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Does August 1 mean anything to us?

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Although our Emancipation Day Anniversary has been changed from August Monday to August 1,  it has not meant a great deal to us. We have not been giving the holiday any significance. Apart from the Easter and Christmas Christian holidays, the anniversaries of August 1 and October 27 are our most significant holidays.

They are mileposts on a journey began since the arrival of Columbus. We have lost that spirit of hope and struggle that our people celebrated on August 1, 1838. It was those whose chains were broken on that day that set about building our society, creating our villages, and planting the vegetables, arrowroot and cotton that formed the basis of our economy, particularly after 1899.

They struggled for land and on occasions took things into their hands, as in 1862 and 1935. It was fear of revolt by our people that made St. Vincent the first Caribbean colony to have introduced the Peasant Land Settlement Scheme in 1899. It was those people who in 1935 with St. Kitts began the disturbances that rocked the British Caribbean in the 1930s and forced changes to the colonial agenda. It paved the way for Adult Suffrage and put regional integration high on the agenda.

Those milestones should remind us of the journey we had undertaken to provide a better life for ourselves and to have greater control over our affairs. Today, we are about skin bleaching. We produce little and really exist by handouts that we seem to have glorified. And then we dare to complain about the many beggars around! We remain confused about our identity and see our blackness as a curse, seen as Jomo Thomas suggests, in our eagerness to turn our black sand white. Colonial history told us that Wilberforce and others in England liberated us, so we wait on another god-father for our next liberation. Independence, the other milestone, found us replacing British colonialism, but becoming subservient to others, accommodating their desires rather than ours.

The journey has become a nightmare as we float aimlessly. August 1 should be a period of reflection on that journey. The Kalinagos impeded colonial take-over. The struggle was joined by the Garifuna who by the 18th century became the dominant partner. In 1763, a new phase begun as England took control. Chatoyer, and others, including the Kalinagos who were then very much reduced in numbers, continued the struggle. By 1797 that phase ended when the British sent many into exile. That struggle however delayed the implementation of the sugar industry and full-scale slavery. The British, despite the derogatory manner in which they described our indigenous people, recognised the strength of their commitment to defend their land, and wrote about the value they placed on their independence. Sir William Young even brought an Italian artist to do a portrait of Chatoyer whom they regarded as the commander of the struggle. When told about the King’s wishes Chatoyer said he knew no such King.

We have a proud history of struggle. With inferior technology they defended this land for a long time. We were the last of the colonies to have been colonised. The world today is obviously a different place, but we have lost the spirit of our ancestors, the Kalinagos, Garifuna and African slaves. We can best honour them by reviving that spirit that had seen them confront the early colonisation efforts and slavery. Today we are full of rhetoric, but our ancestors walked the talk.

On emancipation the slave masters were compensated. Our ancestors got nothing. It is now time for our compensation! For reparations! Whatever form it takes, it must provide us with the tools to continue our journey. Obstacles will always be there, but let us rebuild that spirit to dismantle them. That is what August 1 means to me. 

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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