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The enduring meanings of freedom


August 1, 1834 was a truly momentous day. In a single instant 350,000 persons in the British Caribbean jettisoned the legally sanctioned burdens of an enslaved person and embraced the opportunity to lay legal claim to the new civil, political, and economic rights of a free people.

To grasp more fully the historic significance of what unfolded on that day, we need to do two things. First, we must remember that by 1834, the enslavement of Africans in the Americas was more than 300 years old.  And while it is true that in Haiti, the legendary Toussaint L’Ouverture had led the revolution that destroyed slavery in Haiti, elsewhere in the Americas slavery remained a first class creator of wealth in the United States, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. In short, on 1 August 1834, when our ancestors seized their freedom, they did so within a hemispheric context deeply hostile to the principle of Black freedom.

This had consequences for our first generation of freed slaves. The freedom attained in 1834 was not full freedom. The British government imposed an apprenticeship system, which compelled the former slaves to give 45 hours of unpaid work each week to their former masters.  But a week has 168 hours.  Until the decisive day of freedom in 1834, under slavery, as a matter of law, each and every single hour of a slave’s life belonged to the master.  In short, the end of slavery returned to our ancestors an irreducible autonomy over their own lives for 123 hours, an autonomy that they understood separated them from the slavery they had lived and the slavery which continued to bind the lives of millions of Africans elsewhere in the Americas. Indeed, it is this very autonomy that they would use to contest and crash the apprenticeship system in 1838, two years earlier than it had been scheduled to end and thereby restore to themselves full autonomy over their bodies.

If we are truly cognizant of our forebearers’ reclamation of their autonomy and the value they attached to this, we are called upon to answer a question: how do we in this present moment honour the legacy of those whose struggles, sacrifice, and sense of mission paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today?

The first thing we have to do is to embed that sense of the historic legacy more deeply in our children, and our childrens’ children. We cannot and must not forget the road our foreparents travelled. Our collective sense of self and community comes through the experience of history.  As sung by Black Stalin in his masterpiece, “Caribbean Man”, the oft repeated phrase is true: ”We cannot know where we are going if we don’t know from where we are coming.” And we can make no sense of Marley’s call to “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” if August 1, 1834 carries no meaning for us.

That meaning ought to be very clear. The vast majority of our Caribbean people are descendants of a slave based order. We are the stones that the builder rejected, but have now become the head cornerstones. We are masters of our destiny in a manner that our ancestors of 1834 could surely have dreamed of, but could not necessarily bring to fruition.  But they did the hardest part. They broke the back of a slave system that had been in existence for well over 300 years. And we have had nearly 200 years to construct a free society that truly reveres the principle of human freedom. 

There have been times, of course, when we have fallen short to these high ideals of breaking slavery and embracing freedom. But herein lies the inescapable truth of Caribbean history. In the former British colonies, all of our progress since 1834 is a testament to the enduring legacy of our enslaved ancestors who walked out of slavery.  In remembering this history, we are therefore sending a crucial message to this generation and generations not yet born that our future is best secured when we understand the significance and give value to the struggles of those who came before us.