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Next Sunday, August 1 is the anniversary of emancipation, an event that was perhaps the single most significant one in the history of black people in the Caribbean. Undoubtedly there will still be grumbling about the decision to have the holiday on the first rather than the first Monday. {{more}}The fact that the holiday, this year, is celebrated on the first Monday in August and not the first of August would no doubt revive some of the old arguments, but we have now gone beyond that. I had hoped that having the holiday on August 1 would have served to lift the consciousness of more people about the meaning and importance of the day. This is not necessarily happening.
Focusing on this anniversary is not a matter of indulging in endless talk about an event that happened, depending on how you want to look at it, one hundred and sixty six or one hundred and seventy years ago. I have made the point on a number of occasions that while we are quick to point to ourselves as disadvantaged and not achieving and developing in the ways others have, we have to bear in mind the fact that we only started the process of forming an identity and building a society then. Having said that, we need to put certain things in perspective. The African slaves were not things, contrary to the laws that treated them as property. They were live human beings that within certain limits created a life of their own in their slave quarters. They not only recreated some of what they lived in Africa but the blending of different African cultures and that of the indigenous people produced a new entity, the beginning of a Creole society. The Africans at home in their own quarters were different beings from those who worked on the plantations under the whip. Very often they played the role the planters wanted them to. Their first priority was survival and they created the mindsets to do so. But they were not necessarily a homogeneous bunch. They responded to circumstances in different ways. Some revolted, some escaped and others found different ways of manipulating the system.
All of this, later on, was to fit in and be part of that new society that emerged after 1838. There is no doubt that we have made tremendous strides since then. It was not easy, for the obstacles did not disappear with emancipation. The planters, who then controlled the local Assemblies, did so in their own interest, passing laws to benefit themselves and spending a lot of money on areas such as immigration to provide labour competition and reduce the bargaining power of the newly freed. The strides are all the more remarkable because of what existed up to 1838. Education was considered irrelevant since the plantations wanted labourers, not educated people. Religion was only grudgingly allowed but serious obstacles were put in the way of the work of the missionaries. The law treated the slave as property, as brainless beings, in fact as sub-human or non-human. The ingredients of a society were denied them. Every effort was made, instead, to dehumanize them.
Colonialism was also part of the process. In the scheme of things our people were supposed to exist to serve the colonial masters. This is another dimension of the issue. But our people were not helpless victims. They used whatever weapons they had at their disposal to create a life of their own. The Shakers fought for the right to practise their religion. We fought for land. We fought for representative government. We established schools. We rioted when there was no other way out. While the Colonial Office officials pledged a commitment to fight for the rights of the emancipated population and to limit the authority of the planting sector, they also resisted for a long time any effort to enfranchise the black people. One of them Henry Taylor dreaded any thought of extending further the franchise for property holders at a time when coloured and blacks were beginning to own property, ‘for every white member may be turned out of the Assembly and the revolution of affairs may bring-up suddenly a coloured and black ascendancy.’

Most of us today are great grand children of people who have come out of the system of slavery and were virtually by definition, poor. They were mainly uneducated, but they built a society and educated their children, wanting them to enjoy what they could not have achieved given the circumstances of the time. Let us not forget that in the Caribbean we have produced two Nobel laureates in Literature and one in Economics. We have created the steel pan and achieved enormously in many other areas, including sports. Emancipation was the starting point. Although there is a lot more to do, we have created our mark. Amidst all of this there is no doubt that we are our own biggest enemies. We have lost the kind of camaraderie and the family network that was responsible for a lot of this. We have held on to the new god of individualism and have become divided at a time when the external challenges are that greater.
We are on a road and in a process that sees independence as another major landmark. We have fought and overcome a lot. The lessons of our fore parents are there, if we ever care to find them. Many of us today are obviously of the view that things have always been this way. We fail to appreciate the sacrifices that have been made in our name. We have lost the art of struggle and try to find things the easy way. But this is precisely at the time when external factors are severely impacting on us, when we need the will to fight and survive; when we have to proclaim our identity and discover the history we have created.
It started in the 1830s and we are continuing to build on it. It is not an easy task, small developing countries in an era when the gap between developed and developing is widening. On August 1, 1834, 22,250 of our people were legally freed, but had to withstand a further four years of apprenticeship, at least that’s what they called it. The more significant date was August 1, 1838. It was then that serious adjustments had to be made for a people were freed but a society was yet to be formed.

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