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Continuing the Emancipation conversation

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The Times newspaper in 1938 on the hundredth anniversary of total legal freedom from slavery had the following to say, “Physical emancipation of the body is but the first step, of far greater importance is emancipation from the stranglehold of economic slavery, intellectual and spiritual emancipation.

It is not for us to contemplate the past with bitterness. Slavery was not only degrading to the slaves, but has been a blot on our Christian civilization. The past is irrevocably passed. The unknown future with its wealth lies before us. On the foundations of the past, we should seek to raise the superstructure of the coming series. It is for us to go on from emancipation to emancipation.”{{more}}

Those were very profound words stated by the Times in 1938. It saw legal emancipation as but a first step, but recognized the need to continue to struggle for spiritual and economic emancipation and to rid us of the ‘stranglehold of economic slavery’. Sixty- seven years after, those words are still as relevant as when said then. Of equal importance was its view that we need to build the superstructure of the coming centuries on the foundations of the past.

We need to be guided today by what was said then. There are those who doubt the relevance of emancipation today, indeed of the past generally. The truth is that we can never remove ourselves from the past and from thinking about the past. The issue has to do with our concept of the past. Those who question its relevance came to that conclusion because they have already drawn the wrong lessons from the past. But the issue is more than this.

We live in a very materialistic world where money and the acquisition of material things are all that matter. Even those who pass through our education system opt for areas of study that hold promise for the quick acquisition of money and therefore of material things. The development of the individual and development in a broader sense have become very one-tracked. The truly all-rounded person is now a scarce commodity and at our universities the field of arts and the humanities are seriously under-populated, as though man can live by bread alone.

Economics is about people and has to do with the decisions we make. What shapes our people is therefore critical. To many economists and planners the emphasis is on figures and not on total development. So no wonder today emancipation is seen as something remote from our concerns. What occurred on August 1, 1838 was not a disconnected event. To follow the thinking of the Times newspaper in 1938 it was the beginning of a new path to further the gains made then. 1838 then was the beginning of or rather part of a continuum that had different milestones. The achievement of adult suffrage in 1951 was one. Independence in 1979 was another.

Many of our youths today seem to believe that what we have now had always been there. They need to appreciate the toils of their fore-parents. It is of some significance that when the Emancipation bill was brought before parliament in 1833 one of the matters put on the table was the state of unrest on estates in St.Vincent. Really what all of this seemed to be pointing to was the urgency in passing the bill before the slaves emancipated themselves as they did in Haiti. Remember too, that St.Vincent was not the only place where disturbances were taking place. Additionally there were a number of slave revolts prior to this.

So 1838 was a significant day in the development of our peoples. The job is not yet done, however. In trying to sensitize our people about the importance of that event in our development we cannot treat it as an isolated event that simply happened at a specific time in our history.

We have to begin to make the connections with today and to pull out the lessons that are there. When persons ask whether or not we are emancipated they are really mixing up a number of things. What transpired on August 1 was a legal act, nothing more. It gave our fore-parents some more space to refashion their lives but the road ahead was not easy for the planters who were opposed to emancipation tried to put as many obstacles as possible to ensure that the freed persons remained dependent on the plantations and therefore on them.

Slavery was indeed a major problem that retarded our development, but it cannot be seen in isolation. It existed in an era of colonialism and the colonial forces did not disband themselves on August 1. The planters still controlled the mechanisms of power. Later they were frightened in to surrendering their control of the local seats of power to the Crown. Supposedly this move to what was called Crown Colony was to assist in protecting the welfare of the freed blacks. St.Vincent acquired that status in 1877. It turned out, however, to be an object of tyranny and our fore-parents in St.Vincent like those elsewhere struggled to rid themselves of it. It was in this struggle for elected representation that George McIntosh first surfaced as a political figure.

In 1925 because of the pressure exerted in the region a measure of elected representation was grudgingly given. The franchise excluded the masses of people and their concerns were not priority items for the persons that sat in the reintroduced legislatures. When the Vincentian people rioted in 1935 it dawned on Governor Grier that there was a section of the people without a voice in parliament. Our people had reset the political agenda and it was only a matter of time before adult suffrage was introduced.

The structure and composition of our societies ensure that the struggle would have to continue. The enemies might change but they are there. Neo-colonialism and globalization create a new phase of the struggle. Not that those forces are new but the context within which they operate is new. We respond by seeking to join entities like the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

We have still not worked out whether we should or can join as a block through the Caribbean Single Market and Economy or as single units, an option that the Bahamas obviously has in mind. 2005 is not 1838. We have achieved quite a lot despite the tremendous obstacles and the fact that we have operated as an independent people for only a short period of time in the history of nations.

The Times newspaper was right, “On the foundations of the past we should seek to raise the superstructure of the coming centuries.”

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