Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Emancipation Day

Today, August 1st, is celebrated as Emancipation Day in many parts of the Caribbean. The day that the August 1833 Slavery Abolition Act came into effect for the British Empire. While the slaves were emancipated, under the terms of the Act they were to be indentured to their owners for a further six years to help ease the transition from slavery to free labour. The Act also stipulated that all slaves under the age of six were to be freed and that the slave owners were to be compensated 20 million pounds for the loss of their “property”. The apprenticeship system under which the slaves were to be bonded to their owners until 1840 proved to be a failure and was discontinued two years earlier in 1838.

Freed from bondage, ex-slaves throughout the Caribbean would form free villages and a dynamic peasantry that existed alongside and often in conflict with the plantation system. The abolition of slavery also saw the introduction of first Chinese and then Indian indentured servants to the region by the British Government. From 1838- 1917, approximately half a million Indians were brought to the Caribbean- predominantly to British Guyana and Trinidad but also to Jamaica and some of the Windward Islands- to toil on plantations and in conditions not exactly very different from those that existed during slavery.

The history of the Caribbean is one steeped in blood, tears, sweat and oppression. It is also a history of resistance, human will and survival in the face of extreme cruelty and barbarism. The institution of slavery, abolished 173 years ago, still continues to haunt the region- the social and economic realities in many parts of the Caribbean and the ownership of economic power is still linked to slavery and colonialism; the attitudes of people, the prevalence of social and economic hierarchies based on skin colour, the fact that concepts such as “good hair” and “pretty brown skin” still prevail and that people can still adamantly state that if not for slavery and colonialism they would still be “swinging around in trees in Africa” or “suffering in Africa” are an indication that the psychological shackles on some people need to be removed. Unfortunately, too many of our people are ashamed of the past or believe, in agreement with many of the descendants of the former slave masters, that we must “move on”. Ironically these same people are the first to speak about the Holocaust or other acts of genocide! I do not advocate dwelling on the past or focussing on the wrongs of the past to such an extent that an individual or society does nothing to improve their situation. However, I do advocate that people be taught their history and that in the same way other races, cultures, nations and societies ensure that their history is never forgotten, the descendants of African slaves should ensure that their story is never marginalised or ignored. As Marcus Garvery said, ‘A people without knowledge of its past history and culture is like a tree without roots’.

I posted a lengthy entry in March for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by Britain. It encompasses most of my views on the slave trade, slavery and abolition so I will cut this post short and not repeat what I wrote before.

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