masters, it is vital to note that the slave revolts played a crucial role in eventual emancipation of enslaved persons. The cruel conditions under which they were forced to live created a transatlantic dialectic of antislavery agitation and slave insurrection which compelled the hands of the decision makers.
On August 1st, 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.
However, although we celebrate emancipation from colonialism and slavery, we must keep in mind that these diseases are present and alive today. Even in the Caribbean, colonialism still exists.
The intention is by no means to belittle our ancestors’ fight for freedom, for without it who knows what state we would be in. However, slavery remains.
The method of enslavement has simply been altered. No one is free when others are oppressed. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 20.9 million people all over the world are considered slaves – men, women and children. In many countries, people are still sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and at the complete mercy of their ’employers’. ILO also released statistics showing that:
- Almost 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and over 2 million by the state or rebel groups.
- Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
- Forced labour in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year.
- Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are among the sectors most concerned.
- Migrant workers and indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.
Celebrating to remember
It is important that when celebrating Emancipation we recognise the fight our ancestors took part in for their right to freedom. Resistance and rebellion was their key. However, even today, the fight is not over. So what does emancipation day really mean to you? Will we continue to live in the freedom we have without consideration for those who are now bound to different forms of slavery? Those who are stripped of their basic human rights?
Celebrate Emancipation Day. Recognise the amazing contributions of Africans to this land and celebrate our African heritage with pride. Rejoice and enjoy the culture and traditions of our ancestors, but we must not be blind to the poor labour practices and disregard for human rights that exists in this world today.