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Rethinking Emancipation

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by Oscar Allen

Every time you find a revolutionary movement that aims to change conditions in society, you will find division in that movement. It is almost a law of social change and revolution. Ask the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Angolans, the South Africans, the Grenadians or the Haitians. And the revolution against colonial slavery in our region obeyed that law; it had what we may call a moderate side, and it had a sharper side; and generally the two sides did not fight each other openly. The two sides were in a kind of synergic coalition.{{more}}

Now, in 1831, Sam Sharpe and some of his Baptist slave brothers and sisters in Jamaica brought about a significant Christmas uprising of some 30,000 in Western Jamaica. It shocked, it frightened the estate-slave owners. They even thought that some of the missionaries from Britain were not fully on their side, that is, on the side of slave-owners. They reacted like brutes. They killed over 500 of the slaves, but it was only when they – calling themselves the “Colonial Church Union” – set fire to 15 Chapels and harassed and jailed a few Baptist and Methodist Missionaries (whites), that the missionaries drew near to the revolution against slavery. One missionary, William Knibb, had never thought that the planters would turn against fellow whites and against the church. He sailed to England and in great indignation he declared: “I now stand forward as the unflinching and undaunted advocate of immediate emancipation”. Even so, he was thinking more about his religion than about the fullness of life and liberation of the slaves. The Emancipation he wanted would free him to do his work, it would not end colonial slavery.

The revolution against slavery was getting sharper on the ground in the region. Many slave leaders were not thinking about emancipation, they wanted their own space, away from the presence and inhuman rule of Masa and Misis. Kofi had earlier set up a short lived republic or Kingdom in Guyana. The on the ground contest between colonialist planter and slave leaders and people was heading for a showdown. At the same time, in Britain, popular and middle class political mobilisation, and the new class in Parliament – not of old planter friends, but of British industry bosses, raised Emancipation as the order of the day. Emancipation came, it was not the ending of colonial slavery, nor the bonding of freed labour power with the land and other resources, it was a truncated freedom. As I have written elsewhere:

“After 200 years of great extortion of Africans and great wealth to Europeans, the British bowed to the freedom force of the African slaves as well as the strength of the British Reform movement. They introduced a kind of freedom from slavery that put the Africans as a naked labour force, without any object for them to work with and build their civilisation. How could freedom be built under a condition like that? … Europe was embracing the transatlantic industrial revolution, but keeping down the revolution that makes all people equal in society – the Caribbean Vision.”

Almost the day after emancipation in SVG, in Guyana, in T&T and elsewhere, the new, naked, empty handed workers got together as work gangs to bargain with the estates for right wages and conditions of work. Slavery had brought out in them the collective consciousness and organisation and vision to carry emancipation to its proper end. Their revolution was not complete, not yet.

I have said that Emancipation as freedom from slavery, never happened; that emancipation was a contrivance, a scheme to undercut the real freedom; that a revolutionary option was blocked – for our peoples, the landscape, and our regional, and transatlantic relations to be reconnected and born again.

Imagine, today, we are still searching for an integral regional identity and polity! Emancipation was indeed the result of our foreparents’ struggles, that is why we must not accept it as the victory they fought for, but rather the victory twisted from their hands. It was the moderate revolution against slavery that gave us emancipation. We must both receive it and reject it. We must not celebrate uncritically. The struggle against colonial slavery, (now mutated in different ways) must continue and the struggle for the wholesome Caribbean Vision and Civilisation must engage all of us. The mild, the moderates, the moderated and the more critical need to join hands and form an arc that leaves nobody out.

That Act of emancipation was never the goal. We must surpass it in tribute to our foreparents, out of respect for ourselves, as a duty to our children and in answer to God’s call to shared fullness of life.

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