This letter was researched and put together from the writings of local commentators.
One hundred and eighty-six years ago, ie, on August 1, 1834, approximately 650,000 slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean embarked on the long, hard road to freedom. It is this freedom we refer to as emancipation.
The words Emancipation Day mark the emancipation of African slaves on August 1, 1838. This was a long and painful process which began with the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
The Emancipation Act was passed by the British government to end slavery on August 1, 1834. A period of apprenticeship was enforced—despite the protests of ex-slaves—from August 1, 1834, to August 1, 1838, when they would have been completely released from bondage.
The apprenticeship period was a tough time for the former slaves. They had to remain in the places of their enslavement under conditions that were hardly an improvement over slavery. The ex-slaves toiled in the fields and great houses for four more years before they could truly enjoy the rights and privileges of freedom.
Emancipation Day celebrations rightly mark the freedom of the enslaved African from the inhuman bondage of slavery. To give you an idea of how it was, Africans were captured and brought to Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. They were disconnected from their cultural habitat and families, and thrown together in a brutal environment to serve the interests of the planter class and British capital and comforts.
It is estimated that between 12 million and 20 million people were shipped as slaves from Africa by European traders. Approximately 15 per cent of them didn’t survive the arduous transatlantic journey through the Middle Passage.
One historical account of the journey through the Middle Passage reads as follows: “With extremely tightly packed loads of human cargo that stank and carried both infectious disease and death, the ships would travel east to west across the Atlantic on a miserable voyage lasting at least five weeks, and sometimes as long as three months.”
Although incredibly profitable for both its participants and their investing backers, the terrible Middle Passage has come to represent the ultimate in human misery and suffering. The abominable and inhumane conditions which the Africans were faced with on their voyage clearly display the great evil of the slave trade.
The suffering continued on the plantations of the Caribbean where the slaves were not regarded as human beings, but were treated as objects for work and trade, exploited, abused and disrespected.
As we celebrate our African heritage, it is important that we bear in mind what our ancestors were liberated from, and the high price they paid with their tears, hard labour and even their lives. Knowing what we know about that brutal system, it is painfully clear that of us are doing an injustice to the memories of our African forefathers by perpetrating many 21st-century systems of enslavement.
Almost 200 years after our emancipation from one form of slavery, we have allowed ourselves to become enslaved by the drug trade, violence, gang activity and crime. We accept enslavement to dangerous lifestyles and negative values imported from North America and Europe, ignoring the lessons of our brutal, exploited past.
In 2007, Rev Al Sharpton, US civil rights activist, was invited to Trinidad. He said: “Years ago people fought to protect and uphold the dignity of women, but now we make our own music calling our women whores and bitches.” He said “the struggle was to break the shackles. The struggle was not to go from fear of the oppressor to fear of our own children. The struggle was not to exchange a rope for a dope. The struggle was for real emancipation, real freedom for everybody”.
He said many people today were free, but still held on to the mentality that kept them in slavery. We are still grabbing each other down out of envy and jealousy. He asked the question: “Is your priority how much you can grab for you?” Sharpton urged the crowd to eradicate the slavery mentality they had adopted.
According to Selwyn R Cudjoe, Africans were the first to begin the liberation struggle, yet remain the last group that is struggling to be freed. He asked the question: “Is our liberation complete?
“Can we say our liberation is complete when young men are choosing their coffins?
“Few of them expect to live beyond 30 years of age. In our ghettoes, death stalks our children and young people with a vengeance, a condition that characterised the era of slavery.”
For emancipation to mean something, we must free ourselves of irresponsibility, disrespect, greed, lawless behaviour, including crime and corruption. It is a continuous struggle for human self-worth in life and death. Emancipation must remain the triumph of all mankind.
Emancipation must be genuine and people-centred, and freedom of the individual must sincerely mean freedom of the individual and freedom of society must sincerely mean freedom of the society.
Emancipation has to do both with individual liberation and collective consciousness. Bob Marley said it best when he sang about the need to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. Mental slavery can be interpreted as a dependency syndrome, helplessness and the inability to think our way through our challenges.
The commemoration of emancipation as told to us by Khafra Kambon is an intervention to get the nation as a whole to come to terms with its past, and chart a future based on mutual respect between ethnic groups and an appreciation of our need for cooperative effort to progress in the complex global village.
The commemoration of Emancipation Day as exhorted by Dr Keith Rowley is rooted in the resolve of those who recognised wrong and took steps to end it. Dr Rowley said, “Let us not turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, regardless of who is participating, facilitating and upholding it. Let us not allow modern-day evils to flourish at the expense of the well-being of others.”
I conclude by using the words of columnist Suzanne Sheppard, “This Emancipation Day, let us step into true freedom, rejecting the remnants of the old slave systems that our ancestors suffered through, as well as 21st-century slavery that is threatening to destroy our society.”