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Making sense of the anniversary of Emancipation

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We have had our usual August 1st holiday, but it is as if the event that has created it has no relevance to us. One would have thought that, at least those charged with making the case for reparations, would have seen it fit to use this occasion to highlight and give meaning to that issue. I am convinced that there are people in our society who still do not know what the holiday is all about. Why wasn’t there some national activity or national activities to mark the occasion? Some years ago, when I was Head of UWI Open Campus, we had begun an annual lecture as our contribution to the anniversary.{{more}} This has continued and this year we will have two lectures. The first one I delivered on July 30. The next is to be delivered by Vincentian Dr Halima DeShong on August 14.

Many Vincentiams are ashamed of the fact that they came out of the bowels of slavery. To them it conjures up something they would rather forget, despite the fact that they have not taken the time to understand what it is all about. This is understandable, however, because we have not done a good job in our schools and in the broader society in explaining slavery, its legacies and their impact on our lives today. One of the things we need to do is to pull out the positives from slavery and emancipation. For me, the fact that we survived the brutalities of slavery with our humanity intact and the role which our slave fore-parents played in bringing about its termination are important aspects that all of us need to know about.

In 2007, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade, prompted by the monies that were provided for us to do so. We had set up a committee. A few lectures were held, but little else appeared to have been done. Interestingly nothing was done in 2008. 2007 was the year the abolition bill was passed in Parliament in Britain, but it did not take effect until 2008. The year 2008 was therefore the significant year for us. In joining the British in emphasizing the passage of the Act in Parliament, we have served to highlight the role of Wilberforce and other British humanitarians. Let me not be mistaken; I am not suggesting that theirs was not important, because any legislation to emancipate the slaves had to be done in the mother country. So, we heard a lot about Wilberforce and the others. What we have not heard enough about is the role of the slaves in their own emancipation.

Ever since the slaves in Haiti emancipated themselves, a new player came into the equation. The Haitian slaves had shown that it can be done, that the slaves can emancipate themselves. This sent a powerful message to the slave establishment and drove even more fear into their heads. It also showed the possibilities to other slaves. In the final years of slavery it was becoming obvious that the British establishment had two options, either set the slaves free or face the consequences of the slaves doing it themselves. Revolts in the colonies in the early decades of the 19th century alarmed the plantocracy and colonial establishment. St Vincent featured in this, even though there was no major revolt here. During the discussion on the slave issue in the British Parliament, one member was able to draw to the attention of other parliamentarians the news that there was trouble brewing in St Vincent. This had to do with disturbances on the plantations in the Carib country, with slaves refusing to turn out to work. The overseers, managers and plantation owners were struck by the number of workers who were reporting sick and the numbers that were turning out late to work and speaking back to the authorities. This was in 1833, the year when the Act was passed. No one could be sure what would have played if the date of their emancipation had been delayed much longer.

So, our people have survived the brutalities and inhumanities of slavery, retaining much of their culture in the process. Emancipation should remind us that never again must we tolerate injustices or any form of oppression. Slavery has passed, but every year at the anniversary of emancipation, we must take a vow never again to tolerate injustice and oppression in whatever forms they come and regardless of who are the oppressors. Furthermore, no one is going to free us unless we create the conditions for our freedom. The struggle against slavery was a prolonged one where accommodation had at times to be made and where anything that could be used was brought into play. The fact that there were no major revolts in St Vincent did not mean that the struggle did not go on, for it took all forms, the deliberate burning of crops, destruction of implements, feigning sickness, pretending not to understand what they were asked to do, even lampooning their masters in songs.

Injustice and oppression did not end with slavery. Slavery was an essential arm of colonialism, but colonialism continued for another 141 years. Independence came in 1979. The faces have changed but the instruments of injustice and oppression continue in new forms and often we facilitate our own oppression. The struggle must, however, go on. As one writer in the Trinidad express noted, “as we commemorate emancipation today let us do so with a renewed commitment to the cause of Justice.” Of course, we celebrate the end of slavery, but we must remember that this did not freedom make.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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