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Reflecting on Emancipation

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For some time now, our commemoration of Emancipation has been very low-keyed. Most of us see the day as just another holiday. There are even those who question the wisdom of commemorating an event that happened over 150 years ago.  This year, we have seen efforts being made to highlight the significance of the day: a March and Rally in the Argyle area, an activity at Petit Bordel and it was highlighted at the annual West Kingstown NDP Fair.{{more}}

What is the significance of commemorating this day? First, to put it in a broader context, we are a product of history. We are shaped by the forces of history and understanding this is critical to our very being. Many countries ensure that their citizens are aware of their history; in some cases, particularly in dictatorial regimes, even distorting history to suit their particular ends. In our case, we are continuing to debunk a colonial history that was designed to dehumanize and create a feeling of dependence. Before Emancipation, the slaves were considered the property of their slave ‘masters’.  At Emancipation, the slave masters were given £20 million compensation for being deprived of their property. Emancipation was meant to be a new beginning, the liberation of a people long held in bondage. Their hope was to mark out a path for themselves and take control of their lives.

This was farcical, for the emancipation granted was simply a legal construct that was hemmed in by all sorts of obstacles. Slavery had officially ended, but colonialism, its parent, remained. As an agricultural people their options were limited, continuing work on the plantations, working land of their own or going into some other kind of activity which, in any event, was limited. Once they remained on the plantations, they realized that their situation would not have been far removed from slavery. Getting land of their own was difficult, even when they were in a position to purchase. The planters preferred to leave land lying idle, rather than selling to them and facilitating their movement away from the plantations. The struggle for land was a dominant theme for most of the 19th century, until fear of disturbances forced the colonial government to implement a land settlement scheme. The other options involved obtaining licences, which were not readily given.

Colonialism ensured that a path of dependence would remain. Education and religion were the tools used to convince the freed people of their inferiority and dependence on the colonial mother. The teaching of history was a powerful weapon. Africa was painted as a primitive society. They were told that they were enslaved in order to be civilized. All of this was later on reinforced by the movies, the figure of Tarzan depicting the power of the European. Emancipation was given to them, thanks to Wilberforce, Clarkson and others. In this Eurocentric view, the slaves had nothing to do with their own emancipation. This was powerful in portraying a people who were totally dependent on their colonial masters.

As colonized people began to write their own history, a different version of things emerged. Eric Williams, late Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, showed that economic changes in Britain forced the hands of the British to grant emancipation. But of more significance was that the role of the slaves in their own emancipation began to be highlighted. The 1791 Haitian Revolution drove fear into the hearts of the planters and colonial authorities. It had shown that the overthrow of the slave system was possible, a lesson that they feared the slaves would have learnt. The 1816 Slave Revolt in Barbados, Demerara, British Guyana in 1823 and Jamaica in 1831 provoked alarm, in that it was coming nearer home. After the revolt in Demerara, the Barbadian Governor bemoaned the state of things; “Now the ball has begun to roll, no one can say where or when it will stop.” As the matter of emancipation was being debated in the British Parliament, there was the view that the stage had reached where it was emancipation either from above, that is from Parliament or from below, a repetition of the Haitian Revolution. The St Vincent situation was discussed in parliament in 1833 to show how serious the situation had become.  Slaves on the Carib country estates had begun a period of resistance, refusing to turn out early to work, going to the hospital in large numbers and uttering threats when any attempts were made to discipline them.

As we reflect on Emancipation, what is missing is a focus on the role of the slaves. Our negative feeling about slavery is based on the belief that the slaves were helpless beings, totally dependent on their masters. But the slaves had withstood centuries of slavery with their humanity intact. Their role in their own emancipation is powerful stuff for their descendants. Then, there are the post-emancipation struggles to achieve what was promised in 1838. Our commemoration of emancipation has to do with the fact that we are still fighting for the liberty and freedom that should have come in 1838. Knowledge of those struggles will demonstrate that we have it within us to mark out a new path. But we have a colonized mind with which to deal. Marley says it best. We have to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. So the struggles started by our fore-parents must continue.   

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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